In Defense of the Deadman Wonderland Anime
In the years since its release, the horror manga series Deadman Wonderland has acquired a small but extremely devoted fandom. The captivating series has a lot going for it, including: an engaging and fast-paced mystery plot, a multi-genre blend of gore, horror, drama, and comedy, a cast of diverse and colorful characters (none of whom are quite who they seem to be at first), and a surprising level of depth and maturity. In 2011, Studio Manglobe made a thirteen-episode anime based on the first five manga volumes, all of which encompassed the first major act of the series. This anime was licensed and dubbed into English by Funimation and aired on Toonami, where it quickly developed a cult following, and people started clamoring for a second season.
Virtually no one would argue that the anime was objectively better than the manga, and most fans who have experienced both will claim the opposite: that the anime is a shallow advertisement for the more complete manga. Most likely, however, the fans only say that because the manga tells a longer and more complete story than the anime does. On closer inspection, while the anime tells a truncated version of the story, ending on an ambiguous note that leaves much to be desired, it actually handles many of the specific details of world-building, character, and plot just as well as, if not better than, the manga ever did. Had the anime gone to the series’ natural conclusion, it very easily could have been the superior product all around.
Most of the action of Deadman Wonderland takes place in a large, high-tech prison of the same name. What makes this prison unique is that it doubles as a theme park, in which the prisoners function as staff and performers. The problem is, the most popular attractions at Deadman Wonderland are its gory murder games, which usually kill or maim the participants. In the basement of Deadman Wonderland is a place called G-Block, where the Deadmen–superhumans with the ability to use their blood as weapons–are kept.
Overall, Deadman Wonderland operates less like a prison than like a police state, with its own laws, currency, and marketplace. G-Block even has its own secret police, known collectively as the Undertakers, who keep order amongst the Deadmen using extreme violence and special weapons that make them immune to their attacks. With all these different components to keep track of, it’s not surprising that every so often the manga will turn up a plot hole, or just a bit of local color that doesn’t seem to make much sense. The anime corrects as many of these as it can, although ambiguities still remain.
For example, when Ganta, the hero, first arrives in Deadman Wonderland after being framed for the gory murder of his classmates, one of the first friends he makes in the manga is a young girl named Azami, who is about the same age as him. She proceeds to take him under her wing and explain the day-to-day operations of Deadman Wonderland. She also offers to compete with him in a murder game known as the Dog Race, but has to drop out after being injured.
However, Azami never appears in the anime because she doesn’t serve a purpose until a later section of story, after the anime’s end. Instead, her role is taken by Yoh Takami, another prisoner whose sister, Minatsuki Takami, is one of the Deadmen. Yoh offers to show Ganta around and get him acquainted with the prison, but he’s also spying on him for Tamaki, Deadman Wonderland’s tyrannical overseer, in the hopes that he can convince Tamaki to let his sister go. Oddly enough, having Yoh fill this role makes a lot more sense. For one thing, it allows for a smoother transition to his later involvement after Ganta meets Minatsuki down in G-Block. In addition, since any normal prison would be segregated by gender, it stands to reason that Ganta would spend most of his time in the prison–at least before he got to G-Block–socializing with and competing against other males. G-Block, of course, is not segregated, but G-Block functions even less like a normal prison than the rest of the facility.
Another subtle improvement made by the anime concerns the character of Nagi, a Deadman whose pregnant wife–also a Deadman–was murdered after he threw a tournament to save her. The way this event is described in the manga, it seems as though they somehow met and got married while they were in prison, a feat that would most likely be somewhat difficult even given the relative freedom the Deadmen possess. The creators of the anime seem to have realized how little sense this made, because the scene of Nagi and his wife in their bedroom is, in the anime, transposed to a park bench outside, implying that they were together before they went to prison.
One of the biggest differences between the anime and the manga is the way that the story treats various characters. The manga is full of interesting characters, but doesn’t always handle them especially well. In this regard, the anime makes numerous changes for the better, fleshing the characters out and giving them a humanity they never had in the original version.
