A joyous reunion, this was not.
For those unaware, Deadman Wonderland was the anime that got me back into anime after a relatively anime-free life between preteen and young adulthood years. I was convinced by a friend of mine to check out the show after it premiered on the newly-revived Toonami block on Cartoon Network. We watched it together on an anime streaming site and ended up marathoning the entire series in a single night—including the OVA spin-off. Once that was finished, I moved on to Gurren Lagann, then Toradora!, then found myself within the first of my Summer of Anime fests, and the rest is history. I’ve come full (incomplete) circle, as I’ve found the motivation to re-watch the series that I have to thank for dragging me into this waifu pit of weebdom.
Over the years, I’ve discovered something very important about myself. When it comes to my enjoyment with anime, I like things that make sense. Things that are concise, full of energy, and moderately free from the chain of tropes that the anime industry showers the viewer with. There are always exceptions to this case, but more often than not, it rings true for my general taste in anime. As the number of anime watched piled on throughout the years, I’ve noticed a correlation of a particular genre that is most likely to fall within the opposite of what I find appealing in a story: shounen. Whenever I’m interested in an anime/manga, I always lose most of my curiosity whenever I see it tagged with “Shounen.” Deadman Wonderland is a good example of a shounen series I really don’t care to sit through.
A small disclaimer, just in case anyone is wondering about any outside influences deciding my opinion on the matter. I’m aware that shounen anime and manga are typically regarded as the most popular and well-received pieces of fiction in our modern times. Titles such as Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, Hunter x Hunter, and Full Metal Alchemist are all iconic series that fall primarily within the shounen genre. I’ve made note in prior entries about my tendency to be contrarian to things I find absurdly popular out of spite, but know that my general dislike of shounen has evolved past that, and is due to a number of tropes I find illogical that appear in shounen titles. That, and the humor. Shounen anime are typically unfunny.
Enough of my opinions, I’ll continue forth with more of my opinions. What might be the biggest flaw in Deadman Wonderland is the central character. Typical shounen trope #1: weak, young teenage boy in a fish-out-of-water situation who carries an annoying/bland personality. The male lead has some justifications for his incredibly “wussy” demeanor. He is only fourteen, it’s implied he’s lived a peaceful, sheltered life, and the things being shown to him could make war heroes cringe. Even so, to see our hero, the one we’re supposed to identify with, connect with, empathize with—when all we see is a sobbing child who randomly has outbursts through THE POWER OF EMOTIONS! and saves the day through pure coincidence and luck, it manipulates our expectations and creates a mindset that anything can happen so long as the character feels like it. The situations that occur are means to trigger this innate POWER so that the character can survive their trial, rather than have it so the character can develop their abilities and feel confident enough to fend for themselves. It stunts growth, both in development of character and their capabilities. It makes the story more… twisty and unpredictable, but doing so in excess of moderation makes the unpredictable predictable.
If the central character isn’t enough to turn your head, how about the implied love interest and insane OP girl that travels around the central character to save him from danger? Oh, no! The male lead has to run a race with hundreds of other inmates through a fatal obstacle course! Good thing he has walking plot armor by his side to make sure the tension regarding his survival goes moot. But, wait! Now he has a giant robot giving chase! Good thing he has walking plot armor by his side to kick the vacuum cleaner in the face. The point I’m trying to make here is that by giving the lead a partner that can absorb basically every hit, it causes a stall in emotional feedback. The viewer knows they’ll make it out fine because of the walking plot armor. It also secures even more of the coddling nature of the show by never allowing the lead to develop themselves in dangerous situations. That won’t come until the fifth episode or so. It is here where we begin to see the story try its hand at gore for the sake of gore.
Speaking of gore for the sake of gore, typical shounen trope #2: showcasing decisions and actions by others of an ill-moral nature to contrast how pure the lead is. Deadman Wonderland is very violent. It has all sorts of blood, dismemberment, gruesome imagery, and oodles of other goodies. Most of it is censored, which kind of defeats the point, but I digress. When it gets to the point where the lead doesn’t have a security blanket, he’s subjected to all sorts of different people with different views of the world and the sickening fetishes of eeeevil adults! Yes, use as many backwards, taboo, abject topics as possible so that the pure-hearted, angel hero can expand his mind to include all the crimes and villainy that exist within the world. Is this really considered development if the hero never changes regardless? This anime thinks so, ’cause they never stop with it. So much so, that basically every character becomes distinguishable based on their “weird kink.” Who doesn’t love bad guys acting insane because it makes them easy to decipher as evil?
