A major aspect of fiction is reflection: how worlds and characters reflect our world and ourselves, how fantastical situations can serve as allegory to our everyday actions. But “everyday actions” are not always positives. It’s important to see ourselves reflected positively, but there is something to be said about seeing our negative traits reflected too. It can allow us to reflect on how far you’ve really come. Or perhaps on how far you haven’t.
Ayato Kirishima, of Sui Ishida’s Tokyo Ghoul is one such reflection. Ayato is one of the major antagonists of the series, as well as the younger brother of series co-protagonist, Touka. Ayato is a ghoul, a species that lives among humans and has to consume the flesh of humans to survive. Ghouls are looked down upon, so he and his family have to live in hiding for fear of being caught or killed by the Ghoul Investigators. After he and his sister are orphaned, we begin to see the innocent young boy become more and more violent. He eventually joins up with the Aogiri, a ghoul criminal syndicate and the series’ main antagonists.
Ayato is snide,crude–and about 90% of the words that come out of his mouth are arrogant boasts, condescension or some cheap social Darwinist crap. He shows little regard for his subordinates and treats them as nuisances most of the time. And whenever someone (usually his sister) actually tries to reach out to him, he reacts quite viciously and violently. His actions and aggression are inexcusable– yet, I cannot bring myself to hate him. I can kind of relate.
I had a lot of anger and a lot of aggression during my teenage years to early adulthood. Not really physical aggression–I wasn’t a fighter–but internal. In hindsight, I almost wished I had the ability to exert that aggression in more physical ways, but in a safer outlet, not how Ayato does. I was someone who bottled their emotions up to such a point that I just couldn’t stand being around other people. I didn’t necessarily hate them; I just didn’t want to be seen as weak, didn’t know how to deal with people–so it seemed better to just avoid them. All that pent-up aggression and emotion caused me to snap at people quite a bit, to go off the rails without thinking. And it isn’t something I’ve fully grown out of.
As a teenager, whenever someone would approach to help, I was always quick with a dismissal or outright denial that I was struggling. In fact, it was this combination of quietness and barely contained aggression that made it easy to be set off by my peers, who -in hindsight- were probably going through similar struggles. To this day, I still need time to think through situations without going back to that “be strong or be nothing” mentality. In fact, if I had Ayato’s powers, I would probably have been more active in my aggression.
A combination of teen angst, male aggression and a general fear of people translated in my brain to thinking I was better than everyone else. That, alongside the contradictional desire for friends. On top of all the messages (like “don’t cry”, “suck it up”, “be strong” e.t.c.) boys are bombarded with at a young age, it produced a great deal of self-hatred and has hampered my confidence. In my experience, that lack of trust comes from a sense of self-hatred. Like I said above, internalizing“if you’re not strong, then you’re nothing” doesn’t foster positive self-image.
Ayato’s awful self-image can be traced back his father, Arata. From flashbacks we’ve seen, Arata was a very kind and pacifist ghoul, wanting to make the best of a relationship between humans and ghouls. He wanted his children to blend in with other humans, which conflicted with young Ayato’s desire to be able to live as he truly is, different from humanity.
This desire isn’t a bad one. We should all be able to live as we truly are. That being said, seeing his pacifist dad die instilled a dangerous mentality–a mentality of needing to be the strongest–that would grow over the years. It’s an event that basically transmits the following message:
Hey, your dad wanted to make nice with the humans and it left you an orphan. The humans will only see ghouls as vicious beasts so why not embrace it? If you don’t –if you’re soft-– then you’ll have the same fate.
After their father’s death, Ayato becomes adamant about not attending a human school and insists that weak humans are “prey.” He asks Touka: “Are you glad you can forget you’re a monster?” One can interpret this as him considering himself a monster, and that underneath all his bluster, he still feels trapped, still feels weak.
Arrogance. Aggression. Massive internal conflicts. Self-Loathing. That feeling you need to be “strong” in order to survive. All these things I see in Ayato were things I see in my own teenage self (and sometimes, me now). All the bad lessons and bad choices he has made have made Ayato quite unlikeable. It’s why I can take a more compassionate look at him, seeing the cracks that are all too familiar, but not being able to forgive the things he does. And I want to keep reading his story because I want to see him receive what I had once: a massive reality check. I want someone to look him in the eye and show him what an asshole he is being. As of volume 8, there are the beginnings of that but it is going to be a process. A process that is painfully, requiring a lot of self-reflection and the occasional tear. But it’s worth it. I hope that Ayato Kirishima can become a better person because it also means that I can be a better one.