Your humble writer was alerted to existence of Deadman Wonderland following Toonami's phoenix-like rise from the ashes. It was one of the original programs on the new lineup, and it sent viewers an immediate message: the new Toonami is going to be able to air shows that the old Toonami never could have touched. Deadman Wonderland is two-parts bloody, three-parts twisted, and five-parts... weird. It's based off of the 2007 manga series written by Jinsei Kataoka and illustrated by Kazuma Kondō.
Story / Setting
After witnessing the massacre of his entire class by a mysterious man in red, Ganta Igarashi is framed for the murder and sent to Deadman Wonderland, a privately owned prison that doubles as an amusement park. There, the prisoners are pitted against one another in death matches, and other lethal tests of ability and strength. The losers pay a steep price: a part of their body, chosen at random, on live television. Cranking the dial up, is the fact that a lot of these prisoners display mutant-like powers activated by their bleeding. It's a fine backdrop for a story, if you ask me. Part Battle Royale, part X-Men, it had my seal of approval from the very beginning.
The story is multi-faceted. At the forefront is Ganta's fight to simply survive. However, at the same time, there is the search for answers: Why was he framed? Who is the Red Man? What is the greater purpose of Deadman Wonderland? Further, still, is that there are a number of subplots that take root early, and spread throughout the series. Most of them are actually quite interesting. What I feel the team behind Wonderland forgot, however, was that they only had twelve episodes to work with. To their credit, they don't hastily attempt to wrap up everything at the expense of butchering their product. However, be aware before you start watching, that the show ends on a cliffhanger, and answers very few of the questions you'll be asking.
At the beginning of Deadman Wonderland, Ganta can be described as something of a crybaby -- and it takes him a long time to get out of this rut. This is not to say his behavior isn't justified by his situation, but this is a trope that's been done to death, and I don't believe I have ever met someone who likes characters that spend all of their time crying.
There is also Shiro, who strangely knows who Ganta is and makes an effort to befriend and protect him. Shiro is agile, quick, and possesses superhuman strength, but she's not all there in the head. Her childlike innocence, intelligence, and personality makes her somewhat likable, but the viewer's desire to find out how she fits into the plot of the series is what keeps her interesting. The fact that by the end of the show we've only had it hinted at and teased is really a bummer though.
Aside from the main characters, Deadman Wonderland is filled with lots of interesting secondary and tertiary characters. The show takes advantage of its unique backdrop, and embraces the idea that the inmates of the show are criminals. Violent ones. Crazy ones. There's a lot of design space to explore with characters like this, and Deadman Wonderland hits some seriously good beats with a lot of them. Most of Ganta's fellow prisoners are given enough time to be at least somewhat developed and to be made to stand out from the rest of the cast, even if its not quite as much time as I would have liked. Some of them wind up being pretty likable characters, as far as brutal, violent psychopaths go. If I were to be brutally murdered, I would hope it be by someone half as charming deranged as Hummingbird.
The onr major flaw in the character department is, agani, caused by the show's length. Late in the series, some particularly weird characters are introduced, and these characters just don't work with how little time they are given. A "Super Monk" representing a group called "Undertakers" that fights with a machine gun guitar? Well I've seen weirder things spun well, but that's still not the kind of guy you can drop into a show in its third act without a good explanation. Presumably, the manga did a better job of introducing such a character, but the anime stumbled here.
Art and Sound
The production values of Deadman Wonderland are quite good. I don't know if that's because it had a high budget, or because the budget it did have was managed very well, but it looks great. There's no special gimmick or hook with this one. It's a traditionally-done anime that breaks no new grounds, but is happy to utilize modern technology for its special effects. After watching Soul Eater and Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Girls, it almost seemed strange to me, because it was too normal. It's definitely far from undesirable, though.
There are a few elements of the show that bothered me, but these were typically smaller peeves. For example, certain female characters are shown wearing lipstick. In theory this wouldn't be a problem, but for some inexplicable reason, the artists of Deadman Wonderland choose to depict glossy lips as something that resembles a low-level slime from outside of the starting area of an RPG. It's an insignificant detain to be sure, but it bothed me.
Soundwise, Deadman Wonderland averages out as solid. The show's opening theme, One Reason is absolutely fantastic, and spent some time near the top of Japanese independent music charts. It's the type of rock song that just gets you pumped up, and it has to be one of my favorite anime openings of the decade so far. The opening visuals are also pretty great, but make sure to go for the uncensored version with this one -- it makes the difference. By comparison, the ending theme, Shiny Shiny, is kind of a stinker: the kind of song that makes you stretch to immediately begin the next episode. In-show music, if not catchy, tends to suit the mood of any given moment.
Voice actors get the job done across the board, with Kana Hanazawa stealing the spotlight with her performance as Shiro. Iori Nomizu also does a stand up job, with her character of Minatsuki; truly an example of crazy done right.
Deadman Wonderland is an enjoyable anime, if an imperfect one. Assuming this is your type of show to begin with, there's a little for everyone here. The fight scenes are good when they happen, and there are lots of characters to root and cheer for. At times, there will be scenes that are meant to prod the more squeamish of viewers, but taken as a whole, there is a theme of hope to be found here. It's a fun watch. It would be a lot more fun to watch if there were a second season. Truthfully, there's an absolutely absurd number of loose strings to be found when all is said and done. It's not that the show ends poorly. It's that it doesn't end at all. What it got was a season finale instead of a series finale, and I'm not sure I'm okay with that.
If you can overlook this fault (and its understandable that some of you will not be able to) then by all means. Clear out a weekend, and queue of some Wonderland.
Final Rating: 7.75 out of 10.0