This is the crisis that begins the story of Ganta Igarashi. A normal Japanese student, Ganta’s life is turned upside down when a mysterious crimson hued killer soars into the classroom, brutally massacring every one of his class mates and injecting him with a mysterious red shard. As the sole survivor of the massacre he is led through a kangaroo court that finds him guilty of killing his entire class on a psychotic whim, with falsified evidence turning even those who knew him against him. His punishment is to be sentenced to Deadman Wonderland, an elaborate theme park correctional facility where the inmates are made to perform in violent games for public entertainment to help fund Japan’s recovery from a massive earthquake some years prior. Although the public believes the violence to be special effects, it’s all very real and participation is mandatory to obtain samples of an anti-virus all inmates need to continue living. Can Ganta survive long enough to have a hope of grasping justice?
The central premise of Deadman Wonderland is scary to begin with. Few people want to go to prison and the idea of being sentenced for a crime you didn’t commit must surely be the worst way to end up there. Being practically a child makes Ganta’s case even worse and isn’t helped by the false evidence leaving him branded a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ who pretends to be far meeker than he actually is. He does however make friends with a mysterious hyperactive girl named Shiro, who shows an odd familiarity with him; and Yo, a slightly older prisoner with ulterior motives for befriending Ganta.
Quite a bit of the wider plot is easy to make safe guesses on by those who watch enough anime. It’s not giving much away to say that there’s more to the prison than simply being a depraved source of entertainment or that Ganta slowly realises Shiro’s familiarity with him isn’t so odd after all. These are the kind of slow burn plot threads that can be found in countless Japanese shows and as a result it’s a consequence that they become predictable. Aside from this however there are a decent number of well-handled twists across the twelve episodes that do manage to keep even experienced viewers on their toes.
While we are shown the standard operation of the prison in the opening episodes (and with it some meta commentary on if the show’s audience are really any better than the park’s in-story customers for watching) this quickly gets left behind as Ganta discovers the mystery shard has granted him abilities similar to the ‘Red Man’ which allow him to control his own blood as a weapon. This sees him admitted to a supposedly secret sector of the prison where prisoners with the same ability (termed Deadmen) are forced to compete in pay-per-view death matches. I say ‘supposedly secret’ because Ganta and his friends discover it themselves, and seemingly enjoy free reign regardless. In the case of Shiro this makes partial sense as she’s shown to actively root through any available path in the prison, but that in turn just raises further questions as to how she’s gotten away with it for so long in a prison that has enough foresight to even make escape a bad option.
In turn, after competing in two such death matches the show forces another change when Ganta is recruited by a rebellion who are working to escape and make the nightmarish conditions public knowledge. This plot thread takes up the majority of the run and contributes to the show having an uneven flow. After initially establishing Wonderland as the most nightmarish prison ever devised, the story gradually loses its sense of suffocatingly effective psychological horror because keeping the story going requires giving too much freedom to the prisoners. The void left behind by the missing psychological horror is then filled with less delicately applied gore as filler. You could argue that it shows the characters have been truly broken because they’ve actively made a pocket society in the prison, but being able to get away with that takes too much away from the necessary sense of dread that the premise of prisoners being subjected to daily gladiatorial combat offers. A central character even randomly vanishes at this point after his subplot sputters to a conclusion.
A macabre but intriguing element of this final arc is a set of antagonists made up of genuine killers, mainly for the fact that their backstories offer a look at the horrifying razor’s edge that can push an ordinary person into rationalising murder. Psychopaths are a dime a dozen in anime but it’s rare to see some who have a twisted logic to how they’ve reached that low point.
Although the show is indeed dark, sometimes the visual side takes this a little too much to heart. I’m not sure if it’s an error in my television setup but several times the lighting in sequences was non-existent, to the point I half expected the characters white eyes to be the sole illumination ala classic cartoons. Sometimes this works well to put the viewer on as frightened edge as the characters but the majority of the time it just makes events difficult to follow. I’m all for creative visuals but this seems to be more about stretching out the animation budget.
Japanese and English are the available audio options. The English dub is well done with many industry veterans stepping up to deliver perfect performances. Greg Ayres is brilliant as Ganta, capturing a shell-shocked boy who has been made a scapegoat but still excelling when the character rages against the sheer heartless insanity he’s forced to endure. Monica Rial manages to make the role of Shiro endearing where others might have struggled and Aaron Dismuke’s turn as Yo shows just how much the young actor has grown. It’s also worth noting that as many of the characters are revealed to be insane sociopaths it allows the English cast to have fun with a character type the Japanese seem to have down to an art form.
The opening is superb, a mix of red hued symbolic visuals and modern rock music. The song is surprisingly in genuine English and goes perfectly with the images to present the show’s theme of being trapped in an insane prison (the image of the shuffling chain gang wearing mascot heads won’t be leaving my head anytime soon). The closing sadly isn’t quite as inspired. Although we get a set of stills that provide clues to lives various characters lived before Wonderland, the song ‘Shiny Shiny’ feels a tad ill-fitting though workable as an embodiment of the tiny glimmer of past happiness keeping the characters going.
The best of the extras is three commentaries with a selection of the dub actors, two as audio and one as an in-vision. These aren’t quite as informative as some of the other commentaries from FUNimation releases but they are a lot of fun. In matching the shows tone they can be pretty raunchy, though only once or twice push it too far. The other standout is a prequel OVA episode which gives a look at the backstory of secondary Deadman Senji during his time as a police officer. It’s welcome to get a look at the world outside the prison (which is under construction at this point) and the impact Deadmen could have beyond its walls. Like most such extras the only language option is the original Japanese. Extras are rounded up by the standard show commercials and trailers.
Deadman Wonderland joins the ranks of questionably advised adaptations that simply don’t have enough time to give the source work a fair shot. While at times pointlessly gory and immature there is an interesting story here that could have stood up better if it wasn’t just a 12 episode shotgun of the initial arcs of the manga. Like many before it the show ends in a way that is practically begging for a continuation and leaves at least one subplot a waste of time as a result. Even the exploration of how an individual can be broken by and in turn become a danger to society feels like it deserves more. It’s worth a watch but really more as a gateway to the fully realised originator.