Jinsei Kataoka’s Deadman Wonderland (Japanese: Deddoman Wandārando), with art by Kazuma Kondou, was serialized in Shōnen Ace from May 2007 to August 2013. It has since been published in thirteen volumes.
Ten years after a catastrophic earthquake leveled much of Tokyo, Ganta Igarashi is enjoying what starts out to be a perfectly normal school day with his chums. A red-clad figure floats in through the third-floor window and massacres everyone in the classroom save for Ganta. The killer implants Ganta with a mysterious jewel, then leaves the boy to explain to authorities what happened to his classmates.
Ganta’s story is rather implausible. The authorities have a better explanation for the carnage. It’s clearly the case that diminutive, traumatized Ganta slaughtered the other kids. Ganta is sentenced to death.
That would be that for our young hero, were it not that Japan’s death penalty takes a baroque form.
Rather than simply kill Ganta, the authorities send him to Deadman Wonderland, a privately-run prison/theme park. He is equipped with a collar that constantly pumps a deadly poison into him, poison held in abeyance by an antidote delivered in candy form. The candy is not free. To earn the credit with which to delay death for a short time, Ganta has to be entertaining.
The prison appears to be staffed entirely by cruel psychopaths. Accordingly, the means they have arrived at to maximize cash flow from their prisoners is to set them against each other in deadly contests. The odds of surviving are poor, but refusing to participate is a guaranteed death sentence. The prisoners on death row are highly motivated to take part.
It’s not all sadistic death sports. More is going on at the prison than is first apparent. Childlike albino Shiro befriends Ganta, claiming they are old friends. Ganta does not remember her, but the strange teen’s extraordinary combat prowess and intimate knowledge (and apparent free run of the prison) help keep Ganta alive. With time, Ganta does remember Shiro. What he does not know is how he could have forgotten her.
Soon after arriving in the prison, Ganta begins to manifest supernatural powers, specifically the ability to weaponize his blood. He is not unique in this. A number of inmates have variations of this power; they are in Deadman Wonderland specifically so their powers can be studied. Studied in this case means tested to destruction.
The man in red is not a prisoner, per se, but he is in the prison somewhere. Like Shiro, he seems to have the run of the place. Ganta’s only hope of freedom is to find the man in red and prove his own innocence. That would be difficult enough, even if the prison authorities and other prisoners were not actively trying to kill him.
The art in this is often very pretty. It’s also often violent and grotesque, which I guess I should have noticed the first time a kid’s severed head was waved around like a Christmas ornament.
This seems to be my week for unrelentingly grim stories about superpowered people. I noped out of this particular example about five volumes in, although I did glance ahead to see where it ended up. In large part it was because it was hitting the same notes that Battle Royale did: forcing unwilling people to fight and kill each other for the amusement of bloodthirsty onlookers (some of whom, admittedly, thought the carnage was sf/x). That’s not my thing.
As for what it’s all about… All I will say is there had to be a better way of studying weird phenomena than by imprisoning people and allowing them to be tormented at great length by a collection of deranged, cruel, power-mad monsters. In fact, it’s hard to see how the Deadman Wonderland facility could have passed the giggle test.