Can’t believe it’s already February and I haven’t really reviewed anything. Part of me wanted to kick off 2021 strong and get more into reviews as they are technically my favourite things to write. Starting very late but let’s see how long this momentum will last. First thing I want to review this year is Alice in Borderland. It is the most popular Japanese Original live action title on Netflix. And I’m not gonna beat around the bush – I love Alice in Borderland!
The review is essentially spoiler free. The spoilers are hidden between brackets and to see them just highlight the text between.
I walked into Alice in Borderland knowing nothing. It’s based on a manga by the same name so I assume it’s not as unknown for everyone. Basically the whole plot is about this gamer Arisu who ends up in an abandoned Tokyo with his two best friends. There they enter a game and realise pretty quickly that the game is deadly.
As a viewer you learn the rules of the game together with Arisu and as episodes go on you start to realise the stakes are very high. If I had to pin point it, for me, Alice in Borderland is a mix of Hunger Games meets Alice in Wonderland (duh) meets the Saw franchise. Of course it’s not exactly any of these but there are elements from each that fit this survival show with a hint of sci-fi in the mix.
A DECK OF CARDS
If you’ve seen a bit of Alice in Borderland’s promotion you might have noticed a deck of cards. Those have an important part in the overall storyline which is gradually revealed to us over the course of the first season. Each suit has a different theme and every number represents a higher level of difficulty. Diamond means knowledge and critical thinking. Spade is physical abilities. Club games are a mix of mental and physical. And the heart is, as you probably guessed, a lot to do with your heart and emotions. The heart games are not fun!
I love this element of the show! It ties the story together with Alice in Wonderland even more and the way the card system is explained is fascinating. There are many rules to this and I won’t spoil them. There are a few games we witness throughout the first season, some are very interesting and some have started online discussions. By the end there are still enough left to leave us wondering what’s to come.
On a disappointment note, the last game of the season was predictable. [I contribute this to having seen Saw because I knew the moment they found the body what the twist was. It was so easy to assume and I was right which was a huge disappointment. It almost lessened the impact of that finale.] Not sure if it was a coincidence or it was truly that easy to guess but the ones leading up to that weren’t as easily solvable.
It’s very hard to describe what exactly I love about the characters but I guess it’s the depth. While the timeline of the first season isn’t very long, the circumstances and the games the characters face gives us a very strong indication of who they are. That in turn makes it easy to root for them or get suspicious.
Kento Yamazaki as Arisu is definitely the star here. He is the main character of course so he does get the most screen time. When his character is introduced he feels a little hopeless and depressed. Putting him through the things he goes through in the first season brings you closer to him and it makes you sympathise with him a lot. Yamazaki is excellent in the role too. There’s many emotional scenes and I truly felt Arisu’s pain through the screen. So mad props for that.
[Arisu goes through so much here and it never feels forced. He loses his best friends in episode three and there’s so much angst in those moments before, during and after. That episode really made Alice in Borderland stand out for me. The bold decision to kill off two characters that have been established as supportive characters is so brutal and yet compelling. It also shapes Arisu as a person and you can tell that he becomes more focused on saving everyone from there on out. He was caring of others before but that episode really amplifies this need to save everyone.]
His best friends Karube (Keita Machida) and Chota (Yuki Morinaga) are also great in their own way. We have the more rebel type Karube and then the “coward” of the group Chota. They are a good mix, they balance each other out and while Arisu is the brains of the trio the others do give Arsu the drive to move forward. Karube and Chota are Arisu’s support system and almost like cheerleaders in a way. Arisu might feel like a leader of the group but he never feels like one. He isn’t the dominant type of a person and his confidence is not the best in the beginning of the season.
Throughout the series we are introduced to new characters. It’s in episode two we meet two who will play a bigger part going forward. One is Yuzuha (Tao Tsuchiya) and the other is Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami).
I love both but Chishiya is definitely a favourite on his own. His character is a bit mysterious from start to finish so there’s the element of unknown about him. Murakami plays him very sly as well so there’s always this question up in the air: do we trust him? [As it turns out he is not very trustworthy but also it’s part of the situation they are all in. Arisu plays the game with the hope of everyone’s survival. Chishiya plays for his own survival and there’s essentially nothing wrong with that. They are at their core two very different characters but I wonder if Arisu is able to change Chishiya or will Chishiya become the villain of the story. I could run to the manga and find answers right away but that’s not fun.]
One of the characters Chishiya trusts from the beginning is Hikari Kuina (Aya Asahina). She is a trans woman and is especially good in physical games. Though she is not the main character she does get a big action scene in the second half of the first season. It was crazy and would feel a little over the top but by then I was fairly used to the over dramatization of some elements.
Yuzuha is the female heroin of the series and she is pretty great too. I liked that she was given the physical abilities and she feels stronger than Arisu. It’s a nice balance and they compliment each other well but Yuzuha is no idiot. All the characters have mental abilities as well so it never feels like they are carrying each other through some games. It feels like team work.
The midseason episodes introduce us to the villains as well but I wasn’t a huge fan of this overall. I liked the more subtle characters and not the over the top villains. While there’s always those people who will aim to be bigger than the rest and it feels like a natural progression of the game they’re in, it still felt a little under developed. Maybe because we didn’t get to spend enough time with the villains. That though is a problem with many shows, movies and books.
SOME GOOD STUFF
Before I get to my final thoughts I do want to talk a bit about the technical aspects of the show. It feels very rich and polished. The scenes in the abandoned Tokyo feel very real and grand. The cinematography is brilliant as well! There are many freeze frames that I would think are perfectly adapted from the manga because they feel so artistic and stunning. I can’t describe it, one would have to see it with their own eyes to fully understand this.
The overall production is clearly great here. Alice in Borderland has a vast world and the elements it needs play a huge part in the storyline. So to see the visuals support the plot is just great.
Another good element to this is the game that has spurred a lot of online discussion. It’s been months but there are still people trying to solve it. That means the show will be on your mind for months to come and lives beyond the typical Netflix binge session. I feel like that is important because there’s just so much to watch and not a lot of shows prompt you to think about them in such a complex way.
This video is a fine example how still in February there are people out there trying to figure out the Seven of Hearts game. There are major spoilers in it but for those who’ve seen the show might find it interesting.
As I said in the beginning I love Alice in Borderland. It’s not just visually interesting, it’s also mentally and emotionally compelling. It requires you to think with the characters and finding solutions yourself. While one solution had a disappointing outcome the rest of the show is too good to dwell on that fact for long.
The acting is good, the characters feel interesting and yes, some of it is a bit over the top. But it’s a Japanese show… so that’s to be expected here. Season 2 is already confirmed so the wait has begun. I’ve already read that one of the games we’ll most likely have in the next season is epic so I can’t wait! Meanwhile I’m trying really hard to stay away from all spoilers which has been quite the challenge. Anyway, without a doubt, this is a five star marvel to me!