The Cautionary Tale of Deadman Wonderland

When I think of Deadman Wonderland I often picture watching a gifted, enthralling sprinter who’s had his legs torn free at the knees, crawling toward a finish line we increasingly realize he will bleed out before reaching (an inability to stop watching may vary from person to person). The less graphically metaphorical version is that Deadman is not so much a mixed sample bag as it is a careening, pinballingpiñata punctured and leaking loot – I’m doing it again, aren’t I.

foreshortening
Let’s see if we can’t get back on topic

My point is that I rarely come away from watching something so torn on opinion: the dub’s script is by and large bolder and sharper in terms of owning the series’ borderline giallo, horrorshowsensibilities, but trips up rather critically in terms of an audience sympathy point by making Ganta’s necessarily soft-spoken and frightened moments almost equally harsh to his antagonists; it doesn’t help to be trading the incredible and soothing-voiced Romi Paku for Greg Ayres, a talented fellow who spends entirely too much of the role in his shrillest registers – and yet I wouldn’t trade Genkaku and Minatsuki’s English actors for the world. And then there is the obligatory joke about how the show is dark, by which I mean it’s too often nearly impossible to tell what’s going on due to poor lighting and other tricks of animation cheapening and censorship.

inscrutable-darkness

The first of many action scenes taking place in nearly impenetrable dark hallways

But even those are not so damning as the fact that Deadman Wonderland is not a complete story. It is an introduction with a complete and compelling subplot and little more, perhaps the best argument for loose adaptation that I can think of.

genkaku

A pretty fascinating subplot, but still something they only bothered to introduce halfway through

The faithfulness of an adaptation has long been a double edged sword: on the one hand, the adaptive team taking things into their own hands can have disastrous effects on the thematic resonance of the original work; on the other, a show can spin its wheels eternally waiting for the source material to catch up, or resolve to such a cripplingly vague conclusion as to have been all but pointless. Generally speaking, I do tend to enjoy works that hew more closely to their source material, with exceptions to be made for the change in mediums (i.e. the use of a chronological timeline in Attack on Titan rather than heavy reliance on flashbacks) or choices that further a new artistic interpretation of the work (the perspective change in Gankutsuou) – if the work’s anything worth talking about, the artist probably had specific intent to their storytelling, and after a certain amount of intense change you’re only offering something dressed uncannily in the skin of the original work, with none of its actual personality remaining.

On the other hand, I am a decided proponents of works that have struck out on their own rather than risk doing irreparable damage to the plotting and urgency by waiting around with filler, a concept that by its very nature cannot change or progress the characters and world in any meaningful way, lest it undermine what comes next in the source material: with or without Brotherhood, the original Fullmetal Alchemist managed to pen a story that retained the strength and weight of the story it flowered from; and while the Black Butler anime is certainly not perfect (any more than its source), it was well within the grand gothic melodrama of the manga with all that angel business, and even managed to introduce foreign concepts like “stakes,” “consequences,” and “a full range of believable and sympathetic emotional development” to the often villainous protagonist.

And there is something to be said (many things, in fact) for an adaptation that stands on its own without requiring knowledge of the original work. Deadman Wonderland is once again a rather excellent example: the anime absolutely tanked in Japan, getting cancelled after its first season; however, the manga is extremely popular, so Japanese fans needn’t worry about not keeping up with the story. Meanwhile, the anime absolutely blew up in the States, becoming the darling of the newly revived Toonami block….but the manga was no longer being printed due to low sales (they’ve since gone back to it, but that’s neither here nor there). And that’s not even counting the countries who would’ve been able to see the anime but for whom the manga might’ve been unavailable entirely!

The world is a big place. While honoring intent is important in the creative process, necessary intertextuality becomes completely unfeasible and frankly ridiculous (though there are certainly an increased number of shows I could name that lean heavily on supplementary material, and all the revenue investment it implies, at the expense of telling a cohesive, contained narrative on the small screen).

kough

I am looking quite pointedly in your direction, K Project

Banking on the knowledge that it would become a long running shonen anime, Deadman Wonderland sought to structure itself like its peers in the genre. Hence why you have a concept-defining pilot, the introduction of a core cast, several monster/battle of the week type episodes, and finally an escalated threat dealing with an organized version of the concepts thusfar introduced (the Branches of Sin as resistance movement and the Undertakers as effective restrainers). That’s all pretty standard for shonen, even one as hilariously macabre in its search for uniqueness as Deadman.

