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Were I given the task of reviewing the first half of DEADMAN WONDERLAND’s short, 12-episode season, I’d be able to present a simple thumb's up and be done with it.
“This show is good,” I’d say, after watching those initial six episodes.
And then I’d rip off FUNimation and blurt out their own tagline before they had the chance to do it themselves - - “You should be watching.”
Easy assignment. At that point, I’d sit at my desk and stare at my screen, waiting patiently for the remainder of the season to air. I’d be fully compelled to find out what happens to Ganta, Crow, Yo, and the rest of the cast; and then to learn about all the new, unknown inmates who reside in G-Block.
And when those remaining six episodes were done, I’d look at my thumb, confused about which direction to tilt it. I’d go back and re-edit my review.
“Should you be watching? I’m not sure...”
All that is the long way of saying that DEADMAN WONDERLAND gets off to a wonderfully interesting and provocative start but ultimately squanders that potential as it drifts through a lackluster and oddly-paced second half. Based on a manga that is still ongoing, the anime’s creators apparently decided to wager the quality of their series on whether or not it gets another season to explain itself.
If it does, great. If it doesn’t? Yikes.
So what’s the deal? In the world of DEADMAN WONDERLAND, an earthquake has shaken up Japan and completely ruined Tokyo. Set ten years after that event, a private prison has been put up in place of the capital city; a theme-park style mega-complex housing nothing but death row inmates. Nobody cares about convicted killers, so the prisoners are abused and murdered for the amusement of visiting tourists who (choose to) think the horrible events they see happening are just creative special effects. Profits go to rebuilding Tokyo, so who cares if the occasional serial killer gets his arms torn off in the process?
This prison, itself called Deadman Wonderland, is a creative blend of pop-culture parts - - from SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES to RUNNING MAN to BATTLE ROYALE - - and is a great setting for serious social satire.
Seemingly average middle-school student Ganta Igarashi is Deadman Wonderland’s newest addition. Framed for the brutal murder and dismemberment of his entire class, Ganta is shipped off to the uber-clink only after being kicked down and spit on by the families of his closest friends. They've all been convinced of his guilt by a phony confession seemingly recorded when Ganta wasn’t looking.
But Ganta really didn’t do it! No, it was the Red Man! A flying, superhero-looking lunatic with powers so incredible that the massacre of an entire room filled with children only takes him a second! Except that no one has ever seen this Red Man - - no one but Ganta... and a host of scientists and engineers who work deep within a secret chamber beneath Deadman Wonderland.
This must have something to do with the prison’s constantly grinning promoter and assistant warden, the clearly evil Tsunenaga Tamaki. Dun dun dunnnnnnn!
From the jaw-dropping mass murder that kicks off the show through Ganta’s extended persecution, DEADMAN WONDERLAND establishes a dark and powerful reality that is simultaneously both patently absurd and yet also painfully realistic. It’s hard not to care about someone as thoroughly ruined by fate as Ganta, and his unbelievable conviction goes a long way towards making everything everything that follows seem almost reasonable. By the time it is revealed that Ganta has some special powers of his own, you’re as excited to find out about the true story of Deadman Wonderland as its newest inmate is.
It turns out that Ganta is “gifted” with the Branch of Sin - - the ability to shape and control his blood once it has exited his body and wield it as a weapon. And he’s not the only one; a secret section of Deadman Wonderland called "G-Block" is filled with blood-wielders. And wouldn’t you know it - - they’re forced to fight for the private entertainment of select high rollers!
But just as Ganta is initiated into this elite club of insane warriors, the show decides to shift gears entirely. It jackknifes away from the tournament fighting and towards the least exciting prisoner uprising in the history of super-powered prisoners. Why does it do that? Probably because at some point in Season Two, it will have some serious consequences. But as for Season One? It’s the least exciting part, and it takes up an unjustly large amount of time and attention.
So, instead of learning the secrets of Deadman Wonderland, we learn a lot about a number of characters who seem introduced merely to be dispatched, and all of the most interesting mythology is tabled for another time. While the secret of the Red Man is more or less put out in the open, Ganta isn’t able to piece it together. When he does, things are sure to get pretty crazy, in the best way possible.
If/When that time arrives, you can count on me to be among the audience.
If it never does? I’ll probably have forgotten how eagerly I was once waiting.
Alexei Bochenek is a lifelong tech nerd and film buff based in Los Angeles. He writes for various online publications and edits the Los Angeles events website LALookout.com. Follow his Twitter: @alexeigb.