Thursday, May 5, 2016

Deadman Wonderland (2011)


In a world where much of Tokyo (and Japan) has been ravaged by some kind of cataclysmic event, the sole survivor of the massacre of his class, Ganta Igarashi is found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death. He is sent to serve out his sentence at the titular “Deadman Wonderland”, a privately-run maximum security prison. Deadman Wonderland also happens to be open to the public with its own theme park where inmates, in return for prison currency, “work”. This work could be manning the stalls, construction or featuring in the "entertainments" put on for a paying public.  This is all well and good, but what if you exhibit some interesting behaviour or phenomenon that marks you out as a Deadman? Well, in that case there is something much more sinister and gruesome awaiting you...

The Deadman Wonderland anime is based on a manga of the same title that was written by Jinsei Kataoka and illustrated by Kazuma Kondou.  The manga spans 13 volumes (58 chapters).  The anime spans 12 episodes (containing the first 21 chapters of the manga) and was directed by Kōichirō Hatsumi and written by Yasuykui Muto. It was animated by Manglobe (who also gave us among others Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy and Michiko & Hatchin). I haven't read the manga so had to treat the story contained in the anime as self-contained but am obviously aware there is a lot of material out there as this series cover just under half of the available material.


I really liked the *idea* of this show.  It was its central idea described as "gladiatorial combat in a private prison to entertain the masses" that both appealed to and intrigued me. If that had been all that was crammed into this 12 episode series then I would have been very happy. Imagine 12 episodes of over-the-top gladiator fights with some impressive combat animation and its "consequences".  *That* would be a lot of fun to watch.

Ganta with his school friends having a good time - oh how it all changed
The show opens with our protagonist Ganta at school with his friends with their laughs and smiles (see above).  All of this is short-lived as everyone but Ganta is massacred in their classroom by someone Ganta later calls the "Red Man".  As a parting gift, the Red Man embeds a red crystal into Ganta's chest.  As the only survivour, Ganta is accused of and charged with the murder of all of his class mates in a rather entertaining show-trial with lots of faked evidence of his guilt and emotional appeals from Ganta that he is innocent.  After the guilty verdict is passed he is rejected by families of his friends and he realises that the life he knew of is over ... unless he can find the Red Man and prove his guilt.

 Ganta is to serve out his prison sentence, death, at Deadman Wonderland.  This is a privately owned prison where inmates work in the theme park that is part of the prison.  This work can be relatively easy (manning the stalls, cleaning) or life-threatening when competing as part of the extreme games that are put on as a show for the naive public.  Think "It's a knockout" or "Gladiators" with real spikes, no foam padding and when you fall off the stage, it isn't water breaking their fall.  Every prisoner wears a collar that administers poison.  The antidote for this is in a candy which the inmates can buy with their earnings from partaking in these extreme games.  Our introduction to the prison and all of its rules is via Chief Guard Makina.  It is here we see that the whole place runs under its own set of rules as Makina slices open someone's chest with her sword and stands on his head with her knee-high, high-heeled boots.

In Deadman Wonderland Ganta makes the acquaintance of several of the inmates, as you would expect.  The first he meets is Yo Tamaki, a pleasant ordinary teenager who is sliced open by the aforementioned Makina.  He is kind of bland and his actions suggest a cunning and personal agenda that he is keeping very close to his (now cut open) chest.  We have already (briefly) discussed Makina (who will return again in a bit).  The next significant character introduction is Shiro, Ganta's childhood friend.  What on earth she is doing there I have no idea (and nor do the other inmates) but she seems to know her way around.  Shiro is strong, quick, agile and it would seem utterly devoted to Ganta.  She is prepared to follow Ganta into all kinds of danger and protect him at all costs.  Shiro is completely white with white hair and wears a white onesie with red spirals on it.  Ganta bumps into her whilst out in an area of the prison undergoing construction, one of his first work assignments.  They are both attacked and beaten by inmates which is interrupted by an "accident" which reveals that Ganta has some special powers related to the item embedded in his chest and his blood.


