Thrilling Alice in Borderland manga gets English translation

Review by C.J. Bunce

When we reviewed the first season of Netflix’s adaptation of Haro Aso’s popular manga series Alice in Borderland here at borg back in 2020,  there was no English edition of the original Japanese manga available.  So Westerners were left to watch the live-action dystopian, Japanese sci-fi/fantasy thrill ride without reference to the original.  At last thanks to VIZ Media, we now have an English edition being published in quarterly installments, and the first volume is a massive 344-page paperback collecting the first eight chapters in two parts.  Alice in Borderland Volume 1 is available in print and digital now here at Amazon, or add it to your VIZ account here.  I’ll review each volume here separately.  The difference between the first volume of the manga and the TV adaptation is actually barely significant–a credit to director Shinsuke Sato’s faithful interpretation of this incredible book.

The manga first appeared serialized in 2010, so its organization is similar to any comic book.  For those new to manga you read from the last page to the first page, top to bottom but from right to left instead of left to right.  It takes only minutes to adapt to the format, and the digital version via the VIZ Media app could not be easier to read on any droid phone, tablet, or PC.  It’s printed entirely in its original black and white artwork, typical of manga books.

The theme of the story leans much on teen angst.  The main protagonist is Arisu (the pronunciation of Alice as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland).  He has no motivation, and spends all his time playing video games or hanging out with his two best friends, Karube and Chota.  Chota is a slightly more motivated slacker, spending his time thinking about girls, and Karube works as as bartender.  Arisu longs for some other existence, some other world where he doesn’t have to take tests or be hounded by his father to be more like his little brother.  The characters in the TV series are a few years older and Arisu is not so vocal about his desire to get away from reality, which makes the Alice in Wonderland inspiration better clarified in the source material than the TV series that adapts it.  Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Arisu wants to get away, and the allusions to Carroll’s story are peppered throughout this first volume.

Alice in Borderland Volume 1 introduces the three best friends, and introduces the cataclysmic event that pulls them out of their world and into a dystopian nightmare where they must fight for survival.  Aso’s artwork unveiling that event is a fantasy kaleidoscope of ideas, including some impressive stylings evoking the otherworldly art of Alex Niño.  They don’t transfer from here to there in the busy intersection at Shibuya station this time–does that mean the ending will be different, too?  They stumble into the first game, the Three of Clubs.  Readers catching up with the original story after seeing the show have some interesting differences to look forward to, including a very different first game–a knowledge game that allows the reader to play along.

The characters learn (as in the show) that the playing card titles of each game 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.  Arisu’s strength in the TV show was from his skills as a gamer, and although he has that background in the original story, Aso makes clear he has above-average attention to details, something like Shawn Spencer in the TV series Psych. 

Aso’s illustrations here showing the method of destroying the players by the otherworldly villain in a “game over” situation defines the look of those pinpoint lasers adapted for the show.  You can’t give enough credit to Keiko Ogata for her casting the series–every actor she selected looks identical to Aso’s original ideas in the book.  Each anime action character type is depicted in the story, but Usagi and Chishiya are drawn and written as such cool and strong characters that it’s another bonus the show got them so right.  These characters are introduced after a problem for Chota leaves Arisu and Karube to enter their next game, the Five of Spades, which is told across the equivalent of four comic book issues in this collection, and features a villain in a horse mask.  Usagi has incredible physical skill to jump, climb, and escape the game’s dangers thanks to her mountain climbing past, and Chishiya… he just watches as the others attempt to figure out the logic behind the game.  He hides behind the hood, and seems to see and know all.  He’s such a great character, and gives readers enough to want to grab volume 2 and come back for more.

It’s surprising that the first 344 pages correspond to only the first two episodes of the Netflix series.  Aso takes time to do something the show seems to have been able to fit in–giving teenagers a chance to enjoy more time without parents.  They still pick through free food at the local store, but also venture out for a day of fishing.

Alice in Borderland Volume 1 is an excellent read, and it’s no wonder Aso’s story was bought to adapt for a TV series.  The action and pop culture, along with the teen experience, readily adapts from Japanese culture to American culture, too.  A great entry point for manga, and a fun exploration of characters for fans of Netflix’s successful series (its most watched show internationally yet), pick up Volume 1 in print or digital now here at Amazon, or add it to your VIZ account here.  Keep coming back to borg as we review the next four volumes later this winter.

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