Review by C.J. Bunce
We named it #26 in the best TV series of the past decade, and last year’s Best Horror/Thriller TV Series, Best Limited TV Series, and Best API/AAPI TV Series. It’s Shinsuke Sato’s adaptation of the popular manga graphic novel by Haro Aso, Alice in Borderland, and it’s back with its second season. It’s a Netflix production–one of its most successful internationally–that netted three spots on our annual Kick-Ass Heroines list. The live-action, dystopian, Japanese noir-meets-steampunk thrill ride gets off to a big, Fast & Furious-inspired first episode, as seven key characters return to play a game of survival loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You’re going to hope at some point one of the action heroines–Tao Tsuchiya’s mountain climber Usagi, Aya Asahina’s athletic Kuina, or Ayaka Miyoshi’s forensics expert Rizuna Ann will end up somehow twisted into the Queen of Hearts. 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 or Hunger Games-style or they’ll get zapped and killed The War of the Worlds-style. Another series too good to binge, Alice in Borderland’s second season is now streaming on Netflix, but we’re going to dig into episode one.
The big question with seven key characters that survived the first season is how many will survive Season 2. At the end of Season 1, series leads Arisu (Kento Yamikazi) and Usagi, along with Kuina and Chishiya (Nijirō Murakami), locate the gamemaster’s lair only to find the gamemasters all dead. Were they really gamemasters? It seems not. Mira (Riisa Naka), an executive member of “The Beach,” appeared on a jumbotron announcing a new set of games. At the beginning of Season 2 we catch up with all four players as they dodge the bullets of the King of Spades (or his avatar?), gunning down former members of the Beach who arrive at a city center in several cars.
Fortunately two other key characters arrive to drive them away: Rizuna Ann and the young ballcap-wearing Kōdai Tatta (Yutaro Watanabe), who Arisu saved in Season 1. But the rescue is a high-octane, exhilarating chase scene that ends in a well designed car flip–Netflix put some time and effort into a season opener with some major action sequences. One last key character to survive the first season: the Hatter’s tough lieutenant Morizono Aguni (Sho Aoyagi), hasn’t had an appearance in the season yet. It’s not entirely clear how he gets there, but Arisu–the person with the best knowledge of video and roleplay games–seems to have figured out how the King suits are running the next phase of the game.
Clever casting of characters introduced looks of action heroes from all sorts of Japanese video games, manga, and anime. The vibe of the series combines all the tropes in a way no live-action series has yet accomplished. The show isn’t without its dramatic and serious moments. Usagi witnesses a woman who finally reaches her breaking point and jumps in front of the King of Spade’s bullets to end it all. Just as viewers think she and Arisu may be getting closer, she comes to the conclusion that neither world–the current nightmare or her lonely past–has anything to offer her, and she pushes Arisu away.
Definitely watch the original version with subtitles for the full experience of the show.
Chishiya and Rizuna Ann are separated from the others in the aftermath of the car chase. After a search for food, the first contest of the season is queued up at the end of this episode, as Arisu, Usagi, Kuina, and Tatta join up with a mysterious survivor from the Beach to confront the King of Clubs himself, operating a tournament with three new opponents in a complex of shipping containers near the harbor.
In the first season the playing cards revealed 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 (or exploding) and lots of blood splatter. With the clubs as the current suit, look for a battle requiring teamwork coming in the second episode.
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. In Season 1 everyone wanted to live. In Season 2 the fatigue may be setting in and taking its toll on the key characters.
Look for the first season of Alice in Borderland streaming now on Netflix, which covers roughly the first half of the manga stories, along with the second season.