One of the most notable characters to undergo changes in the anime is Minatsuki, a teenage Deadman who became a misanthropic liar after her mother walked out on her family. Compared to the manga, the anime version of Minatsuki is a lot more unambiguously sympathetic–and in many respects a lot more fun. When Ganta first meets Minatsuki, she attempts to play upon his sympathy by claiming that her father abused her, and that she killed him in revenge. In the manga, Yoh later reveals that she lied about him abusing her, whereas the anime leaves it more ambiguous whether she was truly lying or not. When Minatsuki and Ganta are forced to fight against one another, she flings a variety of threats, taunts, and insults his way, and even attacks Yoh when he tries to defend her. The anime, far moreso than the manga, implies that her behavior is a performance and not how she really feels. Her insults and threats are so over-the-top in the anime–for instance, her line from the manga, “Try j–king off once you’re sliced up, dead, and soaking in formalin!” in the anime becomes “Why don’t you j–k off in a bottle of formaldehyde and call it our firstborn?!”–that she seems to be projecting a ruthlessness she doesn’t actually possess.
Specifically, her inability to kill Ganta in the anime looks a lot more like restraint than it does in the manga. In the manga her powers are always portrayed as relatively weak, but in a later anime episode she saves Ganta by killing several Undertakers at once with very little effort. The implication is that she could have killed Ganta at any time, and chose not to. She even shows some self-awareness, if not remorse, about how she ended up in prison in the anime. When Ganta asks her to help him rescue Nagi and escape from jail, she admits that one reason she doesn’t want to help is because “I’m actually guilty of what they busted me for.”
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically bad about the more morally-ambiguous stance Minatsuki takes in the manga. The problem is that, after her fight with Ganta, the series never really asks the audience to see her as anything but a hero ever again. In this regard, the anime does a much better job of showing she has what it takes to be a hero.
On the flipside, the minor villain Kazumasa Kosuji is actually less sympathetic in the anime than he is in the manga. He’s a cowardly bully in both versions, but in the manga he comes across as a lot more silly, spending most of his time in the Dog Race ordering his ineffectual underlings to kill Ganta so he can win. In the anime, by contrast, he’s portrayed as a greedy, violent chauvinist, who makes lewd comments even to Makina, the prison warden, and was originally sent to jail for punching a woman in the face after she refused to give him her phone number. During the Dog Race he also uses his own henchmen as human shields. He’s a lot more menacing, in part because he’s a lot more believable.
The Most Interesting Man
However, the one character who benefits from the anime’s attentions more than any other is probably Genkaku Azuma, the leader of the Undertakers. His entire worldview revolves around the idea that death is salvation; however, in the manga he seems to act this way simply because he’s a dark priest, whereas the anime does a much better job of integrating his worldview into his overall behavior and implying he really believes in what he’s doing. The anime also alters his personality slightly, changing him from a brutal but easily-distracted and impulsive thug to a cold, calculating manipulator. Ultimately, he ends up being so interesting no other character in the series really compares, including his own self from the manga.
Many of these changes likely stem from the fact that the anime was never completed. The manga provides a much wider range of villains, some of which are more sympathetic or powerful than Genkaku himself. However, most of these villains either don’t appear in the anime at all or, if they do, have roles that are greatly reduced owing to limited time. The writers of the anime may have had to alter Genkaku’s personality and role in order to tailor him into a more appropriate central antagonist. For example, in the manga he and the Undertaker known as Hibana seem to share roughly equal stature among the cast, and both are featured on the cover of the fourth manga volume. In the anime, by contrast, Genkaku is depicted as the Undertakers’ explicit leader, with Hibana clearly operating under his direction.
One subtle but significant change the anime makes is that Genkaku uses the word “save” as a euphemism for “kill” much less than he does in the manga. As such, whenever he does use the word “save” to mean “kill,” it feels less gimmicky and a lot more powerful. One of the cleverest such moments occurs towards the end of the last episode, when he says: “Until I’m saved, this is what I do.” Since suicidal people are understood to simultaneously want to die and be rescued 1, and since Genkaku is essentially a suicidally-depressed person who takes out his inner demons on other people rather than himself, the word “save” takes on a very interesting double meaning.
