J-drama Review: Alice in Borderland
English Title: Alice in Borderland
Japanese Title: 今際の国のアリス [lit. Arisu’s country of dying/last moments]
Director(s): Sato Shinsuke
Screenwriter(s): Kuramitsu Yasuko
Studio: Robot Communications Inc. Released: 2020–2022
Season 1 Runtime: 8 episodes, 43m–53m each.
Season 2 Runtime: 8 episodes, 48m – 1h 20m each.
Starring: Yamazaki Kento, Tsuchiya Tao, Murakami Nijiro, Asahina Aya, Miyoshi Ayaka, Aoyagi Sho
My Verdict: Another alternate reality story. Contrived game survival horror-thriller. Clumsy structure. Moderately intriguing nonetheless.
Based on the manga of the same name by Aso Haro, the story follows Arisu Ryohei (Yamazaki Kento), the stereotypical obsessive gamer and loser, and Usagi Yuzuha (Tsuchiya Tao), an expert climber dealing with the death of her father. Please note that I have not read the manga so the review is purely of the series.
After causing a minor car accident at the Shibuya Crossing, Arisu and his friends briefly hide from the police but then emerge to find the world mostly deserted. They are somehow in another world that seems like a duplication of the real world, each having a “visa” that soon expires. If and when it does, an energy beam from the sky kills the individual with a headshot.
In order to extend one’s visa, an individual must play and win games. Even if the game does not kill the contestants, losers are killed at the end. The games have cards attached to them and the suit indicates the type of game. For example, “hearts games” are psychological as they are designed to turn players against each other. Soon after their arrival, Arisu (“Alice”) meets Usagi (“Rabbit”) and they eventually work together to survive.
Since Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1999), stories involving alternate/parallel/other realities just come across as too derivative and contrived. Granted, Alice in Borderland is different from the aforementioned since games are integral to the story. If one is interested in game survival horror-thrillers, then one will probably like the series.
In any case, it comes across as too contrived. Even though the games are moderately intriguing, there is that episodic “game of the week” feel in season 1. It is also obvious that the games are just an excuse for ridiculous action and gore. If one can accept that, then that’s fine. Admittedly, the pacing and in turn the suspense and tension within each game are generally managed well.
Thankfully, the series is not merely the main characters participating in one game after another. As games are completed, their corresponding cards are earned, implying that there is a next stage, that there are people running the game world, and that it may be possible to return to the real world. Without spoiling, some things are revealed by the end of season 1.
Unfortunately, many details of how the game world works are skipped over in season 2, merely focusing on the characters’ determination to return to the real world (they assuming that possibility). The games in season 2 can span more than one episode and, since the audience is already acquainted with the main characters, the characters are fuller.
Most characters have issues, just like in real life, but many follow a template. The theme of “real world versus dream world” is somewhat clumsily explored. For example, Arisu is the stereotypical loser who doesn’t like the real world but he learns to be better. Usagi, still mourning the death of her father, initially has little desire to return to the real world.
The performances are good enough but it is the writing that is a little lacking. Amongst the main characters, the one with the best writing and performance is the pragmatic Chishiya Shuntaro. Murakami seems very precise with the way he plays the cool Chishiya; there is always that calculated selfishness and cunning but it is difficult to determine to what degree of active maliciousness he actually has (if any).
On balance, the series fails to capitalize on its characters, but as it is plot- and action-driven, it gets away with it to some degree since the characters are mostly plausible enough to relate to anyway.
As with any story that involves alternate realities, there are the questions “Does the series end properly?” and “Is the ending cheap?”
Season 1 does not end on a cliffhanger. The characters, in a way, pass the first stage of the games with certain revelations regarding the game world and what comes next. In that way, it is a sufficiently satisfying ending for season 1.
Season 2 does finish. Any viewer who thinks a little will go through the possibilities of what the game world is, no doubt one of them being the answer. In that sense, it is cheap. But, to be fair, it is signposted, albeit clumsily. The ending would be a lot more palatable but the signposting is more consistent throughout both seasons. There is room for a sequel but the story does end.
The production is generally good. The design, cinematography and editing are executed well. Some shots clearly use green screen and CG but not to the point that it is jarring. The camera work is a good mix of all the conventional methods without trying too hard; it is dynamic when it needs to be. If one is interested in the genre, then one will probably enjoy the series. If not, then don’t bother. On balance, it is moderately intriguing but, given the nature of the premise, it is contrived and the structure is somewhat clumsy.
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