Alice in Borderland

Alice in Borderland

2020 - Japan

An Enigmatic World of Deadly Games

Review by Matt Owen

Directed by Shinsuke Sato and based on the manga written by Haro Aso, Alice in Borderland is a Netflix-distributed Japanese sci-fi thriller that follows an unlikely hero as he tries to survive in a strange and deadly new world.

After a reclusive gamer named Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) is mysteriously transported to a post-apocalyptic version of Tokyo, he and his friends must compete in a series of life-threatening challenges if they want to survive. As the difficulty increases and hope for salvation dwindles, Arisu tries to search for the truth behind their captivity. With two seasons completed and a third on the way, Alice in Borderlands offers a surprising amount of suspense and intrigue, enticing audiences with its twisted plot and macabre tone.

Alice in Borderland

Among the many things that Alice in Borderland does well, the show handily succeeds at sinking its hooks into the viewer with a stunning start. In the opening episode, Arisu and his two best friends, Chota (Yuki Morinaga) and Karube (Keita Machida), spend an afternoon at the bustling Shibuya Crossing. After running afoul of the law, they hide out in a subway bathroom, but upon emerging, find the city completely abandoned. Previously packed to the brim with hundreds of busy pedestrians just moments prior, Tokyo stands as an apparent ghost town, without a soul in sight. Following directions from a billboard, Arisu and his friends become entrenched in a deadly series of games spanning the entire city, where their lives hang in the balance every step of the way.

Alice in Borderland

From the very first episode onward, Alice in Borderland puts its foot on the gas and rarely lets up, delivering on its exciting premise with bloody success. At first, each episode highlights a new game for Arisu and his friends to complete, each one slightly more deranged than the last. Seemingly inspired by films like Battle Royale and SAW, these life-or-death tests always have a morbid twist, challenging physical prowess and mental fortitude in equal measure. Best of all, characters have minimal plot armour and can be killed at a moment's notice, making it hard to predict the outcome of any given situation. Between all the violence and thrills, the show also keeps the intrigue high by drip-feeding new clues and information, as Arisu and others start to search for a way out of the madness.

Alice in Borderland

After an exciting and gruesome handful of initial episodes, the latter half of Season 1 opens up a bit, fleshing out the cast with some fun and eccentric characters. Although Tokyo seems deserted at first, there are dozens of other contestants who have become stranded in this city of survival, all with mysterious pasts and purposes. As Arisu delves deeper into Tokyo, he receives some help from a mystifying stranger, Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami), a deft rock climber, Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), and more. Conversely, others look to take advantage of the dire circumstances, including a power-hungry cult leader, Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko), and even a slick, villainous tattooed swordsman nicknamed “The Last Boss” (Shuntaro Yanagi).

Despite its eccentric characters and wild sci-fi concepts, Alice in Borderland stays grounded in its initial season, juggling themes of isolation, betrayal, and humanity's animalistic nature. However, like many other successful adaptations, the show goes a bit off the rails in Season 2, as the plot strays further from the source material. Although the episodic budget receives a noticeable bump, resulting in heightened action and increased use of CGI, the plot and characterization start to suffer. Sub-plots become bloated and characters dance around the point during dialogue, while the games grow needlessly complex in an effort to keep the audience guessing. That said, Season 2 is still entertaining, even though it's a significant step down from the first.

Alice in Borderland

Ultimately, Alice in Borderland is a worthwhile watch for viewers who enjoy twisted thrillers and post-apocalyptic sci-fi and also don't mind an extra dose of bloody violence. Although it predates it by a year, many comparisons can be drawn to Netflix's Squid Game, although on a much grander and morbid scale. In truth, I feel like Alice in Borderland is a better show in some regards, even if it loses focus as the series continues. Even if you pass on the second season, I still recommend that you give Alice in Borderland a try, as it's one of the better Netflix shows in recent memory and a solid adaptation of a lesser-celebrated manga.

Published on November 22nd, 2023. Written by Matt Owen for Television Heaven.

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