It ticked several boxes for us last year: Best Horror/Thriller TV Series, Best Limited TV Series, Best API/AAPI TV Series, Top 40 TV Series of the Decade (#26!), and it introduced three of last year’s best Kick-Ass Genre Heroines. It inexplicably got lost in the shadow of the cheap quality and poorly acted series Squid Game. The Emmy winner should have been Alice in Borderland, a breathless, dystopian, live-action manga, Japanese noir-meets-steampunk thrill ride streaming on Netflix. Directed by Shinsuke Sato, Haro Aso’s popular manga series came alive with his version of Doomsday, Tokyo-style, a surprisingly violent, surprisingly thought-provoking look at lost souls in a city vacated (as in The Quiet Earth and 28 Days Later) and the remaining citizens left to fight for their lives The Running Man-style or they’ll get zapped and killed The War of the Worlds-style.
The only problem? The end of Season 1 came too soon. Netflix is remedying that with a second season, and we have the teaser for it below. 18 million households watched the series, prompting a renewal within only two weeks.
Clever casting of characters introduces the personas of action hero types 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 we were hoping for when we 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.
Here’s your first look at Season 2:
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 get zapped and die. 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 transgender 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. Season 1 covered the first 31 chapters of the manga, and Season 2 is expected to cover the remaining 33.
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.
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. Season 2 of Alice in Borderland will be streaming on Netflix in December, rumored to drop on Christmas Eve. You can also read the manga if you read French–we haven’t found an English edition yet.
C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg