Click the pictures full size images in this post. It's a lot of black and white manga art and the details are too fine to make out at the smaller size. Manga is read right to left. Imagine you're back in middle school/junior high. Your class is going to go on a field trip to a new prison complex where the inmates are forced to run theme park and carnival attractions as part of their rehabilitation. You eagerly await the arrival of the buses when a mysterious figure shows up and kills everyone in the class except for you. He stabs you with a strange substance and disappears. Once you recover, you're railroaded through the criminal justice system and sentenced to life in the new prison complex for murdering your classmates.
This is the premise of Deadman Wonderland. Ganta is a child framed for a horrific crime. Evidence is manufactured against him, including grainy video footage performed by an actor dressed like Ganta.
Writer Jinsei Kataoka and illustrator Kazuma Kondou seem to be riffing on the prison-industrial complex. This is the theory that prisoners are being forced into private prisons at a higher rate for profit and political gain. This would be a novel concept in Japan as all of their prisons are centered around rehabilitation and run by the Japanese government; there are no private prisons there.
Within the anime and manga, Deadman Wonderland is the only privately-run prison in all of Japan. Prisoners from all over the country are sent there to work the amusement park. The money raised goes toward the restoration of Tokyo, which was destroyed after a giant earthquake. It is a win/win situation for the general population. Their city will be rebuilt and they get a new tourist attraction to take their children to.
Deadman Wonderland would be fascinating even if it was just about uncovering why Ganta was framed and forced into Deadman Wonderland. There's also a dark fantasy element of the story that drives the plot just as much as corruption in privatized prisons.
The Deadmen are a group of inmates with fantastic powers. They are able to control and manipulate their blood as weapons. Some fire blood like bullets while others craft physical weapons. Some fly while others shield themselves.
These Deadmen are part of the underground world of Deadman Wonderland. A group of secret, wealthy investors bet on the results of battles between the Deadmen. The winner gets currency and medicine needed to stay alive in the prison. The loser has part of their body removed or amputated as part of a violent game show for the private backers.
Ganta was injected with the raw essence of the Deadman power when his classmates were killed. His first day at Deadman Wonderland is wrought with peril. The assistant warden Tsunenaga Tamaki, who also acts as the figurehead for the underground battles, arranges for his murder. Ganta instinctively uses his new blood-manipulating powers to save himself from certain death in what would have easily been labeled an accident. It's only a matter of time before Ganta is manipulated into joining his fellow Deadmen in the hidden cell-block of Deadman Wonderland.
The genius of Deadman Wonderland is the integration of social commentary. This is a scathing indictment of the for-profit prison industry from a creative team who clearly did their research. The rights of the inmates are trumped at every turn by the greed of the investors.
For example, the general population earns money to buy food, clothing, and supplies by participating in Deadman Wonderland events. The Dog Race is the most popular attraction in the park. Inmates sign up to participate in an obstacle course for cash and food.
When Ganta enters on his first day, the obstacle course is immediately set for its most deadly rules and challenges to really test Ganta's powers. The crowd is told the inmates are acting so they don't immediately rebel against the slaughter of dozens of prisoners paid for by their admission fees.
Deadman Wonderland also has an undercurrent of the school-to-prison pipeline in the prison population. The school-to-prison pipeline is used to describe how actions at school lead to an increased incarceration rate for students.
Most of the inmates Ganta winds up interacting with were forced into Deadman Wonderland as children and teenagers. This is especially apparent among the Deadmen themselves. Some of the most fearsome competitors are children. There's even a specialty guard member who is a very young girl still learning basic math and grammar skills. Part of this is aiming the material at the shonen demographic (boys ages 10 and up), but the use of the children is deeper than superficial pandering.
These children are forced into the Deadman Wonderland on real or trumped up charges and then transformed into cold-blooded killers. There is no attempt to rehabilitate them or teach them skills they can use in the real world. The Deadmen are all facing life sentences with no parole and the general population inmates can have their sentences extended for arbitrary reasons.
Deadman Wonderland is surprisingly mature in its themes and social narrative for a shonen title. Sure, there is plenty of action and easy to follow narratives to appeal to the demographic. It's filled with a lot of the tropes you expect in a shonen property. It also has strong character development, an exceptionally well-researched world, and a very mature and layered story.
A major story arc involves the Deadmen attempting to escape Deadman Wonderland as an act of social justice. They plan to release video tapes of the fights and torture game show to the press to hopefully cause reform or even shut down the facility. They're not fighting for themselves; they're fighting for the good of all the current and potential inmates in Japan. They're fighting to restore justice to the criminal justice system and prevent the creation of new privatized prisons. They are fighting for their country to regain its moral core and show compassion to even the worst of its citizens.
Deadman Wonderland was adapted into a 12 episode anime in 2011. It is as faithful to the manga as it can be with the high level of violence in the books. There is also an OVA episode set two years later that examines another social issue: the militarization of police. The episode follows a police officer fighting crime with the lethal Deadman power. The series is worth exploring to be reminded that entertainment for children can have depth and nuance without isolating the target audience and for its well-handled social commentary.
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