Fans of manga and anime appreciate the genre for their distinguishing characteristics: fantastical, eccentric, and often larger-than-life storylines and characters. This unique style of storytelling has made translating them into live-action mostly unsuccessful and cringey endeavors. The Netflix original series Alice in Borderland, however, brings a sci-fi manga series to life and succeeds in a thrilling, heart-thumping fashion.
The Borderland—an escape from a gloomy reality?
Alice in Borderland centers around Arisu, a modern day NEET living in Tokyo. With absolutely no ambitions in life, he lives off his family’s money. He spends all his time either playing video games or hanging out with his two friends, Karube and Chota; the former a bartending delinquent, and the latter a soft-spoken IT salaryman. Within the first five minutes of the series, we see a concise, unembellished exposition into the main characters—three examples of bumbling young men who exemplify the gloomy pessimism that has plagued modern Japanese society.
“Wish I could go to some unknown place,” Arisu laments one day. While loafing around town, the three of them end up running into a cubicle to hide from police. Snickering at their own transgressions and joking about farts, the power suddenly goes out. When they exit the stall, everyone in Tokyo has disappeared.
Initially the boys appear delighted—perhaps this is a welcome change from the boring pace of their previous lives. Sitting in the now (impressively) empty Shibuya crossing, a bright light suddenly turns on behind them. A giant monitor on the face of a building flashes the words: “WELCOME PLAYERS, THE GAME WILL COMMENCE SHORTLY.”
Still confused and half in disbelief, the boys enter their first game called “Dead or Alive?”, with the rule that they must choose between two doors under a time limit. Laughing, Chota muses that this must be some reality show until another player walks through the wrong door and is instantly killed. We quickly see the stark realities of the gruesome stakes of the game.
Survival—but at what cost?
Every time a player wins (read: survives) a game, they are granted a “visa” which allows them to rest for a few days. In order to extend their visa in this world, the player must win more games, which are categorized by type (clubs, hearts, diamond, or spade) and difficulty (the card number). The currency for survival, in order words, is to keep playing with seemingly no end in sight.
One word of caution is that Alice in Borderland is by no means an easy watch. The games are brutal, and the series does not hold back from leaning into the terrifying nature of its imagined world.
That being said, the games are well designed and come off as genuinely clever rather than gimmicky. A game’s true objective is often deceptive, forcing both players and viewers to engage with the narrative by reading in between the lines.
Alice in Borderland taps fearlessly into moral gray zones as well. As the players contend for their lives, they are often pitted against each other, either explicitly by the rules of the game, or via internalized decisions made to maximize their own chances of survival. The latter is, of course, an intended consequence of these games—the more players win, the more they lose sight of their own humanity.
By posing these questions, the series attempts to strip humanity down to its bare bones and expose human beings at their most vulnerable, perhaps most primitive, state. Rather than just having us watch players participate in the games, we also get to observe them reflect on their quest for survival. The dreaded game of hearts, for example, toys with people’s emotions and challenges their sense of humanity. Each of the players, naturally, will rise differently to these occasions, with some holding onto their sense of decency while others abandon it completely. There are no angels or demons in this show—just human beings confronted by the instinct to survive, and asked how far they are willing to go for just a few more days of life.
A diverse cast of characters reflect a still conservative Japan
Despite the fast-paced plot, the show manages to sprinkle in the backstories of several characters in the form of flashbacks, granting viewers insight into who they were before they got transplanted into the Borderland. How each character’s past informs their decisions and persona in this new world adds another layer of complexity: in this alternate free-for-all reality, does the worst or best of ourselves come to the fore?
Though the point above is quite general, there are certain quirks to the colorful characters in the show that strike one as being unique to Japan. Despite being a first world country, Japan ranks notably low amongst developed nations in progressive ideologies. A consistently stagnant economy and high-strung working culture place undue stress on Japanese youth. Gender inequality remains a significant issue, with more and more modern Japanese women rejecting marriage altogether. In addition, an incredibly strong collectivist mentality, in tandem with the rise of neo-conservatism in Japan, has led to a country that resists the kind of cultural modernization taking root in other nations around the globe.
In the show, a player named Takatora Samura, for example, exemplifies the modern day hermit in Japan, defined as someone who experiences “physical isolation, social avoidance and psychological distress that lasts six months or longer.” A recluse who lives in a dark room and spends all his time writing blog entries with 0 viewership, Samura discovers a sense of liberation and purpose in the morally depraved Borderland. Japan’s collectivist mentality has made it particularly susceptible to hermits such as Samura, who lack an outlet for individualism. “In Japanese there’s a very famous saying, ‘a protruding nail will be hammered down’,” explains Takahiro Kato, a professor of psychiatry at Kyushu University.
Even our three main characters—the NEET, the bartending delinquent, and the disinterested salaryman—reflect the stagnant possibilities of life for youth in modern Japan. The show’s cruel answer to Arisu’s contemplative desire “to go to some unknown place”, then, is to respond “be careful what you wish for.”
A complex world unfolds
Though the first half of Alice in Borderland deals with Arisu and his companions learning the rules of their new dystopian world, the second half delves into the overarching mystery of their predicament: is there a mastermind pulling the strings? And if so, who?
The development of an overarching “evil” presents a nice reprieve from the brutality of the games, and thickens the story’s complexity. Arisu’s investigations of the nature of the Borderland eventually lead him to the Beach, an organization founded by the mysterious ‘Hatter’, a man who arrived in the Borderland before Arisu and who claims to have amassed information about the world.
Admittedly, this subplot was at times a bit of a slog to get through, with an often bumbling and somewhat extraneous story line. The season finale saves itself, however, by revealing just enough of the mystery behind the games to satisfy and intensify a viewer’s curiosity. Needless to say, everything is just as complicated as fans of sci-fi anime would hope, laying the groundwork for a highly-anticipated second season.
Overall, Alice in Borderland reimagines a Hunger Games-esque story in savvy video-game form. If the convincing visuals and mind-trippy plot twists don’t keep you on the edge of your seat, the moral dilemmas and colorful characters should add just enough depth to keep you hooked. For fans of anime or just sci-fi, Alice in Borderland is a binge-worthy watch.
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Alice in Borderland (Japanese: 今際の国のアリス)—Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Shinsuke Sato, based off Haro Aso’s eponymous manga. First released December 10, 2020. Starring Kento Yamazaki, Tao Tsuchiya, Nijiro Murakami, Yuki Morinaga, Keita Machida, Ayaka Miyoshi, Dori Sakurada, Aya Asahina, Shuntaro Yanagi, Yutaro Watanabe, Ayame Misaki, Mizuki Yoshida, Tsuyoshi Abe, Nobuaki Kaneko, Sho Aoyagi, Riisa Naka.