Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Deadman Wonderland

Including a reflection on why I like Manga

by McCamy Taylor


Those who watch the anime on Cartoon Network probably remember the sci-fi jewel, Eureka Seven which was aired on late night Saturdays.  Jinsei Kataoka  and Kazuma Kondou, the duo responsible for the Eureka Seven manga have been working on a new project since 2007. Deadman Wonderland is a sci-fi/horror story about a theme park/ prison where the inmates are forced to compete with each other in gladiatorial type battles. The loser has to play a variation of the Chinese torture game “Death of a 1000 Cuts”, in which the punishment is determined at random. Will he lose an eye? A kidney? Some hair? Oh, and the combatants do not fight with ordinary knives or guns. These prisoners are freaks who possess the ability to turn their blood into deadly weapons. Just in case they get any ideas about refusing to fight, they wear collars which inject lethal poison into their blood. The antidote comes in the form of “candy”, which they can earn only by participating in the staged events---

Candy? Shouldn’t that be cigarettes? Or drugs? No, because many of the prisoners are children, like hero Ganta Igarashi, who watched his entire middle school class get slaughtered---and  was then framed for the murders and hustled off to Deadman Wonderland, where he is forced to fight other inmates, children as well as grownups, who also his  friends.

This is what separates Deadman Wonderland from  other dark prison tales. The inmates are not stock figures----good, bad, good-bad, bad-good. They are fully fleshed out characters who are trying to remain true to themselves in appalling circumstances. Against all odds, they form a family, much like  Gekkostate of Eureka Seven . Their friendships are constantly being tested as the authorities who run the prison pit them against each other in battles which become increasingly nasty---and deadly.  

Oh, and did I mention that there is a basement in Deadman Wonderland where some very secret, scary experiments are being performed on a select group of inmates?

After seven volumes, the series has presented more questions than it has answers, suggesting that the authors plan to make it a long story. That is fine by me.  Like a Dickens novel, this one is worth reading for the characters, especially Shiro,  the albino girl whose superhuman powers dwarf those of the other inmates. She has some nasty secrets of her own, but you just have to love her, because she is so in love with Ganta, the sometimes whiny but always good hearted hero.

The first volume of the manga was just released in the U.S. by  Tokyo Pop and there is an anime in the works.  

Did you notice the number one at the start of this review? Where there is a 1 there must be a 2


I am sure a lot of comic book fans wonder why they should bother reading manga when there is so much  high quality English language science fiction available in the west. Writers like  Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Warren Ellis rival any of  Japan’s best. And let’s be honest.  The artwork in manga often sucks (compared to the Technicolor splendor that is American comics).

However, there are some significant differences between Japanese graphic fiction and western comic books. The most important of these is religion. In the west, almost everyone is Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Since these religions tend to be dualistic---i.e. they preach a doctrine of good and evil in which good can eventually triumph over evil and wipe it from the planet---comic books written by western authors have a  tendency to create heroes and villains  without much in between. Readers know that no matter how low their heroes seem to fall, eventually right with triumph, and all the “good” people will live happily ever after---even if they died twenty or so issues ago.

Socioeconomically, Japan is a lot like the U.S. and Great Britain. People there have a high standard of living. They are well educated. They do not go to bed hungry at night and they have come appreciate the finer things of life. A student from Japan and a student from New York would have a lot more in common with each other than either would have with a child-soldier from the Congo, who has lived his whole life in danger and poverty. It is very easy for a western reader to identify with a Japanese character, since both have many of the same goals---and face the same obstacles.

The difference is a matter of religion. The Japanese tend to be Buddhist. The religion permeates their culture and art. And one of the central tenets of Buddhism is nondualism. There is no evil, there is no good. And the worst thing a person can do is try to identify and purge “evil people” from the earth (think the Holocaust).

Buddhist principles are everywhere in manga (and Asian cinema), just as Judeo-Christian thinking permeates western comic books (and American films). We have the self sacrificing hero who gives up his life to defeat evil and then is reborn. The Japanese have heroes who must learn how to stop struggling in order to win. These two strategies for overcoming life’s challenges are not so different in their results, but the road each culture takes to achieve the same result can be very different indeed. Speculative fiction is most enjoyable when it explores new territory, and this is what makes manga so much fun.  For me anyway.

© 2010 McCamy Taylor

McCamy Taylor is the long-fiction editor of Aphelion.

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