Despite being predators to average humans, the ghouls on Tokyo Ghoul also represent a marginalized subculture of individuals trying to avoid persecution. The Commission of Counter Ghoul (CCG) is, after all, committed to hunting and exterminating any and all ghouls they can find. As such, almost all ghouls wear masks when actively hunting for human flesh or using their ghoul abilities in any way, mainly as a means to protect their “human” identities.

But, the very act of wearing specific masks speaks to the broader treatment of identity on Tokyo Ghoul, which is to say that each individual mask is an expression of a character’s “true” identity rather than just a means to hide it.

Most ghouls on the show lead double lives as they attempt to assimilate into human culture during the day, while only engaging in the ghoul way of life concealed behind a mask at night. That’s especially important for the series’ protagonist, Ken Kaneki, a half-ghoul whose left eye is that of a ghoul, which he keeps hidden from his human friends.

Ken Kaneki's mask covers his right human eye while exposing his ghoul eye.
Ken Kaneki's mask covers his right human eye while exposing his ghoul eye.

When Kaneki inevitably gets a ghoul mask, it’s one that inverts the “mask” he has to wear as a human; it blocks his human eye and exposes the ghoul eye.

“I, who am neither human nor ghoul, am all alone,” he says. “There isn’t a place for me anywhere now!” The mask itself is a reflection of the duality in his predicament.

As a half-ghoul, he’s an aberration, even to some ghouls, and that part of himself is definitely not accepted by the human world. Even then, his extreme self-loathing is an exaggerated example of the predicament that all ghouls deal with, whether they embrace their cravings for human flesh or not.

Uta, one of the most powerful ghouls in the series, owns and operates HySy ArtMask Studio in the 4th Ward, where he sells handmade masks primarily to ghouls looking to hide their identities. That’s where Kaneki gets his mask, and as Uta explains, his particular mask allows him to see the world that was blocked by his human eye patch.

Uta, the mask-maker ghoul, as he appears on the anime.
Uta, the mask-maker ghoul, as he appears on the anime.

Uta designs these masks to reflect the wearer’s personality and style after interviewing them and asking personal questions; for Kaneki, his mask literally exposes the side of himself he tries to actively hide.

At one point Uta says, “We need to have a mask that we never take off.” Coming from a stylish character covered in tattoos with an edgy hairstyle is fitting.

In such a culture defined by concealed identity, Uta raises the notion that a mask is just the face you choose to show the world in specific circumstances. Is the protagonist of Tokyo Ghoul more himself when he’s pretending to be the regular human Ken Kaneki, or when he’s out on the streets fighting other ghouls as the one-eyed ghoul that some call “Eyepatch”?

Especially when the “good” ghouls try to assimilate wholeheartedly into human culture and avoid eating living people, isn’t that identity just another mask worn to conceal the truth?

Interior of HySy ArtMask Studio.
Interior of HySy ArtMask Studio.

Many ghouls — Kaneki included — come to be publicly branded as criminals based on the masks they wear. There’s Rabbit, Raven, Serpent, Devil Ape, and Black Dog, just to name some of the more simple and blatantly symbolic names. Even as characters and their motives change, so do their masks at times. And many ghouls wear specific masks when acting as part of a gang or group, like the Clowns or Aogiri Tree.

Does Bruce Wayne dress up like the Batman to fight crime and pulverize thugs? Or does Batman put on a suit in the morning to maintain his cover as Bruce Wayne? In Tokyo Ghoul, questions like this mean less and less when the lines of distinction get even more blurry over time.

Photos via 'Tokyo Ghoul' (1, 2, 3), 'Tokyo Ghoul' Wiki