Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 16th 2012
DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
When Ganta Igarashi's entire class is slaughtered by a blood-soaked psychopath, he ceases to be an unremarkable middle-schooler and becomes a nationwide celebrity. In the worst possible way. Faster than you can say “frame-up” he's convicted and sentenced to death. With even those who knew him convinced that he butchered his every friend, he's shuffled off to Deadman Wonderland: a privately-run maximum-security prison that turns a profit by charging the public to watch as prisoners put on sadistic carnival shows. Life is no fun for anyone, but death row prisoners like Ganta have it particularly hard. If they don't earn enough from their carnival attractions, the poison injected into them by their monitoring devices will kill them. As bad as that sounds, though, Ganta's about to learn that things at Wonderland are far, far worse than they seem. Somewhere in its depths is a secret prison, a prison for human monsters who can use their blood as weapons, a prison where monsters fight to the death for the amusement of a select and sick few. Monsters like the Red Man who killed Ganta's friends. And like Ganta himself.
There's a simulated stamp on the back of this set that says “Premium Quality Carnage, Guaranteed.” The stamp don't lie. This is exploitation nastiness as it should be: vicious, unrelenting, and substantial enough that the sickness you feel in the pit of your stomach has nothing to do with self-loathing. Tasty.
Deadman's premise is a classic. That is, if your definition of classic is “heir to a long and inglorious tradition of prisonsploitation sleaze.” Echoes of Running Man (Stephen King's crackerjack novel, not the wreck of a movie made from it) and generations of gladiatorial gorefests and Most Dangerous Game knockoffs can clearly be heard throughout Ganta's evolving plight. You can almost taste years of sweaty, B-movie exploitation boiling beneath the show's slick surfaces.
Don't take that wrong. That's high praise for a series of Deadman's stripe. Where most would look to other anime for inspiration, Deadman looks to the wide and wonderfully seedy world of direct-to-video schlock. Where others would try to justify themselves with ponderous moralizing, Deadman takes a page from the Roger Corman school of B-movie fun and just delivers what its audience wants, powering through the sickening turns of its plot with little concern for logic or messaging and maximum concern for visceral thrills and gory entertainment. Sure it takes a few anemic jabs at voyeurism and the occasional swipe at dehumanizing prison conditions and privatized punishment, but that hardly slows it as it carves a swath of creepy carnival carnage through its increasingly battered cast.
This is breathless, brutally swift stuff. No sooner are we introduced to the easy camaraderie of Ganta's school life than it explodes into gibbets of splattered flesh. No sooner have we gotten used to Ganta's death-row life—earning his daily bread and tri-daily respites from poison-induced death by participating in deadly obstacle courses and humiliating carnival routines—than his grotesque new powers send him hurtling into a new world of super-powered gladiatorial combat. Just as his friendship with Shiro, the strange albino girl who apparently lives at the prison, gets comfortable, the show drops a bombshell that changes the tenor of their relationship (and the interpretation of some seminal events) in disturbing ways. Just two matches into his new cage-fighting life, Ganta stumbles upon an organized rebellion, whereupon gladiatorial combat gives way to prison-escape action. Which is in turn derailed by bitter treason, leading to a grueling rescue and…well, you get the idea. The series can hardly sit still for a minute, dashing from twist to nasty twist, keeping the pressure relentlessly on every step of the way.
Bloody set-piece stacks on bloody set-piece as characters big and small are split in half or peeled alive and stability and happiness and companionship are snatched cruelly away by villainy and betrayal. Madness proliferates like an evil contagion. The shadow of doom ever lurks over whatever tiny light of hope the characters kindle. It'd be easy to give up on the series, dismissing it as a cynical treatise on the nihilistic awfulness of life, if it weren't for the characters' evil knack for worming their way into our good graces and keeping alive the painful hope that somehow, some way, they'll carve out a little corner of happiness in the uncertain, deranged world they're trapped in. Whether it's wimpy Ganta, fan-service-bait Shiro, single-minded battle addict Senji, two-faced pickpocket Takami, or even a minor player like psychotic tyke/prison guard Hibana, every character is written with economy and a kind of cockeyed sympathy such that, even in the short duration they're on-screen, even as rabidly evil as they can be, we still wish them the best. Not that they often get it.
Don't let all that cuddly talk scare you, though. Stomachs will turn, some badly enough that not even the sleek, stylish production by expert violence-mongers Manglobe will keep them from flopping their owners right out of the room. It's a stupendously depraved series, both physically and psychologically (the latter being the province of the main villain, the prison's unutterable creepsack of a promoter). For the constitutionally suited, however, Manglobe and first-time director Koichi Hatsumi have put together a beauty of a show. It is expertly assembled, from the gut-punch anticipation of each episode's raging opening to the quiet wind-down of its character-deepening closer; from the driving rock of the soundtrack to the stylistic showboating of the fights; from the breathtaking displays of soul-searing rage to Shiro's rare and adorable rants; from the unstoppable momentum of the plot to the well-placed explanatory flashbacks. From a technical standpoint—especially that of the immensely appealing, immensely varied character designs—the series is darned near flawless.
This is the kind of show that dub writers live for; the kind where they can go buck wild composing symphonies of profanity. Too bad there are no examples fit to print here. Suffice to say that the language is so outrageous that it can't help but bring out the undertone of comedic excess that runs through the show. The uptick in ham helps too. Balancing things out is a downtick in intensity, as well as a noticeable loss of empathy in characters like rebel leader Nagi. On a whole it's a trade-off; and not an inequitable one. Sticklers for fidelity should head for the hills right now however.
The bulk of this set's extras are in three commentary tracks, one video track—featuring ADR director Joel McDonald, Greg Ayres (Ganta), Monica Rial (Shiro) and Leah Clark (token yandere Minatsuki)—and two audio commentaries: one with Ayres and a wound-up Rial, the other with Aaron Dismuke (Takami) and Clark, in which both were encouraged to curse copiously and Clark indirectly calls me a sick motherf***er. There're also ten minutes of assorted promos and commercials. Yay.
If you were so inclined, it'd be a pretty simple task to beat Deadman to death with its own flaws. Ganta, for one, is sort of dull and whiney (why couldn't someone like Senji, or perhaps compassionate rebel lieutenant Karako, be the main character?). The plot also requires him to act really, really stupid on occasion. It requires that of him because it itself is dumber than a rock sometimes. Many of its twists can be seen coming from galaxies away, and there are holes in it that you could lose entire characters in (and do; Takami just disappears halfway through). It isn't averse to leaning on established character types in the name of efficiency either, and it cuts off abruptly, leaving more loose ends than a half-knitted sweater.
Frankly, though, none of that matters. Like the best of its B-movie forbearers, it attacks with such relentless, inventive ferocity (blood as blade? Blood as bullet? Blood as armor? Blood as bomb?) that all else just washes away in the tide of bloodlust. Sure it's nice that it has the animal cunning to retroactively justify the actions of the Red Man. Sure its halfhearted social conscience assuages our own (a little). But let's be honest. That's not why we're here. We're here for the savage, steamrolling, mean-spirited thrill of it all. For B-film poison delivered with A-quality skill…and not coincidentally with a secret sentimentality that, along with its black humor, keeps the show's ferocious cruelty from growing absolutely unbearable. Red meat for the gorehound's soul.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Unrepentantly nasty, nauseatingly cruel action executed to near perfection and delivered in a story of considerable force and pitch-black humor; surprisingly substantial cast.
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