Shallow Identity Crisis
Naw, I’m good, thanks.
To knock any initial misconceptions out of the way, the first thing I’ll say is that, yes, I’m aware the Nanashi podcast has already expressed their viewpoint on Deadman Wonderland not too long ago. Nevertheless, well-reasoned as the fine folks on that show may be, I found their opinions of the show frustratingly far removed from my own and ultimately unsatisfying. That’s why I decided to write down my own impressions of the show. It’s simply a way to help me pinpoint my core dissatisfaction with the anime as much as it is an opposing viewpoint to anyone out there reading this site who might have similarly come away from DW less than satisfied. This is neither a snub nor an upturned nose at anyone in particular. It’s not even a response to the podcast. This will be the only time I mention those fellers (whose material you should all check out) in the entire article. So, with that squared away…
Let’s run through the preliminaries. Deadman Wonderland is such a gory mess in all its, well… goriness that even the mangled cadavers of its characters who’ve been on screen for longer than two episodes can’t compete. I honestly don’t know where to start because the show is so unfocused and choppy (we’ll get more into detail on that later). For now, I suppose we can begin at the beginning. We’re in for the long haul, boys.
For the uninitiated, the show kicks off when an entire classroom of kids is gruesomely murdered by a lone phantom clad in all red, who is, fittingly enough, referred to as the Red Man. He’s labeled with more flamboyant anime terminology to let us know he’s bad news, but Red Man serves as a succinct enough moniker that it’ll suffice.We are also introduced to our main character and the sole survivor of the attack, Ganta.
Here we see Ganta’s default expression and catchphrase. If you plan on watching this show, get used to these two things, as they are the most noticeable constants in the series next to its talent in hypnotizing you into repeatedly clicking on the X button on the top corner of your video player.As is the norm in anime, Ganta is spared a grisly death and given special powers. Oh well, at least it wasn’t handed to him by some mysterious, whack-job girl who’s inextricably devoted to our shounen for one reason or another…
Looks like I spoke too soon! Meet Shiro, a mentally crippled girl with super strength who wears a skintight jumpsuit, and whose hobbies include stuffing her face with sweetmeats and running around screaming Ganta’s name. She’s basically a 4-year-old whose boobs and ass we can sometimes get the privilege of scoping out. Oh, and look, here’s a panty shot of her when she was actually 4-years-old. Think of it as a sneak peek at what to expect from her in her later life. Anyway, her entire existence revolves around Ganta, because – you guessed it – they’re childhood friends. By the way, she’s the Red Man. That’s not a spoiler, because anyone with a level of intelligence approaching moss can intuit this from a few episodes in. Our 14-year-old hero meets his pet shoujo after being framed for murder in kangaroo court and sentenced to a privatized maximum security prison, the eponymous Deadman Wonderland. This facility is run by Chief Warden Makina, yet another “tough” female character with spine-rending breasts and pouty lips and talks about strength like it’s her religion (she even carries a saber as her weapon instead of, y’know, a gun. Also, lame rock music plays whenever she’s onscreen), and Tamaki, a sadistic anime mastermind who posed as Ganta’s attorney to sabotage the trial and get Ganta into jail.
By this point, the story, dubious as it already is, takes a backseat so that the show can indulge in senseless bloody carnage like in so many grindhouse films, after whose image DW is fashioned… or so that appears to be the case for the first few episodes. Following a brutal showing called the “dog run” where inmates race through a deadly obstacle course for the amusement of public spectators, Ganta discovers he has the power to shoot his own blood at people and is thrown into a Battle Royale-esque tournament called the Carnival Corpse.
It’s here where the wallpaper truly begins to peel off by the fistful and lay bare the shaky foundations on which the show is built. The Carnival Corpse is paraded as a visceral gladiatorial match to the death between Deadmen, people with special blood powers like Ganta, for the illicit entertainment of the wealthy. That’s what DW tells us anyway, but not really. In reality, it’s mainly a detour for the anime to show us more new characters. These new additions never instantly die following their inevitable loss to Ganta, predictably enough, because that’s not what Deadman Wonderland is about. In fact, despite telling us contestants customarily lose their lives to the victor in increasingly horrifying ways, we never see anyone get killed in the Carnival Corpse. If that happened, we wouldn’t be able to milk as much despair out of these folks as possible. People in this series are conceived for the explicit purpose of suffering painfully. Take the penalty game for the losers of the Carnival Corpse, for instance, and the infamous eye-gouging scene following Senji’s, Ganta’s first opponent’s, defeat:
What happens to Senji after this? Well, he saves Ganta once from a gang of thugs and teaches him how to shoot blood faster. That’s not character development. Afterwards, no one seems to really worry about his eye at all. The show mostly forgets about Senji, frankly. That’s really it. Or what about Minatsuki? The anime tries to be sneaky and trick us into believing she’s some typical shrinking violet, but c’mon, she’s being imprisoned in a penitentiary meant for the nation’s worst criminals, for Christ’s sake. Of course she’s crazy. So it’s only a matter of time before her true colors are revealed: that of a raving psychopath. But still, we have to sit here and be dragged through her ludicrous backstory, as though we actually believe or care that she is the way she is as a result of her mother abandoning her own flesh and blood to save some flowers in the middle of a natural disaster. Right.And let me make this clear: characters like Minatsuki aren’t unlikable because they’re supposedly evil, but because they’re so ill-conceived and laughably absurd that they lose any and all meaning. But they’re not fun either, because even though Minatsuki rattles off a few vulgar lines and contorts her face into a handful of anatomically impossible facial expressions, she doesn’t really do anything that’s profoundly gut-busting. She and Senji (and most of the other cast members, as we’ll see) are more like background extras who outstay their welcome.
