Ever watched Alice in Wonderland and thought to yourself, “What this narrative needs are death lasers”? Based on the manga series of the same name by Haro Aso, Alice in Borderland is a Japanese series where Tokyo is somehow mysteriously emptied of virtually all its people. Those left are forced to compete in deadly games in order to survive, and any attempt at escape results in an immediate and lethal laser beaming down from above.
By combining battles to the death, callously graphic violence, and an ever-present but unseen force guiding events, Alice in Borderland feels like a mash-up of several cult classics. 2000’s notorious and hugely influential Battle Royale is certainly one (if you haven’t seen it, The Hunger Games rather blatantly lifted plenty of elements from it) as is 1998’s sci-fi deadly trap fest movie, Cube. Mix in some overt Alice in Wonderland material (such as characters named ‘Hatter’ and ‘Chishiya’, as well as plenty of playing card references) and you’ve got a stylistic blend ready to shock and awe.
Little time is spent on set up. Episode 1 introduces us to Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), a 24 year old lazy gaming obsessed nerd whose lack of effort in anything else is cause for overt resentment from his family. Aside from gaming he spends his time with childhood friends Chōta (Yûki Morinaga) and Karube (Keita Machida), a shy IT office worker and cocky bartender respectively.
The three of them hide in a subway bathroom after inadvertently causing a road accident at the famous Shibuya scramble crossing in central Tokyo when suddenly the power switches off. Venturing outside, they discover that seemingly everyone has vanished and the city has fallen silent. That is, until that night when they are led by glowing billboards into a mysteriously lit up office block.
The first half of the series follows a similar pattern which is both enthralling and tense. We learn that others have been similarly stranded and must compete in lethal games in order to survive. Winning earns you a ‘visa’ of safety for a few days. If your visa runs out and you don’t enter a game, you are instantly and unavoidably killed. The games are coded with playing cards, with the suits denoting whether the challenge will be a game of strength, wits, team battles, or betrayal.
As our cast are always on the verge of death, defeating these games is nail-biting stuff and digs into their characteristics. Arisu is forced into action, Chōta’s paranoia gets the better of him, and Karube’s arrogant self-assurance can be both useful and dangerously counter productive.
As Alice in Borderland progresses further, characters and backstories are filled in but it struggles to maintain the very strong opening. The more people there are on screen the more it takes away from the tension as the show shifts into a Lord of the Flies style exploration into what such life and death pressure does to people.
Charismatic leaders such as the Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko) create a debauched utopia (called ‘The Beach’) but such freedom requires a balance of power with amoralistic and violent fighters. This effectively drowns out Arisu’s character arc as his emergent ability to figure out solutions based on a lifetime of gaming becomes secondary to survival politics.
Similarly, after some highly effective shock moments early on which got me sobbing in places, the emotional connection to the characters drops in the second half when the show gets a strong case of the dreaded monologues. Japanese shows do have a tendency to have a character spend 5 minutes and above extolling their whole thought processes to a mostly silent audience and when this is done in the middle of a hotel wide automatic weapon fuelled murder spree it can be a frustrating pace breaker, to say the least.
Even though our characters’ arrival at ‘The Beach’ marks an unwelcome gear change that undoes the preceding good work, Alice in Borderland still manages to pull through by keeping on the right side of mystery and explanation. Later addition, Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya) kicks arse and even if she has no real character journey of her own, her determination is a good Ying to Arisu’s often powerless Yang.
Each death trap game has an element of trickery which is always well done and the subsequent bloodshed is satisfying, if frequently surface level only. Come the multi-episode chin-stroking ‘whodunnit’ that sparks a massacre level rampage of accusations, enough layers have been peeled back (Who is behind the games? Why? What happens when someone collects all the cards in the deck?) for me to still be watching from on high ready for season 2, laser pointer in hand.
Words by Mike Record