Alice in Borderland (2020) reviewed

These past few weeks, Squid Game has been the series everyone’s talking about. The Korean thriller sat atop Netflix (NF) libraries around the world. Only last week, with the arrival of You’s third season, was the show supplanted from its perch. Squid was not only an audience success but critics were swooning over the upstart. While I thoroughly enjoyed Squid, the idea of deadly children’s games is not new. A family member reported that the show bears similarity to Japan’s Alice in Borderland. I’ve seen the title hovering around my NF homepage for a while now. Having been converted by Squid, I decided to give it a go. 

Tres amigos

Though Alice is popular, it wasn’t as big a deal as Squid. Yes, it charted around the world – especially in Southeast Asia. However, there weren’t enough reviews from top critics. As mentioned, the series overlaps with its Korean counterpart in utilising fatal children’s games. The series follows Ryohei Arisu, a twenty-something gamer who is at odds with his family. When he’s not killing aliens, he hangs out with his clique. His two pals are Chota Segawa and Daikichi Karube. After meeting up in Shibuya Crossing, the three hide from five-ohs in a toilet cubicle. They re-emerge to find a deserted Tokyo. The trio realise that they must take part in deadly games in order to subsist. Non-compliance means automatic death by laser. Should they outwit the game, they are given a visa for a few days before they have to compete again. The concept is similar to college basketball’s March Madness, where schools must ‘survive and advance’ or face immediate elimination.

The first game was a ‘Three of Clubs’ match where Arisu and friends must navigate a bevy of rooms with a time limit. Note: the latter would become a fixture in all future matches. Failure to crack the code would see them getting burned. Here they meet Shibuki, another competitor. She later admits that all her co-competitors perished in the previous outing. You need to be Cunning to suRvive. In the next game, Arisu and Karube participate in another game as Segawa is nursing his injured leg. Here, the former meets shy Chishiya who tells him about the various cards. Spades = strength. Clubs = team battles. Diamonds = brain challenges. Hearts = betrayals. Arisu barely clears the game, with the help of other players. He learns that the matches are deadly even for their foes. 

‘The Beach’

The next game is held at a botanical garden. Arisu must make an impossible choice, but he persists. As a result of these tough choices, he is crestfallen. He has lost all hope of living, much less competing. Usagi, a chick he met in the second ep, nurses him back to health. She is a climber, just like her father. She shares that she too has lost a loved one, but she still carries on. Together, they clear the next hurdle. The rest of the show takes part in ‘The Beach’, an idyllic location where there are only three rules. The first guideline was to wear beach attire. Arisu fit right in. From the onset, he could be seen wearing shorts and thongs. The third regulation was ‘Death to all traitors.’ 

Initially, two factions control ‘The Beach’: a guy named Hatter (the founder) and a group of paramilitaries. The tension and dislike between the two parties is plain. Aguni, leader of the paramilitaries, is Hatter’s best friend. Among the baddies is Samura. He wields a katana (samurai sword) and his face is covered in tattoos. In his prior life, he used to be a workaholic writer who ignored dinner and his young family. Despite his existential musings, his writing was ignored. In the brave new world, he sought to redefine himself and to release his true identity. 

‘Unsustainable Eden’

At first, ‘The Beach’ appears utopian. The site of a former hotel, the place is chock-full of life’s indulgences. If you know the right people, you’re treated like royalty. The series’ creators seemed to have gotten a page out of Alex Garland’s cult novel. Though the cast is larger, there is ganja, guerillas, and a pecking order. Like the book, there were signs of trouble in paradise, but the good vibes remained. As expected, the heavenly shogunate never lasts and Eden implodes.

Arisu, like Richard, was naive. He trusts the wrong people and pays the price. However, his virtues would ultimately save him. In pop culture, the good guys will find their friends. Though he hasn’t the numbers, Arisu will fight for what’s right. He will accomodate his pals even to his own detriment. He also questions authority; he is a born rebel. As per the first contest, Arisu has an eidetic memory. He is able to remember and work out the layout of the building after only one look. His quick thinking is reminiscent of Harry Potter. Tao Tsuchiya was eye candy as Usagi. Though she was independent, she was often a damsel in distress. Together, they are like yin and yang. 

A canvas

The show tackles several key issues. Sexuality, friendship, hope, trust, and injustice are just some of the themes highlighted. Unlike in Squid, the characters were playing purely for survival. There was no fiscal component. Moreover, the players were mostly left to their devices – unlike in Squid, which had staff involvement. The cinematography was very striking. I would later learn that they employed an Academy Award winner for post production. The Tokyo landmarks used were real, although the empty streets and buildings were done with the help of a set. However, this was created so seamlessly that it looked like the real thing. 

Final verdict

In case you’re wondering, the show is based on the eponymous manga. After being released for a month, Alice reportedly counted eighteen million homes as viewers. The first series’ success led to NF renewing the show for another season. The next instalment could land in either quarter two or three of 2022. I liked both Squid and Alice but I prefer the latter: the visual artistry couldn’t be ignored. Furthermore, the youth movement was a breath of fresh air. 

Rating: 4.8/5

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