You can even see it setting up for what should’ve been the second cour, devoting a great deal of time to Shiro’s origins and psychology as well as the power struggle within the prison’s bureaucracy. If the show had indeed been renewed, Shiro’s arc in particular would count as good payoff. But of course, they weren’t renewed. And while ratings and the future are to a certain degree an unknown element, there’s an undeniable degree of hubris to the plotting that hurts the final product. Thus do we end up with some characters dominating the show’s first half (Yoh and Mintasuki) only to drop out almost completely in the second arc, a lack of payoff on the security team’s side of the plot, only the vaguest of assertions as to how Shiro is important or what her secret meetings and personality shifts might mean, and an Obviously Important Villain who has no opportunity to do more than lurk and preen ominously without actually affecting the story in any meaningful way.

shiro
It would be great to talk about your internal dilemma and complicated relationship to –
Aaaaand we’re out of time

Because there is a good, self-sustaining gorefest lurking under the tatters of mangled plot threads. Cut down the intrigue with Yoh’s betrayal, extraneous elements such as the obstacle course, and restrict the carnival corpse to a single demonstrative bout to give more time to introducing the resistance and the Undertakers – which further developed the characters who are going to be risking their lives (because as I believe I intimated above, this show dashes right along the line of being sociopathically callous in its violence at times, with the heroic sacrifices becoming almost uncanny in how little emotional impact they have) and gives time to further explore the Nagi/Owl plot; start earlier on Shiro and Ganta’s backstory to give it more time to fully pay off as well, and you could have a strong one-cour show on your hands. It’s a bit sad to see it end up as little more than a warning of what comes from overconfidence, a fate afforded to dozens of adapted stories with far less personality to accompany their incompetent missteps (and here I am thinking of the colorless Golden Compass or the truly abysmal Cirque du Freak films, and countless other squandered opportunities with obvious sequel hooks).

It’s all idle speculation at this point, of course – even with the show’s runaway American success, I highly doubt that’s enough to coax a whole new season from the twice-bitten home advertisers (where the revenue is actually influential). As it stands, Deadman Wonderland looks set to remain the David Hasselhoff of anime – disinterestedly rejected by its home country only to find cult adoration abroad, to what I can only assume is the pronounced puzzlement of said home country.

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3 comments on “The Cautionary Tale of Deadman Wonderland

  1. Artemis says:

    “As it stands, Deadman Wonderland looks set to remain the David Hasselhoff of anime – disinterestedly rejected by its home country only to find cult adoration abroad, to what I can only assume is the pronounced puzzlement of said home country.”

    Assuming of course that anyone in Japan is particularly interested (or indeed gives any thought whatsoever) to how anime performs overseas. I’m exaggerating a little – I imagine at least a few indusry insiders would be paying some attention – but as a whole, I’ve found that the general Japanese public simply doesn’t know or care about how anime is recieved outside of their own country. Not necessily because they’re consciously uncaring, but because it doesn’t even really register in the first place that their product is a major cultural export. I’ve definitely had some interesting conversations with co-workers along those lines!

    • Vrai says:

      I was being a bit glib, but that’s a rather interesting thought! I suppose I simply assumed, not just from my position as an anime fan but also my own occasional curiosity at which Western works catch on abroad (Pacific Rim’s gross being 3/4 international, say, or The Dark Knight totally tanking in Japan). I suppose I can’t assume it to be a widespread interest.

      • Artemis says:

        I’m not sure that people aren’t interested as such – it’s just that so many don’t even seem to know in the first place. Whenever I mention that I watched also anime in my home country, I get responses like, “You mean Japanese anime?” and “How do you watch it? YouTube” A lot of people seem quite surprised that anime airs on TV in other countries, and they’re even more surprised to learn of its popularity.

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