[NOTE: This post has some images containing gore. Also, it seems as though there are a few different common romanizations of the names in Tokyo Ghoul; I’ll be going with the names as they’re spelled in the official Shonen Jump app translation, since it’s what I read and what I’m using for screencaps.]
I’ll be honest — I don’t think Sui Ishida, creator of Tokyo Ghoul, knows what a trans person is.
Tokyo Ghoul — and its second part, Tokyo Ghoul:re — are set in a version of our world that includes a species called Ghouls, which are essentially identical to humans in all ways but two. The first is that they possess heightened senses and combat abilities; the second is that they can only survive by eating humans. The series revolves around the tensions between the various factions of ghouls and the Commission of Counter Ghoul (sic), a government organization dedicated to hunting down and exterminating ghouls.
If you’re familiar at all with Tokyo Ghoul, you’re probably reading this for Toru Mutsuki, a CCG investigator introduced in :re who underwent a procedure to receive some of the combat capabilities of a ghoul. Here’s the thing: as Toru is written in the original, Japanese-language manga, they’re not trans. (I’ll be using they/them pronouns for Toru, because neither she/her nor he/him pronouns feel correct.)
Toru is introduced to us as a man, in the first chapter of :re. In chapter 4, it’s revealed that they’re female bodied, when a ghoul serial killer called “Torso” (because he mutilates his victims, leaving only the torsos intact, of course) tears open their shirt, revealing a binder. In the next chapter, we get a flashback of Toru being taken into CCG custody after their family was killed and requesting to be registered as a boy.
…it’s really outside the purview of this project, but it would be remiss of me not to comment on the translation. Basically, Toru reads as more of a trans man in the English, due to what I imagine were deliberate choices on the part of the translators. In English, Toru says “I don’t want to be a girl. From now on, I’d like to be a guy” when explaining themself to the CCG, while the Japanese says something like “I’ve always felt unbearably uncomfortable with my existence as a girl. From now on, I want to live as a guy.” (This is an extremely literal translation.) The most clear-cut example of this is Toru’s character profile — in English, it says they were “assigned female at birth” and “transitioned,” which is very clearly language associated with transness. The Japanese is much more ambiguous — it says Toru “had doubts about living as a woman” and “lives as a man.”
None of this would be especially relevant if not for Toru’s background. In short, they were physically and sexually abused by their father, which eventually lead to them snapping and murdering their entire family before suppressing the memories of what they did, claiming their family was killed by a ghoul.
It is, unfortunately, very common for trans and genderqueer people to be abused, the same way it’s very common for us to be mentally ill. We’re not trans because we were abused, nor because of our mental illness — it’s simply that being trans makes things difficult sometimes, especially for young people. It’s entirely possible to have a character who is abused and later transitions without those things having a cause and effect relationship.
The issue is that I’m not sure Toru identifies as a man, rather than identifying as a woman but choosing to live as a man due to trauma. The tl;dr of it is that in the original Japanese, they refer to themself as a girl or a woman on several occasions, they never refer to themself as a man or say anything that would imply that, and (unless I missed something) they exclusively use the gender-neutral/feminine first-person pronoun “watashi” in their internal monologue and when talking to themself. (When speaking to others, they initially use the masculine “ore” — however, after being abducted by Torso and basically having a complete mental break, they alternate between “ore” and “watashi” depending on the circumstances.)
This still doesn’t necessarily rule out Toru being trans. Gender is confusing as hell — it’s not out of the question that they might just have a lot of insecurity and internalized transphobia that makes it difficult for them to conceive of themself as a man, even if that’s how they really identify. I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, though. There’s basically no evidence to support that reading, as opposed to the obvious alternative.
Let’s talk about Karren “Kanae” von Rosewald, who is very unambiguously a woman who lives as a man. She is initially introduced as a man; we later learn through flashbacks that Karren’s family was killed, and out of respect for the older brothers who gave their lives to protect her, she decided to live as a boy and take on the name Kanae, derived from the first letters of their names. She says she presents male as “a matter of pride” and “for [her] family,” rather than personal preference — we even see her trying on a dress and lamenting how “scraggly” she looks in it. She’s overwhelmed with happiness when the man she loves calls her Karren instead of Kanae. It is very clear that she’s a she.
There are quite a few parallels between Karren and Toru. They both begin presenting male after losing their family in a traumatic event; they’re both abducted and tortured by ghouls, leading to a mental break after which they devote themselves to killing the men¹ they love; their romantic feelings are tied to their femininity by the text. Karren is acknowledged as a woman and dies happy. Toru…well, their arc doesn’t wind up being about their gender, at least.
Without too many spoilers, Toru finds themself opposing their former CCG squadmates, who manage to talk them down with the power of friendship. (I’m being dismissive, but it’s actually quite an effective scene.) Basically, it winds up having nothing to do with either their romantic feelings — which is good, because they’re in love with a married man and it was never going to go anywhere — nor their gender. And that’s a double-edged sword, because this would have been an excellent time to clarify how Toru actually identifies, but it’s also nice to see their squadmate’s feelings for them being completely separate from their gender.