The anime also changes the sequence of events in its last episode in a very interesting way. In the original manga, after Genkaku mortally wounds Nagi, the volume cuts to a flashback of his past, showing how he came to believe that death was salvation in the first place. It then returns to the present time, and Genkaku starts shooting both Deadmen and Undertakers until Ganta is able to defeat him. In the anime, by contrast, Genkaku mortally wounds Nagi, then shoots all the rest of the Undertakers except Hibana (but not the Deadmen) and then the screen cuts to a flashback after Ganta begs Genkaku to stop. The implication is that something about Ganta’s helplessness triggers memories of Genkaku’s own painful past. After returning to the present time, Genkaku never shoots anyone else, but simply monologues about how murdering people is an act of mercy until Ganta stands up to him and, ultimately, beats him. In this version there’s much less to distract from the tragedy of his life and worldview.
Incidentally, this very same episode also humanizes Hibana to a greater extent than the manga does. In the manga, although she seems scared when Genkaku starts killing people haphazardly, she remains on the scene until Ganta defeats him, at which point she, and the surviving Undertakers, attempt to flee from Ganta’s awesome power. In the anime, by contrast, Hibana tries to run away in the middle of Genkaku’s final speech, all while murmuring that “I don’t want to be a part of this anymore.” The implication is that she’s scared of Genkaku, not Ganta or any of the other Deadmen. In any case, Hibana’s reaction here suggests that, despite everything, she actually has somewhat of a conscience, and perhaps could have been rescued and grown up to be at least a halfway-decent person.
The Bonus Episode
People who own the Deadman Wonderland DVD also have the opportunity to watch a never-before-seen bonus episode. This episode focuses on the backstory of Kiyomasa Senji, who is one of the series’ most popular characters. Viewers get to learn about his life as a recruit in the police force and his relationship with the other officers on the force. The episode also introduces a new antagonist named Keigo Ugachi, the only evil Deadman to ever make an appearance, who turns out to be working for the manga-only villain Akatsuki Izakuchi. The episode has little that sets it apart artistically, but it is wildly fun, and provides an interesting new look at the Deadman Wonderland mythos.
The Power of Sound
Another way in which the Deadman Wonderland anime has the edge over the manga is in its greater freedom with sound. Sounds , such as the song that Shiro sings, Genkaku’s electric guitars, or just the characters screaming and crying, play an absolutely crucial role throughout the series. However, the manga is fairly limited in this regard for the simple reason that no writer can completely capture a sound on a page. The writer and illustrator do make a valiant attempt to capture sounds, through creative speech bubbles and text effects; but none of their efforts compare to the joy of being able to hear what’s going on in the anime. Add to the various sound motifs a pair of captivating opening and ending sequences, to say nothing of a voice cast who’s clearly having a great time, and the sounds of the Deadman Wonderland anime end up being easily one of the most enjoyable things about it.
The anime version of Deadman Wonderland tends to get short shrift in the fandom, largely because it was never completed. Unfortunately, since the studio that produced it went bankrupt 2, a second season will probably never appear unless another studio decides to do a reboot. The risk here is that a reboot might undo many of the changes that made the anime so good in the first place.
The real tragedy is that the rest of the manga could have benefited just as much from Studio Manglobe’s tender loving care as the first couple of arcs. Tamaki, for instance, has a great backstory all his own, which probably could have been just as interesting as Genkaku’s with the right sort of fleshing-out. The same goes for many of the good guys, particularly Hitara, who is arguably one of the most interesting of the manga-only characters. Many of the battle scenes from later volumes would also look fantastic animated. Regardless, fans can console themselves by watching the Deadman Wonderland anime and then picking up the manga in Volume 6 and reading through to the end. They will lose absolutely nothing, and will probably enjoy themselves more in the process.
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