Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Apr 13th 2014
Ganta Igarashi is having a perfectly ordinary day when a mysterious and vaguely inhuman red man shows up outside his classroom window and massacres his classmates. The next thing Ganta knows, he's being arrested for the crime from his hospital bed before being railroaded into a guilty conviction. This lands him in the notorious prison known as Deadman Wonderland, a gruesome carnival where the prisoners play out deadly attractions for customers' viewing pleasure. Can Ganta survive? And who is the red man and why does the prison want both he and Ganta so badly?
Ganta Igarashi is just your average middle school student, living an average middle school life. Or at least, as average as can be expected in a Tokyo that suffered a horrific earthquake ten years ago and is still recovering from its aftermath. Perhaps the most significant sign of the quake is Deadman Wonderland, a fanciful new private prison that doubles as an amusement park, with inmates as the star attractions. As far as the public knows, it's all a show, but Ganta is about to find out differently. One day a mysterious red man floats up to his third floor classroom window and brutally massacres all of Ganta's classmates. Ganta is shot in the chest but somehow survives...only to find himself arrested while in his hospital bed and subjected to a trial that seems too fast not to be rigged. The result? He is thrown into Deadman Wonderland pending his execution. Terrified and angry, Ganta goes from being frightened and confused to learning that his placement in the theme park from hell is no mistake – there's a reason someone wanted him there. Now Ganta's goal is not only to find the red man responsible for everything, but also to clear his name publicly and get out of Deadman Wonderland before he dies there.
As readers, we discover most of the truth alongside the hero, although there is some information that we are privy to that he is not. The majority of these reader-only reveals is engineered to make us really angry. Since we know precisely who is behind the destruction of Ganta's world, we can't just sit back and allow the horror of the story to proceed around us, a twisted tale for our reading pleasure. Knowing the perpetrator's reasons when Ganta doesn't gives us a stake in the story and really invests us in it...in part because if we aren't angry, then we're no better than the tourists who come to watch death matches and murder games for fun. While both volumes do this, the second ups the stakes significantly with more information, giving the story a sense of rising.
The juxtaposition of a prison and a carnival is an interesting and effective use of Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of carnival and the grotesque, particularly the triumph of bodily needs (in this case simply living) over social niceties and the carnivalesque freedoms from proper behavior. The latter is seen more in the other characters, contrasting with Ganta's determination to prove his innocence and remain as human as possible in a world gone mad. His alliances with the mysterious Shiro, an albino girl who seems to know Ganta (and a flashback supports this theory) and is unconstrained by the rules of the prison and with Yo, a potential double-crosser, seem to make his journey even more unstable. Add in a system that rewards survival with cash, allowing a better prison stay, and you have a world that follows only select rules of our own, giving the story a vague familiarity that makes it even more disturbing.
Deadman Wonderland is, for the most part, very fast paced, and it times it does feel rushed. Battles in particular suffer from this, speeding along in order to get to the information on their other sides. There is also a slight stutter in the story in that we don't fully understand what happened during the earthquake or what Shiro is – the fact that no one on the prison staff seems aware of her existence is troubling, but this is glossed over a bit quickly. Ganta's age is also a little of a sticking point, as middle school seems a little young for him to be able to cope as much and as well as he does.
Art is neither spectacular nor off-putting. Characters are fairly distinctive and action scenes work. Gore is not shied away from, which is particularly important here. The biggest issue is really with Shiro's body – she wears a skintight leotard all the time, and the artist doesn't seem sure how to handle her groin. Mostly it looks like she's missing some important anatomy in favor of a concave space.
Deadman Wonderland is overall a very gripping series, at least in its first two volumes. The story is dystopian, frightening, and guaranteed to make you angry while still being exciting and making good use of literary devices. It stumbles in a few places, but for the most part this is worth reading if you are a fan of dark and disturbing stories. So buy your tickets – the Wonderland awaits.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Great use of the carnivalesque, really pulls you in. The story is both exciting and upsetting, making it difficult to walk away from even if you have to put it down sometimes.
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