A recent installment of Netflix originals that are single-handedly getting us through quarantine is Alice in Borderland, a thrilling dystopian reality, based on the manga of the same name by Haro Aso. The show follows Ryohei Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), an intelligent, video game-focused young man who emerges from a bathroom stall with his two best friends to discover a once-bustling Tokyo is now deserted.
Arisu and his friends Karube (Keita Machida) and Chota (Yuki Morinaga) soon realize their situation is more dire than anticipated when they must participate in deadly games in order to extend their visas – an allotted period of time to regroup before they have to play another game or be executed by a laser from the sky.
With each new game, the three friends meet more of the remaining few residents of Tokyo, who must also fight for survival and whose motivations and backgrounds are unclear but become revealed to us the more time the show spends with them. Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya) quickly becomes an ally to Arisu and is the show’s primary female lead. She is agile, clever, and good in a crisis, which helps her survive in the games and in this new world.
As the series progresses, the leads become exhausted with surviving day-by-day and explore a way to escape this reality and return home. This leads them to a congregation of survivors led by Takeru Danma (Nobuaki Kaneko), also known as the Hatter, who work towards a larger goal during the games and party during the off days granted by their visas. Notable members of Hatter’s flock include Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami), a calm and cunning player both during and between games, and Kuina (Aya Asahina), his brave and resourceful partner.
Alice in Borderland is compelling because it combines many genres, like mystery, horror, action, and thriller, and uses them periodically throughout each episode to put its characters through their paces and keep the audience engaged. The show at first focuses on the immediate threat of completing games in the allotted time before one’s visa expires, but gradually lets the characters explore the bigger mystery of the “game master” and how they can outwit this elusive person to return to their original world.
What makes this show so great is not only the deadly games and the core mystery of who is behind them, but its characters and how they react to being put in such a strange and perilous situation. Arisu and Usagi, and Chishiya and Kuina, in particular, are fascinating because the more we see them work together or against each other, it becomes clear that these two pairs are foils.
Arisu and Usagi represent the morally sound and well-intentioned heroes, who suffer from survivor’s guilt and are determined that no one else should have to die just so they can live. Chishiya and Kuina, while certainly not evil, are much more concerned with self-preservation and have little to no qualms about betrayal or sacrificing others if it means they two will continue to survive. The contrast shows just how interesting its characters are because this new world’s urgency and lack of distractions strips them down to their core values.
The most obvious common trait between all those who were chosen to live in this new, parallel Tokyo is that they all appeared to be outcasts in their old life, but Alice in Borderland is smarter than that. To me, Alice in Borderland seems to be making a critique of the original Tokyo, where so many of the characters felt inadequate for failing to meet their society’s standards.
For example, Arisu and his friends are either unemployed or stuck in a miserable, dead-end job in the pilot and their only respite is spending time with one another. As the other characters’ backstories are revealed, we discover they were similarly discarded by their parents or the general public for being unable or unwilling to conform to the stringent confines of capitalism, masculinity, or other societal norms.
For some, the universe they came from is scarier than the borderlands, and so it doesn’t surprise when certain characters prefer the parallel Tokyo and are happy to dwell there until they are unlucky or outwitted during one of the games. However, our main ensemble of characters are determined to return to the original Tokyo because, even if their past lives were unsatisfactory, they now recognize that their bonds with allies in their current reality and the people back home are worth surviving for.
This, to me, is what ultimately makes Alice in Borderland worth watching. As grim, gory, and sometimes upsetting this show can be, its thesis is a hopeful one.
The first season ends with the characters uncovering answers, which only leads to more questions, and an exciting reveal that incentives the fans to eagerly await season two, which was greenlit by Netflix only two weeks after season one dropped.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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