Typical shounen trope #3: nobody takes fighting seriously. I’m sure anyone even vaguely familiar with Dragon Ball Z is aware of the joke that it takes them thirty episodes to finish a single battle. Full-length episodes full of talking, shouting, menacing second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, final, 100% final, 100% mechanoid final, 110% God rainbow mechanoid final ultimate forms, and the like. The battles seen here are little different, sans screaming. The opponents that the lead faces are all, all easily capable of killing him without flinching. But instead, they dick around, snickering and playing with their prey while reading the latest issue of Cosmo and scrolling through their Facebook feeds. They have the audacity to act surprised when the lead gets the upper hand through multiples strokes of luck. It’s easy, it’s so easy; all they would have to do is, on the count of GO, go at him and slice his head off. He’s a normal kid who has no idea how to control his powers. It would be over like that. Snap. Dead. The battles become waiting games. It becomes “How will the kid get out of this one?” or “How will the evil guy fuck this up?” They’re so bathed in standard plot structure that it makes me sick.
We’ve come this far and I just noticed I haven’t really explained anything about what happens or what’s going on in Deadman Wonderland. A number of references up above would likely fly over people’s heads. I deeply apologize. The anime is about a kid whose entire class is murdered by a strange being. Plot twist, he’s arrested and charged for it, with numerous amounts of evidence showing that he did it (Corruption at work). He’s sentenced to a place called Deadman Wonderland, where inmates are paraded around like circus animals to whoever pays to enter, but is actually holding darker, more sinister secrets inside. Secrets that just so happen to have ties with the creature who framed the lead for his classmates’ murders. When I mentioned “powers” above, know that I mean the lead can shoot balls of energy using his blood, as well as others who use their blood for a number of other things… or more accurately, one specific thing.
You may be asking, “So, what is the meaning of all this? What is Deadman Wonderland’s purpose? What are they after?” Your guess is as good as mine. Any justification of a “story” being told becomes more transparent when the motivations of those most in control of the situation are doing it, put in internet slang, “for the lulz.” There are a number of dark secrets lurking, with foreshadowing and insinuations of deep history laced throughout characters’ dialogues. Which brings us to typical shounen trope #4: The story is a cock tease. The equivalent of an anime using a carrot and a stick to lure the curiosity of innocent anime-goers into continuing the series with little payoff in the end. In Deadman Wonderland‘s case, it could almost be an advertisement for the manga, which was still ongoing at the time of the anime’s adaptation. Characters will say things, reveal itty bits of information to the lead without elaborating further. The story will focus on a particular scene with emphasized importance, with characters working the ropes talking about vague nonsense like “My dreams will be realized” and “The wretched egg puts red, shiny eggs in prepubescent boys during recess” that make the viewer squint in confusion or leer in moderate interest. However, there is a point where all of these things have to mean something or the viewer simply won’t care. I stopped caring past episode three or so. I was more focused on what was currently happening as opposed to what could be happening.
When one decides to drop an anime, is it a split-moment decision? Or does the idea linger in the mind for a while, festering upon the negative energy until the viewer can’t bear with it any longer? For me, it can be both, but in this case, it came upon meeting with a resistance crew of characters who opposed the workings of Deadman Wonderland. This is more than halfway through the series, and now the viewer has to deal with more characters who will have rushed development, a complete focal change after only two episodes of basic structure, and more and more evil bad guys coming to spout more insane, fetishist nonsense and shoot people with guitars. The series was already unbelievable enough, but if one thing Deadman Wonderland has going for it, it’s shock factor. All shock and no sizzle makes for a thorny cynic.
Is it enjoyable? Kinda. Is it stupid? Absolutely. I’m going to segue into art now. The art of Deadman Wonderland has a certain charm to it based on the whole “shock factor.” Characters are at least noticeably different both in attire and structure. Some people don’t even look human. Note the white girl in a full-body jumpsuit (She is not naked). No one ever questions it, so why should I? There’s some creative flair with the attacks and presentation of the more gory scenes within the series. I kinda wish they weren’t so blatantly censored, but that’s for another day. Though, the quality of fluid animation is a bit lumpy. Some out-of-focus shots take some shortcuts with character anatomy and expressions, allowing for some sketchy models. I feel the series is at its best when something really dramatic happens (Which could be another typical shounen trope). Otherwise, it fills in the blanks.
I find it ironic how this, of all series, was what got me back into anime. As if this was something bestowed upon the Gods to show me the righteous path. The Gods giveth, and the Gods taketh away—taketh away the blissful ignorance of the things that make a series such as Deadman Wonderland so bad. I will always appreciate it for how it set my life the way it is now, and my friend for convincing me to give it a shot, but that’s all it’ll ever be to me. My first. Nothing more, and a lot less.
…Oh, the OVA is just a prequel spin-off focusing on a side-character within the parent title prior to his sentence to Deadmand Wonderland. It adds nothing overall, is laced with clichés, and is so by-the-books with its execution that it may as well have been written by a high school student who copied the structure from a “Writing Stories for Dummies” book.
The rating for these titles and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.