Deadman Wonderland Episode 1 – Welcome to the Suck
Shounen works haven’t gotten much traction here at antiotaku; shounen action series even less so. Frankly, neither bear nor I have the patience to sit through a neverending series of endlessly prolonged boss battles where we know in advance no important hero (or even most of the unimportant ones) are going to die; this goes double in the anime adaptions, where the above formula is further padded out by filler episodes when the show tries not to outpace the manga.
Occasionally, however, such shows are worth our attention. The last such show was Full Metal Alchemist, which more or less deserves the all the praise that got heaped on it. That series, based on a series with a monthly release schedule, showed a greater degree of craft, emotion, and plotting than a rushed weekly series can usually pull off, touching on some deeper issues like the abuse of power, the sins of the past, and the meaning of sacrifice.
Deadman Wonderland presents another adaption of a monthly shounen series, which looks to be far more intriguing than the usual boyish fare. This show’s most distinguishing feature, however, is its willingness to reach seinen levels of violence and mayhem. Really, the only thing that feels shounen about it is the age of the protagonist.
About a decade ago, Tokyo was flattened by a natural disaster, and is still struggling to rebuild. One of the main attractions trying to bring the economy back up to shape is Deadman Wonderland, an amusement park which also doubles as the country’s only private prison. The catch is that the inmates are used both as labor and entertainment, and not typically in edifying ways for either.
14 year old Ganta Igarashi is a former inhabitant of Tokyo who, like most others, picked up and moved after the disaster. Now in Nagano, he’s an average middle school student whose only thoughts toward Deadman Wonderland are about a possible visit his class might make.
Fate intervenes to give him a very different introduction: After his entire class is slaughtered by a mysterious “red man” with superhuman powers, Ganta finds himself the only suspect the police have to throw at the ravenous media and grieving families. Framed by his own defense attorney, Ganta finds that his unprecedented crime is met with an unprecedented punishment. Despite his age, he is sentenced to death, and sent to Deadman Wonderland.
Once there, he finds that Deadman Wonderland is a prison like no other: Although it has its own rules, all prisoners are completely at the mercy of the guards, and are outfitted with control collars that can inflict all sorts of nastiness on their wearers. Death row inmates have another catch; their collars distribute a slow-acting poison that kills within 72 hours if an antidote is not taken. When a prisoner can no longer get ahold of an antidote in time, the “execution” occurs.
It’s an extraordinarily grim reality that hits Ganta like a ton of bricks. Taken from one shocking and horrific event to another, with everyone he loved dead and those he trusted turned against him, he gives up hope entirely.
Of course, having Ganta die so easily would remove the story, so seemingly out of no where he meets a fellow prisoner, an albino girl named Shiro, whose mind seems to have regressed to a child-like level as a defensive mechanism against her incarceration. She seems to know Ganta (and the closing animation indicates they were childhood friends in Tokyo), and she convinces him through rather unorthodox means that he still wants to live.
All this proves handy when a senior prison official (who also managed to make himself Ganta’s defensive attorney) tries to have Ganta killed by “accident.” Really, though, he’s trying to see if Ganta will develop the same powers as the “Red Man” who attacked the school, and of course he does.
There are a couple different ways to look at the first episode. One is to find a collection of coincidences (like Shiro’s appearance) and over-the-top occurrences (like Ganta being successfully convicted of the murders in the first place) that break suspension of disbelief. Even with his attorney working against him (and how did Director Tamaki pull that off without anyone noticing?), one would think that there would need to be better evidence than a forged and leaked confession to put a child away.
The other is to accept that this is a brutally unfair world, where Deadman Wonderland is a testimony to the willingness of society to dehumanize and abuse the “other” (in this case, criminals), for convenience, profit, and entertainment. It’s to accept a world fundamentally corrupt to the core, where the powerful are pulling all the strings and the weak can only comply, or die fighting.
It says something about the writing and direction that I’m willing to take the show seriously enough to fall into the second camp. The rushed narrative surrounding the trial speak to Ganta’s own loss of control, while his emotions of despair, shock, and horror at what has happened to him consistently feel genuine. However unrealistic or bizarre his surroundings, he comes across as real, and that’s enough to pull me in.
An innocent man fighting to free himself and avenge himself on those who wronged him is a time honored narrative—think The Count of Monte Christo. Deadman Wonderland won’t stand up to such a high-caliber work, but it really doesn’t have to. What it has to do is give us a protagonist to believe in, a manifest injustice to oppose, and truly villainous antagonists who we will rejoice to see fall. So far, Deadman Wonderland is going three for three.
You can watch the episode here.