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. Luckily VIZ Media began issuing a volume-by-volume English translation–we reviewed the first volume here at borg in January, the second volume here in March, and the third last month here–all are massive 344-page paperbacks, and with Volume 4 they altogether collect the first 32 chapters. Alice in Borderland Volume 4 is available in print and digital now here at Amazon, or add it to your VIZ account here. Where the first volume was mainly an introduction to series protagonist Arisu and his friends entering the dark setting of Borderland, the next two volumes increased the pace of action and tension. In Volume 4 the games are getting more difficult and readers will begin to question whether anyone will get out of Borderland alive.
As with prior volumes, the book is printed entirely in its original black and white artwork, typical of manga books, and it retains the creator’s original manga formatting. In my review of the last installment I noted Haro Aso’s story and artwork form the equivalent of the greatest Western graphic novels you’ve ever read. Readers of Volume 4 will get the feeling this volume is more transitional. Where the last chapter left us, Arisu was imprisoned at the Beach while a game of “Witch Hunt” meant the Beach’s militant faction was killing off residents one by one to find the murderer of a young woman in the hotel lobby. Arisu’s friends had helped him to escape, only to encounter the new leader of the Beach, Aguna, who has beaten Arisu to near death.
Series lead Arisu (the Japanese pronunciation of Alice as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) re-engages for this volume, but he’s weak, and it’s up to his ragged and weary peers to solve the puzzle within the next ten minutes. The last volume had the side story of the tangent two-chapter arc “Four of Hearts,” and this volume incorporates another side story. In the game “Four of Clubs,” four new players are challenged in four trials involving an underground bus. This scene is adapted into episode four of the first season of the Netflix series. It’s one of the best games of the streaming series, so it’s nice to see it was part of the original story, even as a side story that maneuvers readers away from the main narrative. But it’s also the first time in the books I began losing track of the characters, because Aso’s drawing style is losing its clarity and the chapter only identifies one character by name. (Only after research online did I discover no key player is involved in the game, unlike as in the streaming series–it’s another place where the streaming series is an improvement on the original).
Rizuna An, the forensics expert who worked for the Metropolitan Police Department, gets the first of her two big scenes in Borderland. She is the first to figure out who the “Witch” is, but she’s clobbered before she can disclose it to everyone. So this provides several pages for a delay in the big reveal, allowing Arisu to sleuth some more. Chishiya doesn’t get much to do in this book, and Kuina, after her battle with Last Boss, is left with her big reveal in a very toned down manner to her cohorts–that’s the fact she was once male. Unlike the drama of the streaming series, it’s played in the book as one of the future breaks of tension for laughs. Again, the streaming series updates the scene for the better as one of the most dramatic elements of all two seasons. But a backstory involving the Witch’s victim is more compelling, a chapter that was nicely mirrored in the streaming series.
After the reveal of the Witch, the Beach is burnt to ashes. One of the things Aso does well is reminding the reader to enjoy life in the midst of hardship–the reader is left with the characters able to celebrate their victory for a few days before the next trial arrives. In an announced lull called the Interval, the dealers are eliminated from the game, and face card battles are being prepped, with the first, the King of Spades, a surprise sniper pecking off anyone and everyone on the streets. This intersects with the last scene of season one of the streaming series, and the first episode of season 2. Giant dirigibles take over the skies, destroyed only if a game is lost. The Queen of Hearts is revealed, although her identity is not really a surprise (that would have happened had one of the “friends” of Arisu turned out to be a Queen).
Another high point arrives, the great car chase that occurs in the first episode of season 2 of the streaming series is the final scene of this volume. A car chase is a great, almost necessary feature of any great action story, and here it’s a curious scene to be found paired with the bus game in the same volume. On the last page the big tractor trailer maze is queued up for the impending game beginning the next volume (look for a review of Volume 5 coming soon).
This is the first volume where Aso seems like he may not have a clear path ahead for his parallel world. Did he originally intend for the collecting of playing cards to be a way out for the characters, or was that just a gimmick? If you don’t know where the story is going, the possibility of “anything can happen” lies ahead.
Alice in Borderland Volume 1, Alice in Borderland Volume 2, and Alice in Borderland Volume 3 are excellent reads, and the challenge of Alice in Borderland Volume 4 is because everything is left up in the air. But we’re only halfway through the massive 2,752 page story. Alice in Borderland Volume 4 is available in print and 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.