The one thing I’d say Tokyo Ghoul actually gets right is how respectful everyone is of chosen gender presentation. Toru’s permitted to attend school as a boy, and their squad treats them as a man despite it being implied that most, if not all, of them know Toru is AFAB. This is unequivocally the right thing to do, whether or not Toru is “really” trans. As far as their team is concerned, the fact that Toru chooses to present male is more important than their reasons.
In the end, how Toru identifies is never clarified. The last we see of them, they’re still with the CCG and still have short hair — they have no lines, though, and they’re not explicitly gendered in the Japanese. The nickname their teammate Saiko uses for them, Mucchanko, is very feminine, but Saiko also refers to their (male) team leader as “Maman,” so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Meanwhile, the English features one of the only instances of Toru’s teammates using she/her pronouns to refer to them — I have absolutely no idea why the translators did this, considering how much the translation usually pushes a trans reading of the character. I’m just inclined to think that if Ishida actually intended Toru to be trans, he would have made it a bit more clear — otherwise, it looks an awful lot like Toru’s arc is the “good end” version of Karren’s.
I’m also deeply suspicious of Ishida’s ability to write a decent trans character because of the one unambiguously trans character in the series — a powerful and influential ghoul known as the Big Madam. After she’s killed by the CCG, she’s referred to as a “male ghoul” — however, considering her position, I can’t see any reason why she’d present female and exclusively use female pronouns if not because she identifies as a woman.
The Big Madam is, of course, an absolute grotesque. We see quite a bit of her in flashbacks from Juzo Suzuya, a CCG investigator who was kept by her as a child — she forced him to fight and kill other humans for the amusement of ghouls, tortured him to the point that he’s basically numb to pain in the series proper, and dressed him in girl’s clothes like a doll. What’s especially telling is that, in an attempt to keep him from growing into a man, the Big Madam also castrated him.
It is impossible not to read into this. Castration — nonconsensual, non-anesthetized castration — is a very gendered act of violence, and the Big Madam being trans makes it look like a transphobe’s worst nightmare. She’s not just a madwoman or a sadist — she’s trying to make him like she is. Taking a poor innocent boy and forcibly transing him. This would be hard not to read as transphobia under any circumstances, and the fact that Tokyo Ghoul‘s only other trans or trans-adjacent character is such a mess absolutely does not help matters.
It’s also probably worth talking about Juzo a bit. He’s initially introduced as very weird, with his androgyny being as much a part of that as his skewed morals or hobby of stitching designs into his skin. There are lots of comments on his appearance, and his design leans into it in what appears to be a very intentional way. At the end of Tokyo Ghoul, though, he has something of a face-turn — when we see him in :re, he’s become an accomplished investigator who’s admired and trusted by his subordinates. He’s still weird and somewhat androgynous, but in ways that are more charming than unsettling. No one comments on his appearance anymore. He volunteers to crossdress for a sting operation, saying he’s “used to it.” He never talks about his gender (though once his gender is given as “none” on a document, which is absolutely not how that works); he doesn’t seem to care very much.
If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Juzo. As a character, I love him — he’s a cute lil weirdo dealing with trauma as best he can, and his arc of realizing there are people who care for him and who he cares for in turn is very sweet. I like that he keeps a lot of his strange habits and mannerisms, like the skin-stitching and wearing house slippers into battle, even after his face-turn. I especially like that he’s not hung up on gender — considering Ishida’s track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wrote a castrated boy as either living as a girl, or defensively performing hypermasculinity, neither of which would be great. But for Juzo, it really is just something that happened to him, same as the rest of his trauma. I think he’s handled fine.
So, how to improve this hot mess. For Toru, the most important thing is making it clear that they identify as a man, if they are in fact trans — Tokyo Ghoul‘s idea of transness is so confused that it really can’t afford any ambiguity. Don’t have them say they’re a girl, or present their feelings in feminine terms. Make it clear they identify and present as a man at the end of the series. The English translation makes a valiant effort at this, but they only have so much to work with, and in the end all the direct contradictions mean it just winds up looking even more confused. I think the only thing that can save the Big Madam from being a transphobic nightmare is making her cis — the fact that she’s trans has no bearing on the plot anyways, it’s just thrown in for shock value. Juzo…is fine as he is, actually, though stating his sex as “none” is a strange choice I think we could do without.
I know a lot of people read Toru as a trans man, which makes sense, especially considering how the English translation goes out of its way to support that reading. I’m certainly not going to say anyone can’t — there are plenty of characters I choose to interpret as trans or nonbinary in direct contradiction of how they’re written (Naoto Shirogane from Persona 4, for instance). But the text doesn’t support it, or at the very least, it’s ambiguous and confused in a way that leaves a real bad taste in my mouth, and I don’t see any benefit in pretending otherwise. This isn’t good rep. This isn’t really rep at all. It’s just a mess.
¹ – Incidentally, I’d be inclined to read more into the fact that Toru’s in love with a man (not because I don’t think gay trans people exist, but because I’m not sure Ishida does) if not for Matsuri Washu, a very masculine cis man who has it unbelievably bad for Toru’s (male) squadmate Urie. It never goes anywhere and it’s mostly played for laughs, but still, it’s very much an established thing. So that’s cool, I guess. There’s also Nico, a gay ghoul who serves as a good example of basically every okama stereotype, and whose depiction is so regressive I’m loathe to count it.