Alice in Borderland is a declaration of intent from Netflix in a number of ways. Though not the first J-drama produced by the streaming service, with the company finding success with Mika Ninagawa’s Followers and The Naked Director in the past, this series is far grander in both scope and ambition than either of them, with a promotional campaign to match. The weight of expectation sits on Alice in Borderland’s shoulders, as an investment of the magnitude of this show demands a similarly large level of success.
While we’ll have to wait and see whether the success of Alice in Borderland convinces Netflix to continue this manga adaptation in the future, the pressing question is this: should you watch this series? While the show isn’t perfect, with a final episode that falls somewhat flat compared to the rest of the series, this is a thrilling adventure more than worth your time.
Survival in Alternative Shibuya
Based on the manga of the same name by Haro Aso, Alice in Borderland is set in modern-day Tokyo and centers on Ryohei Arisu, a game-loving NEET who spends all their time either locked in their room on their computer or aimlessly wandering around Shibuya with their two friends. He has no hopes or desires for the future and feels trapped in the mundanity of his life, longing for excitement and change. After the trio is caught in a run-in with the police in Shibuya Crossing, they make a run for it inside the station. The lights go out, silence consumes the area, and they leave the station to find the entirety of Shibuya deserted.
The trio has been transported to an alternative reality where Tokyo is deserted and transformed into a survival game. Those living in the city are the players, and each of these players must take part in various life-or-death challenges around Tokyo to earn playing cards that correspond to ‘visas’. The higher the number on the card, the more difficult the game, but also, the more days they earn on their visa. Run out of days, and you die. Arisu and his friends must compete in this death game to have any hope for survival.
And so, the stage is set. Netflix’s endless pockets have been used to full effect to make a strong first impression and to ensure no corners are cut in this adaptation of Alice in Borderland. The opening episode impresses with the sheer scale of the effort, with Shibuya being flushed of people to create some expansive shots of a deserted Shibuya Crossing. Comparing the bustling nature of Shibuya on a normal day to the abandoned, post-apocalyptic Shibuya is immense, and it visually captures the major shift in Arisu’s worldview in a cinematic way.
As impressive as it is, I have to wonder how much money was spent producing this flashy set piece of an abandoned city, only for this imagined reality to feel very real once COVID-19 sent Japan into total lockdown this past April.
Still, an impressive budget for flashy set pieces can only lift a show so far. Alice in Borderland has a surprisingly human core amidst the death and destruction that helps this Netflix series avoid being consumed by a claustrophobic sense of despair because of its heavy subject.
Taking the opening episodes of the series as an example, after unwittingly plunging down the rabbit hole into Borderland, the trio is forced to compete in their first game. Entering an abandoned building, this game requires them to correctly choose from a series of doors labeled ‘life’ and ‘death’ to win. Choosing the wrong door will kill you, while failing to choose a door within the time limit will see them burned alive. It’s the moment the absurdity becomes real for them as they witness death and fear for the first time.
They soon begin to adapt and re-evaluate their past lives as they traverse this new normal, and it galvanizes them to better themselves, if they can make it out of this crazy place alive. Entering a deadly game of tag, the resourcefulness of Arisu shines through as he comes up with tactics to not only win but help as many others survive the game as possible, where he also runs into a girl named Usagi that soon becomes Arisu’s partner and friend.
Though each of these games is deadly and produced with a budget that can make them feel almost frighteningly real, they grip the viewer not through their extremity but how the show never loses sight of the people competing in them. It takes no time at all for the audience to form a connection with Arisu and his friends.
Although conceptually the properties are very different, the protagonist of Alice in Borderland reminds me a lot of Ready Player One. It also highlights what I most appreciate about this show.
If you compare the two properties, Ready Player One evangelizes the gamer and the nerd to new heights, their encyclopedic knowledge and talent for games a key tenant of what defines them as a character. It’s also Ready Player One’s biggest flaw. In that film, the protagonist shuts out the world as they pour their entire self-worth into video games, and only by chance do they find themselves in a situation where these skills are an advantage. He is then celebrated for these flaws as he saves the day.
In Alice in Borderland, Arisu is condemned for this mindset, despite it helping him survive. Most importantly, Arisu begins to recognize this flaw by living, as he pledges to change and grow as a person. After all, knowing how a game works can’t save friends when a game means only one can live, while making himself open to the world around him and willing to change to save others. It makes him more compelling, and a character worth rooting for.
Alice in Borderland: An Entertaining Statement of Intent from Netflix
The show only grows larger in scope as it goes on, particularly in the second half as we meet factions and enclaves of people working together to survive in this new reality. Yet Usagi and Arisu ground this show and give us a reason to care for the events on screen.
The only moment the show falls flat is the ending. While I won’t spoil it for anyone wishing to binge Alice in Borderland on Netflix, the final episode seeks to resolve the main story arc of season 1 while setting the building blocks for season 2. As a result, the end of the arc can feel rushed, and this ending brings with it many startling revelations that can feel overwhelming upon initial viewing. It doesn’t ruin the show, but it could have done with another episode for maximum impact.
Still, Netflix’s biggest investment in J-drama to date has paid off. Alice in Borderland is as thrilling as it is compelling, and more than worth your time. Roll on season 2!
Alice in Borderland is now streaming on Netflix