Shortly after Ganta's ability is awakened he is sent to G-Block, a mysterious secret underground facility within Deadman Wonderland.  It is here he is forced to partake in Carnival Corpse, a secret gladiator-like event that is for the entertainment of a set of secret, and no doubt wealthy donors who place bets on who they think will win the bout.  Now it should start getting interesting.  All competitors in Carnival Corpse are called "Deadmen" and have special codenames like Woodpecker, Crow and Hummingbird.  Deadmen are inmates with the unique power to wield their blood as an offensive weapon, each with their own unique style.  But what else is this Carnival Corpse about, aside from entertainment?  Does it have a more sinister purpose?  How is it linked to the event that has ravaged Tokyo that is being hinted at?  And if you have inmates with the power to control their blood and use it like a weapon, what does the prison have in place to keep these Deadmen in line?  Answer: some pretty nasty machines, other super-powered humans and of course the Red Man is still out there somewhere.  All of this sounds pretty bonkers and it should make for a really entertaining, over-the-top piece of action-oriented animation.

With this gladiator-like combat *and* this blood-weapon-power-thing you can see why I was really intrigued by Deadman Wonderland.  As with a lot of teen-super-power shows, Ganta's "power" (or Branch of Sin as it is called) is activated by accident.  As he fires projectiles (at variable speeds) made from his blood, his power is christened the Ganta Gun by another Deadman, Seiji.  Bullets made from blood, you can see there is a likely ammunition capacity issue building there.

Once in G-Block Ganta starts to meet the various Deadmen, his opponents in the Carnival Corpse.  Of the Deadmen, the most interesting are Seiji (Crow) and Minatsuki (Hummingbird).  With Seiji, what you see is what you get.  He is gruff, bullish, determined, selfish, violent and making the best of the situation he finds himself in.  He's not a lovable-rogue character.  Minatsuki on the other hand is one of few females in a more visible role in the show and she is not a nice character at all.  Minatsuki is manipulative, controlling and uses the fact that she is "just a girl" to wrong-foot her enemies.  She also seems to really enjoy the pain and suffering she causes.  There are very few female characters in this show and none of them are portrayed particularly fairly.

Seiji's Branch of Sin is called "Crow Claw" which gives him large scythe-like blades of blood from his forearms.  Minatsuki's Branch of Sin manifests as whip-like tendrils from her hair.  Another has explosive spheres of blood as his Branch of Sin.  They certainly get imaginative with the ways in which the "power" works, how it is used an this is all reflected in the look of the combat.  When powered up, Seiji is the best looking character by far and Minatsuki the most grotesque.


From the short description above of the 12 episodes, there really is a lot packed into them.  In my view, perhaps a bit too much.  There are a lot of sub-plots which, whilst not hard to keep track of, resulted in insufficient time spent developing anything.  As such I found myself not really caring what happened to the characters after a while.  They seemed to be introduced only to die in some novel way or inflict something terrible on someone else.  With all of this stuff being crammed in, the pacing of the show had the feeling of "and then this happens and then this, oh and then that, and then..." punctuated by some violence and blood.  There was no sense of time between events so it all feels like a smear of activity with no build up or release of tension.  Just an idea of whether it was day or night would have helped.  In fact anything showing time passing would have helped.

At the beginning there were some really interesting concepts introduced.  The faked evidence at Ganta's trial, the collars, poison and candy antidote seemed to be completely forgotten within a few episodes which which was a shame and this certainly wasted some interesting tension-building devices.  Eventually we even forget that the story is set in a private prison with all the public entertainment it is providing.  This would have a been a great idea to explore further.  The gladiator-like combat in Carnival Corpse even took a bit of a back seat.  What a waste!


With all of the content crammed into it, I had a lot of questions including the "power" of the Deadmen, where it came from and where it would lead (though I could see a couple of hints in some of the events presented) and what was happening in the outside world.  I suspect that the manga addresses this better and at a more sensible story-telling pace.  The 12 episode series length, and only 1 series so far, needed the story to be pared-down to one or two ideas.  This would have, in my opinion, have been so much better and enjoyable especially as the central ideas were quite interesting.  Again, the private prison and the blood-weapon gladiator fights.

As stated earlier, the show is animated by Manglobe who can be a bit hit and miss at times.  Whilst I found Michiko e Hatchin to be consistently good, some of their other shows have dropped in quality during production.  When there a lots of characters on screen and a lot is going on there is a slight dip but that is to be expected and forgiven when it is TV anime.  With that said it looks like there was good investment in the look of the show as Deadman Wonderland is a nice look at when there is action on screen.  The combat is fluid and engrossing, especially when it is focused on anyone but Ganta.  As the Deadmen reveal their powers and fight it looks slick and at times quite inventive.  How Crow draws blood to create his weapons has the feel of a slightly gross super-hero power-up and looks so smoothly done.  Some of the more creative Branches of Sin look odd in the world as their motion and colour jarred with me.  I know that sounds daft given the concept of the story but such small issues of consistency within the world shown can really take you out of what you are watching.

