Before any manga fanatic comes at me, let me preface this review by saying that no, I did not read the manga (nor have I any intention of doing so). Now that the cat’s out of the bag, let’s talk about the hottest ticket in town at the moment – Netflix original Alice in Borderland.
The sci-fi suspense-thriller TV series is a live-action adaptation of a manga of the same name by Haro Aso. It premiered on the streaming platform on December 10, 2020, where it was immediately met with enthusiasm by all viewers. In fact, the show was so successful, Netflix renewed it for a second season just two weeks after its debut.
If you’re intrigued by its fame and success (and think you have the stomach for it!) and want to know whether it’s worth a watch – look no further, for I will tell you all you need to know.
The story begins with three friends – Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), an unemployed and videogame-obsessed young man; Karube (Keita Machida), a bartender who has just been fired for sleeping with the boss’s wife; and Chota (Yûki Morinaga), a bored and well-mannered office worker. While the group is hanging out together at Shibuya railway station, a mysterious power outage occurs and they find themselves in a desolated, empty Tokyo, where they seem to be the only people left.
As night falls, they spot one lighted building and, once they go there, they discover it to be a ‘gaming arena’. After entering the premises, they are directed to take one smartphone each, which delivers instructions for the games ahead. The first game is a locked-room puzzle, where they have to choose between two doors – choose correctly, you enter the next room; choose wrong and you die. Thanks to Arisu’s wit, they manage to make it out alive and as a reward for clearing the game, they receive a 3 of Clubs playing card and are issued a 3-day visa. Players get more visa days by winning games, but if your visa expires, you… well, die (a recurring theme in this series).
Spades indicate a game that requires physical strength, Diamonds call for wit and intelligence, Clubs focus on teamwork, and Hearts infer the game is going to involve psychological cruelty, with plenty of emotional manipulation and betrayal.
It appears the aim of the entire game is gathering all 52 cards one would find in a normal deck – i.e. from Ace to King, of all the different suits – which they can collect by clearing every game. The card’s number indicates its level of difficulty, while its suit gives the players a hint about its nature. Spades indicate a game that requires physical strength, Diamonds call for wit and intelligence, Clubs focus on teamwork, and Hearts infer the game is going to involve psychological cruelty, with plenty of emotional manipulation and betrayal. If it wasn’t obvious, all these games involve people getting brutally killed, from players getting shot by horse-headed vigilantes to people getting their head blown off. Definitely not your all-family fun, that’s for sure.
My Two Cents
I think I should begin by saying that overall, I really liked the show. In fact – I loved it! However, everyone’s a critic (and I definitely am one), so in the next paragraphs, I will put on my nitpicker hat and tear Alice in Borderland to shreds.
Even though the series was full of gore, blood and people getting brutally murdered, it wasn’t really scary. The games were meant to be incredibly anxiety-inducing, and make you feel your heart in your throat, but that was not conveyed to me through the show.
For starters, the creepiness of the music could have been cranked up a notch (or two or three). Music is such a big part of visual media, as it helps paint the picture and create the right atmosphere for the plot. However, in Alice in Borderland, that did not happen. The soundtrack had a rock-inspired feel to it, yet what was missing was a more sinister appeal, something to let the viewer know of the immediate danger ahead. The music does a flawless job in hyping you, nonetheless, it fails at keeping you on your toes when the time calls for it (which is something that should happen in this type of suspense-thriller TV shows).
Moreover, the pace of the episodes was very uneven at times. More often than not, the scenes that were supposed to fill you with anxiety and uneasiness, were dragged on for so long till you didn’t feel anything anymore, thus defeating the purpose of the scenes’ suspense. For example, the reveal of the witch’s identity was dragged on for almost an entire episode, when Arisu knew exactly who it was for the entire time. Yet, it took him forever to let it out, managing to annoy me and all the other characters in the show. On the other hand, scenes that deserved more screen time were sometimes jumped through in the blink of an eye.
One might argue that dragging out scenes until the point of exhaustion is normal for Asian dramas. However, that is more common in K-dramas, while Japanese dramas are usually more action-filled and fast-paced. Ergo, it was slightly weird to see 10-minute scenes of a guy just lying on the floor in a depressed cocoon.
Nevertheless, I would like to close on a positive note, so I will mention some of the things I loved about Alice in Borderland. The characterization was brilliant in my opinion, especially in regards to how they intertwined the flashbacks with the present, thus giving us a good glimpse of the protagonist’s backstories. The scenery was stunning as well, managing to look both mystifyingly beautiful and miserably desolated at the same time. Finally, the games were very well planned out and were all really witty and intriguing.
All in all – the series has both pros and cons. However, if you have some time to kill this weekend (and I guess because of the current lockdowns, you definitely do), Alice in Borderland is definitely worth a binge.