Review–Volume 5 of Alice in Borderland manga amps up the intrigue

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, and we’ve reviewed Volume 1 here, Volume 2 here, Volume 3 here, and Volume 4 here.  Each book is a massive 344-page paperback, and with Volume 5 they altogether collect the first 40 chapters.  Alice in Borderland Volume 5 is available in print and digital now here at Amazon, or add it to your VIZ account here.  In the first volume readers met series protagonist Arisu and his friends entering the dark setting of Borderland.  The next two volumes increased the pace of action and tension.  Volume 4 focused on the hopelessness of the series’ leads chances.  Volume 5 slows the story down, shifting the nature of the threat and intensifying the story’s unique brand of villainy.

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.  Beginning with the fourth volume, the pace of the story has slowed down.  With the last volume I thought it was because the author was struggling with his direction forward.  With Volume 5, Aso leans into the story as parable, the human condition mirrored–and diced up for examination–in fantasy form.

Alice in Borderland does a better job than the very overt Snowpiercer books.  It’s more impactful because of the individual stories, and the individual struggles serve up gut punches you can’t ignore.  Readers finally see why the author used Lewis Carroll’s story for his framework.  It’s more like the use of Carroll’s story as a dramatic device than a replay of his characters and situations.

Series lead Arisu (the Japanese pronunciation of Alice as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) leads his small band of players better this volume.  We begin a new era of the games in “The King of Clubs,” where the King himself leads a team game to the death with Arisu’s group.  Subplots introduce the last key badass woman of the story, Akane Haiya, on her first day in Borderland in the game “Seven of Spades,” and we also go back in time to view Chishiya’s first day in Borderland, a blackjack game called “Six of Diamonds.”  Akane is not introduced until the fifth episode of the second season of the Netflix series, and like in the book, Chishiya, Aso’s interpretation of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, sees his first day arrive late in the TV series.  Notably the two side stories are more interesting than the main thread of Arisu, which will continue in Volume 6.

The worst part of this volume is the absence of Kuina and An, and even Usagi is virtually absent.  If not for a late-breaking play for points in an arena full of trailer cars, you wouldn’t know the woman established as the story’s female lead was still in the story.  Akane’s introduction this late in the books, as a main character some 1,300+ pages in, is a testament to Aso’s ability to bring something fresh and important into his world building at any point.

As for the games, they require the reader to play along RPG style, requiring a solid sense of math, probability, and statistics to truly keep up, or not play along and go for the ride.  You can view the story as soap opera and key in on the relationships, or look for the parallels to Alice in Wonderland.  Volume 5 is more of a thinking person’s book than the action/adventure/horror story of the first volume.  But again you can enjoy it in different ways.  The key theme is about finding reasons to live even if your life is a struggle against all kinds of adversity.

Alice in Borderland Volume 1, Alice in Borderland Volume 2, and Alice in Borderland Volume 3 are excellent reads, Alice in Borderland Volume 4 is a challenge because everything is left up in the air.  Now 3,000+ pages into the story, in Alice in Borderland Volume 5 more of the mind of Aso is becoming clearer.  Volume 5 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 three volumes.

Leave a Reply