The overall look and tone is quite crisp and clean.  The lines on the characters are solid and the world looks consistent (usually).  The colours are bright and vivid which in the theme park scenes works well but could have been toned down a bit to create a sense of oppression, tension and dirt.  No expense is spared on the more ... unpleasant images that will stay with you.  It has a hyper-realistic feeling to those images and sequences.  It is *just* animated but they get away with so much more than the equivalent live action scene.

Of the main characters there were only a couple who I found memorable from their designs and both of those were from the *vast* number of supporting characters.  Senji "Crow" Kiyomasa loses to Ganta in his first bought and as a punishment has an eye removed.  To hide this he is given an eye-patch which makes him look distinct (and not like a pirate), it fits in with his appearance better and the personality he is given.  When in combat he looks like he can handle himself.  The other memorable character design is that of Chief Guard Makina but it is memorable for the wrong reasons.  She reminds me of the updated Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and her proportions suggest that she may suffer terrible aches and pains in her lower back (if you'll pardon the expression - I really can;t think of a better expression to convey the look).  Makina and the other female prison administrators (and Dr Rei Takashima) are all there as fan-service which I felt was unnecessary and they all tick a different personality type and design stereotype.  For me, the rest of the characters blend into each other as they lacked anything that made them visually unique (in a good or bad way).

Oddly one of the memorable characters is a dancing flower on a desk.  It moves just like I remember they did and in the context of the show it is quite eerie and unsettling.  Especially with its big smiling flower-head.

In the UK this is an 18 certificate and I think that is a very fair judgement.  In fact the show is appears on a BBFC podcast (but not by name, when you see Deadman Wonderland you'll know exactly the bit they are talking about - it is an episode on classifying animation).  Obviously there is a lot of blood but horrible things happen to a lot of the cast.  The punishment for losing a Deadman fight is ... harsh with the person administering the punishment taking a significant amount of pleasure from it.  There is a lot of implied unpleasant history in the brief backstories you get when a new character is introduced.  At times this feels like the answer to the question "how can we make this one be worse than the last?  How much suffering have they endured in order to ...?"  As we build towards the climax of series 1 the gore and violence ramps up as well.  There are some interesting methods of keeping Deadmen under control.  This combination of the "story" and the imagery gives rise to what I felt was an appropriate certificate.

Because this show is classified in the UK as an 18 certificate it is difficult for me to figure out who it is that would watch it.  Ganta is bland enough to be a character the viewer can project themselves onto but I am not a teen-aged high-schooler which would fit with the story they are trying to tell.  The story and the setting feel like they would have benefited had the protagonist been Crow, a character in his mid-20s.  The violence, content and story would have been far more consistent with the more mature certificate the show was given.  (There was an extra episode that focused purely on Crow which was really good.)  As I say above, it was appropriate to have been given and 18 certificate but it feels like in doing so the target audience (mostly male teenagers) is in some ways challenged if they want to watch it legally.  There are many animations out there with mature certificates that are aimed at an adult audience, for example Perfect Blue or, something much closer in tone to Deadman Wonderland, Black Lagoon.  As the protagonists are adults it is easier to see how you as an observer fit into the world.  Many times I found myself wanting to re-watch those shows whilst watching Deadman Wonderland as their story and tone were much more consistent and paced so well.

As I started writing this I was quite ambivalent towards the show.  Yes there were some great animation sequences and the idea was different but the overall story failed to grab me.  There really are some cool visual things to see.  As I have been writing this I have been forced to think more about Deadman Wonderland and re-evaluate it.  There is the hint of something great at the beginning but it get bogged down in a poorly paced, over-stuffed story.  It does have its flaws but if you want to watch some out-there on screen carnage and you're not squeamish then this is an entertaining show and there is much to enjoy if you switch your brain off.  The show excels when there is action on screen.  I appreciate that there is wealth of information and story contained in the manga but the way this was incorporated into the anime negatively impacted the pacing, tension and ultimately the story being told, and that disappointed me because it started so well.  It is a shame that some great story ideas were not explored further and overall this left me disappointed.

Deadman Wonderland is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Manga Entertainment in the UK or Funimation in the US.  

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