When 14-year-old Ganta Igarashii’s entire class is killed by a flying man all dressed in red, Ganta is sentenced to death for the crime. The manner of his execution will be Deadman Wonderland, a giant privatized prison that also serves as a tourist attraction and reality TV show. Purportedly, this strange place is meant to raise funds for the reconstruction of Tokyo, which was destroyed in an earthquake, but let’s face it: there’s no reason not to keep the prison running, making money, and entertaining the masses. Ganta finds out about the system firsthand through deadly prison game show scenarios, lifesaving pieces of candy, and Shiro, a strange teenage girl who both knows him and adores him. It all seems to be heading towards a conflict with prison management—and possibly with the Red Man himself.
Deadman Wonderland is Kafka-esque. The charges against Ganta are as bizarre as the existence of a deadly prison theme park, but it’s clear that there’s a larger conspiracy at work: Ganta’s lawyer runs the prison and the Red Man seems to live inside it as some kind of special hostage. The Red Man’s interest in Ganta suggests that there’s more at stake than run-of-the-mill prison profiteering, and Ganta’s childhood memory of the Red Man’s song implies that their confrontation has been in the works for some time.
As ideologically strange as the theme park may be, it’s also somewhat plausible. Look at reality TV shows like Survivor, in which contestants are supposed to be in a life-or-death situation. It’s easy enough to suspend disbelief for Deadman Wonderland, which advances the story in a significant way. Many secondary characters are motivated by ratings, through which they can earn the equivalent of money in the pseudo-economy of the theme park. This means that one of the most aggressive inmates is also the richest, and suggests that the meaner—or more interesting—an inmate is, the better his chances to thrive.
As Ganta escapes death traps, makes allies, and manifests powers similar to the fell Red Man, readers are forced to ask themselves if Ganta will become as evil as the worst of them in the volumes to come. However, the character of Shiro is a little off-key. She’s flamboyantly chirpy, maniacally well-adjusted to Deadman Wonderland, and prone to stating the obvious. But in terms of magic girls in manga, she’s far from the worst offender. Her sociopathy is interesting to watch and her loyalty to Ganta adds another mystery to the many revelations that have yet to unfold.
The story is well written and its creators manipulate the graphic medium to place readers firmly within the surreal context of the prison. With its high level of gore, there’s no way this series is suitable for young children, but it’s an interesting read for teenage and adult fans of horror manga.
Deadman Wonderland, vol. 1
by Jinsei Kataoka, Kazuma Kondou
Viz Media, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: T+