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Saturday, January 30, 2021

TV Show Review: Alice in Borderland (Netflix)

Alice in Borderland: Season 1 (2020)
Dec 10, 2020
Exec. Producer: Kaata Sakamoto
Written by Yoshiki Watabe, Yasuko Kuramitsu, Shinsuke Sato
Starring: Kento Yamazaki, Tao Tsuchiya, Nijiro Murakami
Genre: Mystery & Suspense
Network: Netflix
No. of seasons 1
No. of episodes 8
Rating: TV-MA
Based on The original graphic novel "Alice in Borderland"
by Haro Aso published by Shogakukan Inc.
An aimless gamer and his two friends find themselves in a parallel Tokyo, where they're forced to compete in a series of sadistic games to survive.

It’s been a bit of time, eh? Like everyone else, I’ve been dealing with the world, and that’s led me to some interesting finds in an attempt to not overthink about absolutely everything. Somehow, this led me to Alice in Borderland on Netflix.

Yeah, I know. The fact that I’m escaping from reality with a series about death games probably says something about me. It’s a deceptively simple premise that spirals into crazytown and keeps spiraling the further you go. Arisu, an aimless gamer (likely modeled after the NEET caricature), and his two friends, Chota and Karube, hang out in the first episode as their own lives are falling apart. After accidentally causing a ruckus in the middle of the street, they hide from the police in a public restroom. After a power outage, they leave and find that all of Tokyo is now deserted. After some brief theorizing about what’s going on, they find out that they, along with the few others who are there, have to play games of survival to extend their ‘visas’ for sets amount of time. If their visa runs out, they die. Death plays a big part of the games, which are divided into categories and difficulty via playing cards: clubs are team, spades are physical, diamonds are intelligence, hearts are feelings/betrayal.

Overall, this plays out like a longer, more nuanced Battle Royale. The violence is there, mostly in the form of shootings and explosions (people wear collars for different roles, and if you don’t win the game, the explosives are activated). Lasers at the border areas or edges of the games take people down if they try to escape, have their visas expire, or give away sensitive information. Whereas Battle Royale kind of felt a little bit more violence for violence’s sake, eight episodes means we have time to explore some of the characters and delve more into the inner workings of this world, even if we’re still kept mostly in the dark. The last episode really leans into where things might go. There’s a nice reveal about who might actually be putting this together – which ends up being another pivot again.

The good: I’m honestly really impressed with this. I haven’t read the manga, but I honestly don’t feel the need to after seeing this. It comes across as a good, distilled version of the story. The pacing is really strong, so things are continuously moving along. New characters are presented strongly, and you’re always kept wondering about what’s actually going on. A little bit more is exposed with each episode, and just when you think you have a firm idea of things, they shift. The concept of The Beach is a great pivot after a few episodes that focus on the games and give you a chance to really look at the types of dynamics that happen between everyone left in this world. The characters are pretty likable (yeah, have fun getting attached to people). While Arisu is definitely the lead, they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. They aren’t necessarily presented as better than anyone else. Different people have their moments because the games are always different. I also really like Usagi – she’s an interesting character presented as someone willing to do anything to survive but isn’t ruthless like others are. She’s also got skills as a mountain climber, which blend well into her having an edge on the physical games vs. Arisu having more of an edge on things that involve puzzles or problem-solving. Empathy is also presented as unique and important, which is a fascinating counterbalance to how dark this thing gets. It uses its runtime wisely for the most part. It so far shows just enough to get you wondering what’s going on while also taking time to build up how the games work and how characters survive outside of game time. It’s also really good about showing that even those we might see as ‘enemies’ have their own reasons and stories and are also pretty much normal people forced into a terrible situation to survive. For me, standout scenes were the ‘tag’ game in the apartment building, the wolf and sheep game between Arisu, his friends, and a girl they first meet, and the absolute mind twist that the episodes featuring the witch game involving every member of The Beach.

My plan was to watch this over a week or so, and I ended up mowing through it in two days because I just had to know what came next.

The bad: In terms of straight-out bad, nothing that leapt out at me. The pacing got a little weird at times, and sometimes focus on Arisu gets just a little bit indulgent, but that’s mostly how manga and the related films are, so it really didn’t bother me. You won’t get definite answers offseason one, but then again, you’re not supposed to.

Keep in mind: If you’re not about violence, this isn’t for you. This isn’t nearly as bad as torture porn or things like Saw or Hostel, but it doesn’t cut away from the violence and death, either. It definitely gets intense, and emotions run high. There’s a near-assault scene. Although it’s not graphic, the way it’s choreographed is extremely uncomfortable.

If you’re also used to western films, you may also feel a little jostled by some choices. This isn’t a bad thing, but you need to keep in mind Occasionally, there will be moments where in the middle of an action scene, a character will pause for a lot of dialogue trying to encourage people or get them to change their minds, but that’s honestly pretty much a part of Japanese writing. There’s also a habit of exploring the backstory of characters in the middle of fight scenes or big emotional scenes – I don’t really consider it bad because I’ve watched a lot of similar things to this. I’m used to it, but you may find it a little jarring or new if this is a first for you. I think it works, but I think if you’re not used to it, you might feel it drags the pacing down a bit.

Keep in mind this is in Japanese with subtitles (or at least that’s how I watched. There may be an English dub option, but that’s not really the way I prefer to watch things like this).

Overall, I’m really excited about where the plot may go. I could empathize with the characters but still appreciate just how much worldbuilding went into the world's actual structure and the games. The violence was used well – some scenes got to me, but they definitely made me think about what people are really capable of—all in all, a fantastic show and a really strong first season.

Five out of five sheep

About the Author:
Selah Janel is a writer who is trying to start doing that again instead of reading manga all the time.

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