As the years have rolled on, I have been ever vigilant to find just that one shounen capable of letting me say, “Okay, Fate/Stay Night, you are officially free from having the worst shounen lead in all of anime.’” Deadman Wonderland, in all its clownish glory, is that anime.
The show starts simple enough, with our ordinary protagonist living an ordinary life, only to soon be gifted with the arrival of the “Red Man” who massacres everyone around him in an ocean of gore. Shock value, check. Gungho Ganta, the lone survivor, is quickly shipped off to a rigged trial and is convicted of their murders despite it being beyond anything a human could do. Spastic story transition, check. Come the end of the episode, random girl in overly revealing bodysuit is introduced whom he vows to protect within minutes of meeting, unleashing his newfound superpower in the process. Fanservice, weakling with superpower, and melodrama – check, check, and check.
Over the next twelve episodes, perhaps the only thing that kept me awake was ticking off boxes of every shounen cliché the story had to offer and then rating it on a scale of one to ten. Even with a handicap granted to Ganta (who clearly has some sort of mental deficiency) I cannot think of a single category which I would rate anything above a meager five. Most prominently defunct in this series is any semblance of a “story” – the viewer gets moved from school to messed-up-prison to clown prison to high-stakes deathmatch to friendship festivities to cursed inevitable betrayal before finally getting back to clown prison to cap it all off. Much like the previous run-on sentence, the frenetic transition of one setting to the next creates a near-incoherent jumble of scenes that are barely be fit to be called a story, all the while Gungho Ganta screams about the power of friendship while managing to be less useful than Fate/Stay Night’s accursed Shiro.
Speaking of Shiro, the only hook that keeps Deadman Wonderland watchable is its own Shiro – this time in the form of an erratic, happy-go-lucky female in place of a mentally-impaired male dung beetle. Random nipple and camel toe fanservice aside, Deadman Wonderland’s Shiro is fairly interesting – largely due to the show’s dropping of several important hints as to her backstory and true role in the overall “plot.” Jumbled and befuddled as the story is, however, she never actually does anything, as this twelve-episode anime adaptation apparently leaves off at some random point in the manga which lacks any semblance of closure.
I will admit, however, that the story did have a few twists and turns that I did not see coming. Most surprising among these piqued curiosities was that there is no actual “deathmatch” theme to the show despite this being hyped fairly religiously as its central selling point. Of the two “deathmatch” fight scenes that are present, the first is almost exclusively dialogue consisting of Gungho Ganta’s opponent standing and asking why, in a fight to the death, nothing is actually happening…as if breaking the fourth wall into the viewer’s own inquiries. The second is a weird three-way chat fest with a girl making ahegao faces and performing some weird dominatrix play instead of trying to actually harm Ganta.
Just as quickly as the deathmatch gig comes, it is almost immediately tossed away to highlight the journey of the Wheelchair Brigade who are rebelling against the deathmatches which were actually anything but. While all the members are supposedly blessed with killer superpowers, it’s hard to take a malcontented gladiatorial 102-year-old-grandma, paraplegic used car salesman, and PTA soccer mom even remotely seriously. Random side characters are flung across the screen like debris out of a pipe bomb, many to serve only as random pawns for shock value and gore that has zero emotional impact. Most curiously it that the whole deathmatch gig is supposed to be “mass profiteering off human suffering” and yet the establishment is all too happy to off the Wheelchair Brigade who are their supposed lifeline to untold billions.
In the end, all the story sells is shock value and nipples-through-shirts. While it ends abruptly, for once I did not mind because this offers definitive closure with the justified heaping of the title into the “never again” bin.
Successful shounen anime necessitate selling themselves on a “cool” factor with their action sequences, as there is often minimal budget to do anything extravagant. Dragon Ball Z earned its notoriety almost exclusively on this factor alone – yes it took 35 episodes to get to a fight, but I can still remember twelve year old me running home from school to watch the “cool factor” of Goku powering up and knocking around some bad guys. Naruto, though helped along by a legitimately interesting story for much of its early run, offered similar charm with a huge cast of characters with unique and interesting jutsus that offset what might otherwise be a bunch of bland and boring shoutfests.
Deadman Wonderland’s unique cool factor is watching nothing happen while telling yourself “wow, that was cool, I did not think a shounen show could be this uneventful!” Outside the final episode, there is minimal actual fighting – just random gore scenes where one person or another is killed or tortured in a low-frame-count manner followed by a lot of stills. Were one to consider Dragonball, Naruto, or Bleach to be to “normal” or “cool kids” of the shounen genre, this show would be the edgy emo kid in the corner slitting his wrists in a desperate bid for attention.
The opening theme is catchy, but that is about the extent to which I even noticed the music. Most notably is that Gungho Ganta is voiced by the same seiyuu who did Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist, which leaves one with this odd feeling that they should actually be watching said series instead of this tripe.
Holy side characters, batman. Deadman Wonderland has so many one-off characters that it is impossible to really pick any particular one to comment on. Gungho Ganta and Shiro are the only real “regulars” that one might rightfully deem main characters, as the rest of the cast is populated by characters who show up for maybe half an episode before disappearing, only to show up in the final episode for some sort of cameo had they not been killed off prior.
As mentioned previously, Shiro is at least interesting due to the story dropping several interesting tidbits about her fairly early on. There exists a sense early on that, eventually, her role may shift drastically and create some interesting transformations in the other characters. This never comes to pass because, to quote one of the side characters who dislikes him for much the same reason as I, Ganta’s “virginal white knighting gets real old.” Weak, pacifist male leads make for awful shounen leads in general. Sometimes the dolt factor is forgivable if there is a legitimate transformation in a reasonable timeframe, but Ganta is as stagnant in episode one as he is in episode twelve. The best part is, the final episode implies – for all the massive power of friendship speeches – that a total of eleven whole days have passed since Ganta’s trial, three of which did not even involve anyone but Ganta and Shiro.
Staleness is what ultimately defines the show’s entire characterization. Putting a character in a situation with random gore and shock value is not character development by default. Unless there is a legitimate story reason for said events within a greater story (as in, say, Shiki), it ends up simply as a cheap gimmick to grab attention. Unfortunately for Deadman Wonderland there is no story, and watching the characters stumble around onscreen is a yawn-inducing mess which can only be summarized as awful.
While I finished watching all twelve monotonous, dragging episodes of Deadman Wonderland, it was not an experience free of mental pain, anguish, and a great desire to rather be curled up in bed on a cold winter night drowned in tears to dull the suffering. There are certain flavors of shounen series, like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, that I dislike simply out of their presentation and not necessarily their lack of merit; this particular show, however, lacks any sort of coherency to make it salvageable. While die-hard fans of the genre may find it palatable, much of its appeal comes from the hints and promises of a good story early on, and that all fundamentally fails to come to fruition in every conceivable way.
Find something else to watch.
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