Reviewby Theron Martin, Jun 2nd 2011
episodes 1-6 streaming
Poor Ganta Igarashi. One day he's having ordinary conversations with his friends and a girl he likes in his middle school class when a strange figure Ganta comes to call the Red Man appears outside his classroom window and brutally slaughters everyone except him. Instead, the Red Man plants a red crystal in Ganta's chest and then departs. When he wakes up, Ganta finds himself the prime suspect in his classmates' murders. Despite his protestations of innocence, he is quickly convicted and sentenced to Death Row in Deadman Wonderland, a special for-profit prison/amusement park where convicts must put their lives on the line for the entertainment of audiences. There he meets Shiro, a sexy albino girl who wears a body suit and mittens and behaves in a childlike fashion but nonetheless seems to already know him and merrily clings to him whenever possible. As Ganta adjusts to the curious rules of the Wonderland, he learns four important things: he has an ability called Branch of Sin, which allows him to manipulate his own blood as a weapon; he is not the only one in the prison who has this ability; he and his fellow Deadmen (i.e. those possessing the Branch of Sin) must fight each other in secretive death matches called Carnival of Corpse for a wealthy audience; and the Red Man responsible for all his suffering is somewhere within the more secretive parts of the Wonderland.
Deadman Wonderland is nothing if not a spectacle. It is gory, explicitly violent, frequently over-the-top, and viscerally cruel, to the point that it almost seems to inflict both physical and psychological suffering on its characters with a sadistic glee; one scene where a character has an eyeball systematically plucked out may make even those hardened to intensely graphic content squeamish. Combining those traits with amusement park trappings and a mammoth dose of injustice gives the series a twisted flair which almost elevates it to the level of absurdity. In fact, it is the spiritual successor of titles like Ninja Scroll and Elfen Lied in all ways but one: it does not also glory in nudity, with the fan service primarily limited to Shiro prancing around in her tight-fitting body suit and one female character introduced in episode six showing off some skin. If your tastes run towards the hyperviolent, though, then you will be hard-pressed to find a better-made recent example.
The strength of the series is certainly not in its story or writing, which is, so far, mostly just an excuse to construct a ridiculously improbable prison system (with an equally ridiculous set of rules), fashion flashy, super-powered battles involving weapons made of one's own blood, and be heartlessly mean to Ganta. The anime utterly fails to clarify (as the source material apparently does) that this is all set in a period of reconstruction a decade after a Great Tokyo Earthquake, which is the only way that the existence of an establishment like Wonderland makes any kind of sense, and the first few episodes also fail to reveal one crucial bit of information about Ganta's background which would help viewers make sense of some seeming incongruities that pop up, though perhaps that will be dealt with in later episodes. Certain other logical inconsistencies also pop up, such as how the Chief Guard wouldn't more quickly take note of a pretty albino girl hanging around who is dressed so differently from other prisoners that she would stick out in a crowd of thousands, and the plotting requires certain developments (including Ganta's legal railroading in the first episode and certain developments with Hummingbird in the sixth) to move along with undue alacrity. The general progression of events is mostly predictable, and spoiler-laden opener animation doesn't help.
Ganta is also a difficult character to appreciate at first. Granted, he is totally overwhelmed by what is happening to him – as anyone would reasonably expect would be the case with someone his age stuck in this situation – but his whining and fatalism will remind some unpleasantly of Shinji Ikari and the wait for him to show any backbone is agonizing; no, acting in desperation to throw out his powers to defend himself doesn't count. Not until the end of this run does he finally show some of his own pluck, but it happens in such a satisfyingly dramatic fashion that it may have viewers cheering. Shiro, contrarily, will either quickly win fans over with her seemingly innocent, simple-minded charm or irritate them with their antics, but either way she is an intriguing character because she is loaded with secrets that the series has liberally sprinkled hints about so far but has yet to substantially define. Amongst other important recurring characters, the seemingly psychopathic Assistant Warden Tamaki, who bamboozled Ganta into the Wonderland and runs its day-to-day operations on both levels, is a guy viewers will love to hate, while the big-breasted Chief Guard Makina initially comes off as cold but becomes more sympathetic to viewers as the series shows that she's really just trying to do her job and suffer through having Tamaki (who often leaves her in the dark) as a boss. The scheming kleptomaniac Yo, who sometimes helps Ganta but also has his own agenda, and a sadistic doctor round out the regulars, though episodes 4-6, which introduce other Deadmen and a creepy set of twins, also contribute new characters who look like they might be around for a while.
And notice how often extremely negative words showed up in the previous paragraph? The series accepts a pretty rotten view of humanity, with Ganta as the innocent hero who must try to muddle through it without getting his soul poisoned by it. It's a classic and time-worn set-up, but the execution and thrill level is high enough that it mostly works.
A lot of the credit for that goes to the stunning visual effort that rookie director Koichi Hatsumi and his crew from Manglobe put into the visuals; this one will be hard to beat as the best-looking title of 2011. The appeal of the character designs starts with Shiro, a flawless balance of sexy and cute whose albinism even extends to her eyelashes (a rare detail to see) and who can captivate with her expressions and occasional bursts of comic behavior, but all of the character designs feature wonderful detail and looks varied enough that any of these characters would stand out amongst their peers. Detailed, layered backgrounds and effective variances in color schemes for certain environments support the beautifully-rendered characters, giving the whole a nicely round and textured feel which offers the illusion of depth without depending heavily on obvious CG effects. The gory parts get loving detail, though the most extreme elements are subject to shadowed censoring on Crunchyroll's streaming broadcasts. The animation is also top-rate; there may be series out there with more spectacular action scenes, but the smooth, impressive movements and flashy blood effects in these do well enough and, unlike many of its peers, this one does not skimp on animation in more ordinary scenes.
The musical score also provides a strong, effective complement. Impressive opener “One Reason” by Japanese alternative/emo rock band fade (not to be confused with the Australian band Fade), sets the tone with a heavy rock number sung completely in English and featuring visuals that make a perfect advertisement for the series; the scene where chained-up prisoners trudge along wearing animal mascot heads is inspired. Each episode closes with the less flashy but still good J-pop song “Shiny Shiny.” In between the soundtrack liberally but not exclusively uses hard rock and even metal themes to juice up the action but never fails to hit the right sound for the right scene. The series is almost as commendable in this aspect as in the visuals, and that's saying a lot. Japanese voice work, by comparison, is solid but unexceptional.
The biggest concerns at the end of this block are how much the series is going to slide into a “battle of the week” format and whether or not it can put any kind of closure on its story in a mere twelve episodes, as there seems to be plenty more material available to work with than that. All that really matters, though, is that this sharp-looking and sharp-sounding production seems to be chugging along in a highly entertaining fashion and should have no problem keeping those who have been fans so far involved. It is almost inconceivable that it won't get an American DVD release at some point down the road.
Deadman Wonderland is currently available in legal streaming form at Crunchyroll.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Top-caliber visuals and animation, excellent opener, plenty of gore for violence addicts.
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