Strange things can happen to a person when they're in prison so the general rules of thumb are to keep a low profile, stay out of the way of other people, and avoid dropping the soap in the shower. For the inmates of Japan's only privately owned prison (which for some reason is run as a theme park and is built on Ground Zero of the Great Tokyo Earthquake), the ablutive antics of their fellow "guests" are the least of their worries, especially when the warden takes the term "punishment game" to a whole new level. The stage is set. The "Running Man" style collars are on. The next event is a lethal variation of Takeshi's Castle.
Welcome to Deadman Wonderland.
Based on the manga by Kataoka Jinsei (story), and Kondou Kazuma (art), the story begins with middle school student Igarashi Ganta, a fairly normal teenager with a reasonably mundane life - going to school, hanging out with friends, etc. All of that changes when his entire class are slaughtered while still in school, and as the only survivor he is found guilty of mass murder and sentenced to death. He is sent to Deadman Wonderland to wait out the time before his execution, but the powers that be in the prison have their eyes on Ganta so he must now navigate a labyrinth of conspiracies, greed, betrayal, murder, revolution, gladiatorial combat, and enough blood to make a clan of vampires drool.
Which immediately brings up the first problem with this series.
At its heart Deadman Wonderland is nothing more than a bloodier version of the common or garden shounen tale, but bolted onto the framework concept is a plot that has been worked over far too many times, so much so that it's highly predictable and almost barren of any original thought. Far too much importance has been placed on making the content "cool" in an effort to appeal to viewers who just want violence, blood and explosions, and with the added yet pointless melodramatic scenes designed to elicit audience sympathy, the storyline never really picks up enough narrative pace to maintain the viewer's interest. There are also a few critical errors that anyone with a basic understanding of investigative techniques would immediately spot and question, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Now this may confuse some people because Deadman Wonderland does have a lot going on in each episode, so an explanation is probably in order. This anime uses an event driven plot rather than a character driven one, and because of that the protagonist and his fellow inmates are simply along for the ride. They become nothing more than reactionary elements in the storyline, and in an effort to compensate for that the author and his adaptation colleagues have thrown as many different ideas at the series as they could. In truth, the only thing holding the entire narrative together so that it could be considered a story instead of a collection of random events, is Ganta, which gives an idea of the scale of the problem.
That said, Ganta isn't really terrible, but the nature of the plot ensures that his characterisation remains linear and one dimensional, and while it may appear to some that he matures as an individual, this is actually a forced measure that serves only one purpose - to make his win against the next big bad opponent a bit more believable. Unfortunately, Deadman Wonderland isn't really about developing the characters in any meaningful way, and this is borne out by the fact that the supporting cast only get a few paltry flashbacks even though some of them have a lasting effect on the storyline. The oddity is that probably the most intriguing character is Ganta's childhood friend Shiro, a resident of Deadman Wonderland who isn't a prisoner. She is an anomaly who appears to have a childlike personality, but her very presence in the storyline, together with her looks, is enough to set alarm bells ringing for anyone who knows the trope about mysterious white haired characters.
Given that this is an adaptation of a manga there's automatically a severe limitation placed on design, but Manglobe have done their best with what has been given to them, and the results are actually pretty good. The animation is smooth and there are some nice visual effects scattered throughout the series, the character movements are fluid and have a natural feel, and the action set pieces have a visceral edge to them that the manga lacks. There are a few issues though, but these lie in the smaller details as there are some design influences from other works (Ganta's likeness to Renton Thurston from Eureka 7, which is also a work by the Kataoka and Kondou). In addition to this, there's a tendency to fall back on certain stereotypes (the rather obvious musclebound oaf who likes nothing more than fighting strong opponents), which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can get tedious to see certain character archetypes all the time. Thankfully these niggles aren't really enough to prevent viewers from enjoying the series, especially if one is able to move past the rather slapdash storyline.
Seriously, would it kill anyone to use some real world stereotypes, maybe something like the bad tempered little guy who doesn't know how to fight properly but makes up for it in sheer ferocity?
Deadman Wonderland has a rather eclectic variety of background music on offer that ranges from dramatic heavy metal blended with techno, to a few simple notes played on a piano. The quality of the audio, both the music and the effects, is surprisingly good, and the choreography shows that some thought has gone into the implementation and timing of each track. The opening theme is a heavy metal piece called One Reason by DWB (featuring Fade), that has been set to a well designed sequence that utilises a three colour base, in this case red, white and black. The end credits feature a slow moving ferris wheel accompanied by images of many of the characters from their lives before they became inmates of Deadman Wonderland, all set to the tune of Shiny Shiny by NIRGILIS.
To be perfectly honest, this anime doesn't really test the abilities of Paku Romi (Ganta), Hanazawa Kana (Shiro), or any of the other cast members to any great degree, but part of that is due to a relatively lackadaisical script. The dialogue lacks a degree of intuitiveness that can make conversations seem forced, and while the cast are capable seiyuu in their own right, they seem to struggle with several scenes in an effort to get the emotion across to the viewer. It's never a good thing when an actor or actress tries too hard, and this fact is borne out during a number of conversations in the series.
But then, that's pretty much the story of Deadman Wonderland - it tries too hard.
On the surface this appears to be a rather slick production with some high quality audio and visuals, but no amount of beautification can hide a plot that is more focused on currying favour with audiences than it is with actually telling a story. The narrative can often seem like a train wreck (i.e. bits flying off everywhere, people screaming and running for cover, etc), as many of the plot elements have simply been attached without any real thought given to integrating them into the story proper, and this is why many events can feel like they're nothing more than fillers. In addition to this, the idea of weaponizing blood isn't actually new as Wei Zhijun from Darker Than Black can blow things up using his blood, while Saya from Blood + must use hers to kill Chiropterans.
That said, one has to remember that the story itself is incomplete as this is only an adaptation of the manga up to a point, and this is one of the reasons why there are inherent issues that have yet to be resolved. Unfortunately that excuse cannot cover certain flaws that really do stand out, the chief among them being Ganta's conviction. The series makes a point of showing a confession by him and this is given as proof of his guilt, but what happened to all the witness statements? What about the forensic evidence like the direction in which the windows exploded, or the angle of the attacks on the classroom? While the viewer clearly knows that Ganta is innocent, the apparent ease of his conviction is dependent on his confession, but nothing is mentioned about the physical evidence from the scene of the crime.
Deadman Wonderland looks and sounds great, and if all you're after is a series that has lots of violence, blood, weird characters and a storyline that requires you disengage your brain, then this may be for you. The series may have it's problems, but the concept is interesting even if the implementation leaves a lot to be desired, and it does retain a degree of entertainment value for its action set pieces.
In essence though, Deadman Wonderland is nothing more than a potato that has been painted by Michaelangelo - it looks stunning, but it's still just a potato.