Hot on the heels of Squid Game is Netflix’s latest binge-worthy Asian tv series, the Japanese Alice in Borderland. With similar themes, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between this and the aforementioned smash hit South Korean series, Squid Game. But with a frustratingly intriguing plot, Alice in Borderland definitely has the edge.
Based on a manga series, Alice in Borderland follows main character Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), an unemployed young man who spends his day playing computer games. After being kicked out of the house by his father, Arisu makes plans to meet his similarly unfortunate friends Chota (Yūki Morinaga) and Karube (Keita Machida) for a day of careless fun. After causing disruption in Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, the friends hide from the police in a station bathroom. Soon after they emerge from the bathroom to find the entire city empty of people and with all electronic equipment, devices and vehicles completely dead.
At night a sign illuminates to lead them to a ‘game arena’. Following the only lit signs in the city, the friends arrive at the arena where they are all given a mobile phone that displays a playing card illustrating the game’s difficulty. Here they’re joined by a couple of girls including authoritative Shibuki (Ayami Misaki) and discover that once registered, they are unable to leave the arena under threat of death. They proceed to play their first game, ‘Dead or Alive’, which reveals the true lethal nature of the games where any missteps or a failure to clear the game results in death.
After clearing their first game, Arisu, his friends and Shibuki are granted a visa, which gives them a number of free days until they are required to clear another game or face death should it expire. They make a base in a local department store where Chota and Shibuki rest while Arisu and Karube decide to enter another game, where they meet a number of other survivors including agile climber Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), a threatening, ex-soldier Aguni (Sho Aoyagi) and the mysterious Chishiya (Nijirõ Murakami). Soon Arisu, his friends and the other survivors must fight to clear every deadly game while attempting to discover who the enigmatic gamemaster is behind it all.
After a brief fun introduction to Arisu and his friends, Alice in Borderland wastes no time in throwing us into the action and this continues throughout the entire 8-episode series. There isn’t a single episode that feels too long or drawn out and it races along at quite a pace. While the themes on offer here are nothing unique or unusual, the plot is still an intriguing one and there is a decent number of twists and turns that keep you hooked – some of which are genuinely surprising and others which are heart-wrenchingly sad. There is one particularly noteworthy episode early on that is incredibly tear-jerking and pulls a punch that I doubt many would have seen coming so soon into the series.
In addition to Squid Game, this feels similar to the likes of Lost and Battle Royale, and we’re even treated to very Lost-esque flashbacks of the characters’ lives before the games. The games themselves feel a lot deeper and more puzzle-like than the childish games in Squid Game, and the stakes here are just as high and full of tension. The characters are also a lot better thought out and developed, many with complicated or interesting motivations and backstories. The secretive, intelligent Chishiya is a notable standout with hidden motives and an is he/isn’t he story that makes for an engaging watch. Out of all of the characters, it’s Arisu that is probably the weakest. He’s likeable, especially with his logical thinking and the experiences he goes through, however, he’s a bit of a punchbag and never seems to fight back against anyone stronger, which gets a bit irritating by the end. That said, I’m hopeful that following on from the series finale Arisu might come into his own in the next series.
The biggest criticism I can raise is that despite its rather graphic and deadly scenes, this series seems to be aimed more at the young adult market. Not a major problem but there are some goofy moments that appeal more to the teenage generation and it isn’t helped by the fact that the majority of the characters are within the younger age bracket. The biggest frustration of all though is that this series ends when it does. The finale gives enough away to leave you satisfied to a point, but it shies away from revealing everything and the ending just has you hungry for more. A second season is in the making and likely due for a late-2022 release, but for me, that just isn’t soon enough.
While it doesn’t seem to have garnered the same audience numbers as Squid Game, for me Alice in Borderland is the better of the two. With consistent, entertaining and high-quality episodes and a plot that is captivating yet frustrating in equal measures, this is a great show and one that I can’t wait to see what happens next.
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A contract manager moonlighting as a rather discerning film and book critic, with an almost fangirl appreciation for anything made by Christopher Nolan. When I’m not catching up on my latest read or watch, you can usually find me trying out my amateur baking skills – Bake Off here I come!