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Matt Kamen follows the white rabbit in this brutal prison saga

After an environmental disaster ravages Tokyo, three quarters of the city is wiped from the Earth. What’s left of the once-bustling metropolis is re-developed into Japan’s largest prison, a privately owned concern known as Deadman Wonderland, that forces inmates into sadistic carnival shows for bloodthirsty spectators. To force participation, prisoners are collared with a device that slowly poisons them, a lethal dose building up over three days unless they eat a foul-tasting piece of candy to purge their system and reset the timer. The prison’s chief warden Makina is a no-nonsense ball-buster who never hesitates to punish insubordination or misbehaviour, often with a slash of her lethal sword.

This is the harsh environment that innocent Ganta Igarashi is thrust into after being framed for murdering his entire class. With authorities deaf to his pleas that it was actually a mysterious ‘Red Man’ who killed his friends, Ganta is forced to perform for the tourists and somehow clear his name – or face the death sentence that awaits him.

Despite a curiously rushed trial and having utterly no idea what’s happening to him or why, Ganta finds his feet in the prison’s vicious social hierarchy. Befriended by the thief Yoh Takami (who has his own motivations for getting close to Ganta) he determines to find out why he was set up, who the Red Man is, and why a strange crimson gem has embedded itself in his chest. More curious is the strange girl Shiro – an albino with the same face as Ganta’s schoolfriend Mimi, but the mind and mannerisms of a child. Even more bizarre is Shiro’s remembering of Ganta – while he has no knowledge of her – and her incredible physical abilities. She’s tougher and stronger than anyone else, and helps the confused young teenager survive the dangerous games held at the prison. When the gem in Ganta’s chest powers up from the stress he’s under, he gains the rather macabre ability to wield his own blood as a weapon – an ability the manipulative deputy warden Tsunenaga Tamaki needs to conscript Ganta for his top-secret super-battles in the heart of the prison.

It’s a seemingly endless web of mysteries in this fast-paced series, adapted from the manga written by Jinsei Kataoka, with art by Kazuma Kondou, previously responsible for the manga adaptation of Eureka Seven. There are a number of influences at work in Deadman Wonderland, most notably Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale with its ’three days or dead’ collar system and desperate teen leads, while the ghoulish entertainment of the masses by forcing the prisoners into fatal games is a modern take on the gladiatorial colosseum. The series also explores similar themes to Natsumi Itsuki’s Jyu-Oh-Sei, which also saw its protagonists plunged into wrongful incarceration, with both series looking at the unique social constructs that develop in such abnormal situations.

The animated version marks the directorial debut of Koichi Hatsumi, though his resumé boasts roles on some of the biggest titles in anime history – Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Slayers, and even an early position on in-between animation for the legendary Akira. Hatsumi’s first turn in the director’s seat is no disappointment, as Deadman Wonderland showcases some true animation brilliance. Each time Ganta is forced into the arena brings with it some outstanding sequences of camera-defying angle hopping and impressively frenetic editing – the show is a joy to behold.

Deadman Wonderland is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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