Alice in Borderland – Season 1
Review by David Cirone
Based on the manga series by Haro Aso, Alice in Borderland is a fun but frustrating addition to the “survival game” genre. In the new Netflix series, three friends must survive a series of tests after they’re suddenly transported to an alternate Tokyo where most of the population has disappeared. They have no choice to sit it out, either — failure to participate gets you a satellite laser to the head.
The life-and-death stakes are set up pretty clearly, and the inevitable introduction of new characters into the friends’ lives brings a steady supply of new developments. Heading up the group is the title character Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), a 20-something who wastes his mathematical genius (he’s got stacks of stacks of advanced theory books in his room) on playing video games all day. He navigates this new terrain with his childhood besties Chota (Yuuki Morinaga) and Karube (Keita Machida), and they enter their first game together when the big Shibuya LED screen tells them to. Without spoiling the plot, I can safely say they encounter victory, loss, and a growing cast of supporting characters as they try to stay alive under the control of their mysterious game master(s).
The series ends up being a mostly intellectual exercise — meta, in some ways, as the experience of watching the first season’s eight episodes became more and more like watching a game show on my couch. There’s a judgement factor that comes into play — where we try to figure out the puzzle before the contestant, or armchair-quarterback a major strategic decision — and if that’s what you’re looking for, Alice in Borderland certainly delivers.
But unlike other superior entries in this genre — Battle Royale, Liar Game, Sword Art Online — attempts at emotional complexity or subtle characterization are scoring zero.
Alice leans heavy on tropes — the morally-balanced characters tolerate and support the characters whose emotions get the better of them. Staying aloof and cerebral is always the go-to method of survival in this genre, and when a character displays too much feeling, it’s generally a signal that they’re next on the chopping block. Likewise, characters marked for death by the scriptwriters will always get some sort of traumatic flashback to make sure we’re feeling sorry for them right before their tragic end.
The characterizations fall flat, too. While Yamazaki put a whole lot of effort into his portrayal, the script trips him up time and time again. The “math”/”gamer” advantage disappears after the first round, and he’s simply reactive for the rest of the first season. He has two huge emotional scenes that simply dial him up to 10 and keep him there, so the personality and skills he supposedly brought into this game world are just crushed by out-of-character monologues.
Tao Tsuchiya as Usagi emerges as a strong supporting character, but likewise she’s written as one-note. Her athletic ability is utilized in her introductory scenes, but then she ends up stuck handling future games in a generic way. If we’re supposed to follow Arisu and Usagi’s journey to defeat this game world, we’ve got to feel something special about them. But once the new group of flamboyant supporting characters is introduced, they end up taking a back seat.
Alice in Borderland goes out of it way to hit you in the feels, but ultimately overplays its hand again and again. Despite a broadly-written script, Alice in Borderland features great acting performances throughout. Aya Asahina plays a lethal bikini-clad fighter with a complicated past, Sho Aoyagi brings a lot of depth to his role as a soldier-turned-mob-enforcer, and Ayaka Miyoshi is sharply funny as a former forensics expert who takes a leading role in the quest to escape the game.
Production design is impressive, especially in the early scenes where the characters discover the eerily empty Tokyo streets. The outstanding soundtrack by Yutaka Yamada gives the show an epic feel and hits the suspenseful moments with just the right touch.
Alice in Borderland – Season 1 is now playing on Netflix.