So after our brief meet-and-greet to two bit characters, the story takes another swerve, and Ganta is inducted into an underground group of insurgents called Scar Chain, led by a black chick named Karako and an eternally patient man who goes by Nagi. Basically, these are the only two important people in this entire faction, because, as we know, everyone else comes branded with an expiration date. So what do these rebels do when they’re planning their great escape? Why, they lounge around like a bunch of everyday coworkers at the bar. See, these death row inmates are afforded convenient luxuries such as flatscreen TVs, screen projectors, laptops, and gourmet cuisine. They can even serve you up a nice big sundae with all sorts of fresh toppings after a long, hard day of trying to murder each other:
Wow, if this is what it means to be indicted by the penal system, then it’s time to bring out Dad’s old gun! But that’s not all, though. These superpowered prisoners are somehow granted the right to assemble without any security watching over their actions, which allows them to pose the very real risk of plotting a breakout. Sure, they were eventually betrayed by this joker, but why was he even necessary? That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? Without that betrayal, we wouldn’t have had an excuse to stage an oh-so-exciting jailbreak attempt where all the bit characters in Scar Chain are murdered in unimaginatively bloody ways. And, of course, we wouldn’t have had the chance to unveil the plot twist that the pacifistic Nagi was also crazy all along after his dead wife’s fetus was cut out and put on display on Tamaki’s shelf. What, didn’t you get the memo? We don’t play around! We’re just THAT hard!
Naw, man, that’s just tacky.
Anyway, Scar Chain is pitted against another tier of superpowered enemies called the Undertakers, who can negate blood attacks. Remember, Deadman Wonderland has transitioned into a shounen at this point. The Undertakers include a snake man and a Gluttony lookalike from Fullmetal Alchemist, who are given dark pasts and promptly killed off in the subsequent scene with no spoken lines.Yo, we gotta pad out the running time somehow! This loli is also a member, because evil little girls are creepy by default. When Nagi first meets her, he stupidly asks her if she’s lost. Well I don’t know, bro, how do YOU think a loli bypassed all those high-tech defenses and got lost in an underground prison? Hmmmm. But moving on, the loli flays off parts of Nagi’s skin, severs his left arm, and takes him in to be tortured. That’s right, the loli is crazy and likes murdering people, as well. She’s ripped to shreds and dies at the very end though, so it’s all good. Really, the only Undertaker who matters is the monk who plays guitar.
Even the conclusion is worthless. After Ganta gives Shiroa love tap in a fit of rage to show that he cares, the remnants of Scar Chain regroup at their hideout, where previously unseen members suddenly show up. It’s like a respawn point or something. They all die in the second escape attempt, too, but we don’t see it because even the anime is bored by this point. Shiro and Karako are almost raped.Then Ganta learns the Rasengan. The monk dies (off screen, which is very climactic, believe you me), and so does Nagi. Ganta cries and the credits roll.
That’s it. That’s the ending. Why? Nothing is resolved. There isn’t a single loose end that’s tied up. Ganta is still a crybaby, incarcerated, and unaware of who the Red Man is. Shiro is still there. Makina doesn’t find anything to use against Tamaki in her investigation. What happened to the other Deadmen, or even Scar Chain? Literally nothing of consequence happened. This is such a nothing show.
But you want to know the real reason why Deadman Wonderland feels so choppy and incomplete? Here it is: this is a series that has no idea what the hell it wants to be. All those plot threads I mentioned up there? Those aren’t where the true problems lie. They’re just symptomatic of the real issue. DW is a show with a severe identity crisis. It wanted to be an outlandish, unapologetic, grindhouse-esque gorefest, but couldn’t live up its promise. When was the only time anyone died in a truly thrilling way? I can only think of the obstacle course, where faceless prisoners were knocked off in swarms. But then what? Even the environment is dull. I thought the prison doubled as an amusement park? Instead, the entire show is confined within the dimly lit hallways of the prison, fittingly enough. Everything is gray, brown, or dark. So what is Deadman Wonderland to do when it can’t live up to its own premise? Naturally, it turns to the Carnival Corpse to try and invigorate itself. But it loses interest fast, and we’re left with the halfhearted shounen antics involving Scar Chain at the very end.
