Review by C.J. Bunce

Two episodes in, and you’ll probably get drawn into at least three of the characters in the story.  Four episodes in, you’re thinking about who is going to to make it to the second season and how quick they can get that filmed and released.  Directed by Shinsuke Sato, Haro Aso’s popular manga series comes alive in Alice in Borderland, the live-action dystopian, Japanese noir-meets-steampunk thrill ride streaming now on Netflix.  Doomsday, Tokyo-style, is surprisingly violent, surprisingly thought-provoking, as a city finds itself mostly vacated (as in The Quiet Earth and 28 Days Later) and the remaining citizens must fight for their lives The Running Man-style or they’ll get zapped and killed The War of the Worlds-style.  Clever casting of characters introduces looks of action heroes from all sorts of Japanese video games, manga, and anime, all living (many briefly) in a world loosely pulled from Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland.  A gamer-themed series on the heels of the popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, the result is a very different story allowing the audience to try to solve clues along with the players on the screen–what I was hoping for when I first heard about the book Ready Player One.

Twenty-somethings Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), Karube (Keita Machida), and Chōta (Yûki Morinag) are looking for fun or trouble or a bit of both, when they find themselves in the Times Square of Tokyo (called Shibuya station).  They cause an auto accident as they goof around, prompting them to run into the subway to escape the police.  But suddenly the city goes quiet–all the people have vanished, leaving the cars behind, the trash to blow by, and the birds keep on keeping on unaffected.  After a bit of wandering, instead of despair, they find the humor of the moment, like the boy in Home Alone.  Maybe what they needed is for everyone to just go away, and take their problems with them?

That’s when the first game begins.  Along with a woman they run into and a frightened high school girl, a sign on a table directs them to pick up a smartphone.  The phone has face recognition software and shows each the playing card they are playing for.  They learn they must move through the rooms of a building, choosing the right door or wrong door, and the wrong door quickly shows them (and us) the nature of the stakes, as the first person in the story is sliced by a laser from above.  They have been somehow transported into an episode of The Twilight Zone, or transmitted into a game like Tron or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  But is it something of the supernatural or fantasy, or as one character ponders, something about aliens?  The players and audience will be trying to answer this throughout the series.

Winning is not simple, and the audience will find the individual skills of people that appear in each game help players to live by earning visas that buy them a few days to refresh, or die and gets zapped.  The nature of skills include ex-law enforcement types with weapons, including a particularly tough survivor played by Shô Aoyagi, a savvy warrior who lurks in a cool manner and looks like Link from Legend of Zelda, played by Nijirô Murakami, an ex-forensics expert from the Tokyo police department played by Akaya Miyoshi, a martial arts trained transgendered woman played by Aya Asahina, and a mountain climber–the real star of the series–named Usagi, played by Tao Tsuchiya.  Just as Aoyagi looks like Link in the series, the hair they chose for Arisu conjures famous gymnast Kohei Uchimura and all the anime characters we thought his hair evoked here at borg back in 2012.

The playing cards reveal the level of difficulty and “genre” of each game.  A low numbered card is supposed to be relatively simple to survive, such as a locked room mystery, a 10 card far more difficult.  The suits identify whether strategy and intelligence (diamonds), physical strength (spades), or teamwork (clubs) is needed, and, in the case of hearts, psychological games involving tricks and betrayal.  Some players work better alone, others work better in teams.  The worst battles require turning on whomever is also currently in the battle.  The violence mimics 1980s action movies, meaning you should expect lots of bodies dropping and lots of blood splatter.  A twist arises when two of the characters get recruited to be part of a group of players who stay at a complex called the Beach.  This is one of the rare Wonderland references come to play, as the leader is called the Hatter, a man who we learn once ran a hat shop at a mall.  He’s played by the very Johnny Depp-inspired actor Nobuaki Kaneko.

The only drawback is a minor one: English subtitles feature some clunky dialogue, which lately makes me wish Netflix would hire someone (actually, me) to undergo a quick re-write of the script to eliminate over-used words in the script that English-speaking viewers just don’t use, like “comrade” for friends or peers.

Arisu and his small circle of friends and, it turns out, many twenty-somethings living in Tokyo in the series, all have something in common:  they all are not satisfied living their daily lives, or an event in their past has put them on a road to depression.  Suicide is a big problem in Japan as it is elsewhere, but Alice in Borderland lands on many subplots with the theme of an individual not satisfied with his/her life–that is, until they must fight for their lives to continue on, which quickly brings into focus what they had worth preserving.  Ultimately, everyone wants to live.  Is there some undertones of hope given to the audience in the writing?  Perhaps, but because of the nature of self-preservation and dark themes, skip this one if depressing events aren’t for you.

I loved that the audience could figure out what was going on along with the characters in the show.  Viewers can get attached to the characters–and their cultural differences–quickly.  A bit Jumanji, a bit Tron, a bit The Running Man, and a bit Ready Player One, Alice in Borderland is a thrilling ride.  Look for the first season streaming now on Netflix, which covers roughly the first half of the manga stories.  Netflix has released no information as yet for a second season, but the show begs for at least one more.  Or just read the manga if you read French–we haven’t found an English edition yet.