Review: Alice in Borderland

Netflix been a blessing during the pandemic. It’s brought us a huge variety of entertainment. When it ran out of Western shows to feed our ever-present need for distraction, there was an entire realm of foreign-language fiction to discover.

Among the more recently-released series was Alice in Borderland, a parallel-reality science fiction series of Japanese origin, set in a dystopian Tokyo in which everyone’s a contestant in games designed to bring about their rapid demise.

Based on a Japanese manga that dates back to 2010, the series is a mind-bending nightmare with lots of triggering scenes for the more sensitive among us – be aware.

I don’t know what it’s like to watch Netflix in the States, but in Europe, about a third of everything on my Netflix front page is foreign language TV and film.

Different cultures do fiction, fantasy and sci-fi in different ways. Storytelling tropes vary and while some stories are easy to absorb, others can break the willing suspension of disbelief because the cultural storytelling norms are too distant from our own.

What’s more surprising (and enjoyable) is when something that you imagine shouldn’t work, actually works quite well. It feels like a brief, evansecent glimpse of another culture’s point of view. For me, Alice in Borderland fell into this category.

It’s Tokyo, but not as we know it

Our heroes, a group of misfits, of which the main character is Arisu, get into a little trouble. While hiding from the police in a public bathroom, they experience a power outage. Upon exiting their hiding space, they find themselves alone in all of Tokyo. Everyone else has disappeared, leaving their steaming cups of coffee and half-eaten ramen behind.

After a while of wandering around, confirming that they truly are alone, they discover that during the night, a single building in the city lights up. Signs point them towards it, and it is referred to as the game arena.

Here they discover that they are not, after all, completely alone. In fact, others find themselves in an equivalent predicament, and have gathered at this location. Together they play a game over which they have no control. Failure of any kind seems to result in immediate and certain death. Barely escaping with their lives, and with a new acquaintance in tow, they are given a three-day “visa”, allowing them to exist in this city for three days, after which they must play another game, or be killed by what appears to be a laser shot from the sky.

If this all feels spoilerish, let me reassure you – I have barely scratched the surface.

Lost on steroids

Remember “Lost”? This feels vaguely similar. If the omnipotent hand that tests the characters is far less subtle in “Alice”, the nature of this strange and challenging world, and the purpose behind it, are just as frustratingly absent as on the mysterious island.

We’ll have to hope that when they wrap up this series, they’ll have a more satisfying conclusion than Lost did.

The cast of characters grows rapidly, and the show never shies away from killing off even the most central of cast members. This helps keep things unpredictable. By the end of the first season, we have just enough information to realize that our first guesses as to the nature of the world they’re trapped in are all wrong.

The final episode takes what little we know, recontextualizes it, then dramatically ups the ante, dealing us a pretty hand of cards for the beginning of season two, which has been teased, but currently has no release date.

If you’re OK with subtitles, you might find the weirdness of Alice in Borderland to your liking. I enjoyed it quite a lot, although I have no problem understanding that perhaps it’s not for everyone!

Have you seen it? What did you think?

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