The entire cast of characters is a microcosm of the show as a whole, if you think about it. Obviously, I’m being a bit facetious here, but let’s humor this idea for a moment. Almost each and every main character is some flavor of schizoid, habitually jumping between different personalities like they’re part-time jobs. By pure coincidence, I’m sure, these characters’ hidden personas all invariably translate into some degree of mental imbalance, but the point stands. Shiro has her dumb side, but she also unknowingly moonlights as the Red Man. Minatsuki is by nature a sadistic maniac, but she makes sure to put on a meek face whenever she can turn someone’s sympathy in her favor. Nagi is tranquil… up until his buried memories are unearthed and cause him to go mad. Arguably, Yoh is the only character whose double life is actually feasible. I understand his motivation for doing the things he does; he wants to save his sister at all costs. I get it.
But we just can’t let sleeping dogs lie, so we have to go and drudge up more bog standard bullshit before we call it a day. As a result, the audience must endure what can only be described as some of the worst attempts attragedy I have ever seen. No, I don’t fucking care that the loli had an abusive mother. More importantly, why is it, at the last possible minute, cutting into the middle of your ostensibly decisive final battle, are you now feeding me this fifteen minute-long horseshit about the deranged monk’s sad history? Oh, what, his pet cat died? That was the last straw? So what? If you’re going to try and wring some sympathy from me, can’t you give me something better? Can’t you commit?
That’s the thing, however. Deadman Wonderland doesn’t want to commit. That’s why these “tragic” moments feel so cheap. It’s the faintest illusion of depth. Likewise, that’s why all the gore feels so cheap. By no means am I squeamish. I’ve seen my fair share of animated violence, but DW’s display of viscera is staggeringly hollow. The show pretends to be a graphic thrill ride, but in its ignorance of how to achieve that effect, it grasps for the most tasteless imagery possible. It’s merely shock and awe. But you know how anime is. They still need to censor anything that crosses the line, so what we mostly get is blacked- or whited-out, random giblets splattered every which way. It all winds up feeling so tawdry.
Deadman Wonderland CAN’T commit, so any new element is abandoned just as quickly as it’s introduced. It throws around the shallowest traits of these new elements (e.g. advertising the Carnival Corpse as a death match when it wasn’t; both of the completely ineffective, disposable Scar Chain and Undertaker organizations/the Rasengan during the final shounen arc), and then it’s on to the next thing.However, during its later phases, DW still has to keep up its charade of being dark and edgy, so occasionally you’ll be treated to a scene where some extras are melted in acid or whatever. Weighty terms are somberly thrown around without proper explanation: Wretched Egg, Branch of Sin, Mother Goose, Nameless Worm, Red Hole… Even the matters concerning the candy used to stave off the poison collars and the Red Man are seemingly held in abeyance in the show’s second half. There isn’t even any commitment to the character death scenes: everything enters slow-mo when Karako is seemingly stabbed in the heart, but a couple scenes later, we see that she’s fine. Furthermore, despite Nagi being flayed, pummeled around, having his arm torn off, tortured, exsanguinated, and having a bowling ball-sized hole punched through his abdomen, he somehow has the strength to hold the monk down in place for Ganta’s final attack, and then goes on to deliver his noble last words before finally giving up the ghost.
Aside from that, in between all the doom and gloom, Deadman Wonderland predictably stuffs every unused frame of animation not devoted to liberated entrails with slapstick or lazy, second rate fanservice. Makina’s breasts, Minatsuki’s breasts, Shiro’s testicles camel toe… Everything about this series, right down to the smallest pixel, is just so exploitative. There’s no love here for any of these characters.
I’m reminded of Attack on Titan, a grim show in its own right. Is it fair to make that comparison? No, not really. You could make the argument that they can’t be compared based on their differing genres alone. But I’m going to, anyway. Though AoT may also be dire and dark and bloody, you get the impression that somehow, someway, maybe – just maybe – with enough sacrifice, all the suffering endured will have been worth it. Sure, there are people who complain that the side characters are primarily killed off while most of the main cast remains relatively unscathed, but with these characters,we get to see their fears and struggles,their hopes and dreams – simple as they might be – before they so unceremoniously die. You can identify a certain level of tragedy in all those lives cut short. There’s a genuine love for humanity present, warts and all, and its collective desperation to survive underlining the series. Deadman Wonderland, on the other hand, isn’t much else besides dreary. Seriously, what do you get out of something like this?
People complain that DW leaves them unfulfilled. Probably due to the fact that there’s nothing there. Deadman Wonderland doesn’t have anything to offer. Where is the “milestone” in the plot? Where is the resolution, or the sense of accomplishment? Where is the significant change to justify those twelve episodes?All the events that transpired felt more like a shopping list of unrelated things than an actual narrative.Unfortunately, the action is similarly empty. Too bad, because that’s where it was supposed to excel. The anime came in wanting to play hard ball, but it was just fronting. It tried to be a million things under the sun – action, horror, sci-fi, crude entertainment, tragic, shounen – but it was all just fronting.
So when the average viewer is left scratching his head at the sheer emptiness of it all and demands what it’s trying to be, Deadman Wonderland can do nothing but trail off at the end during its own finale. After everything, it’s still undecided.