Review

by Theron Martin,

Alice in Borderland Live-Action TV Series

Streaming

Synopsis:
Alice in Borderland Live-Action TV Series
Compared to his successful younger brother, gamer Arisu is a major disappointment, something he gets reminded about regularly. Only when hanging out with friends Karube and Segawa does he find any comfort. One day when goofing around, they find themselves hiding in a bathroom stall when the power suddenly goes out. Upon leaving, they discover a suddenly-deserted Tokyo, one where any electronics with chips don't function. One night, while investigating a building that is mysteriously lit up, they find themselves with a handful of others and trapped in a deadly escape room-type game; try to leave or open the wrong door and they get shot through the head by a laser from above. They soon come to understand that all of the people still around are forced to regularly participate in these games. Winning gets them a visa to sit out for a few days. Losing or refusing to play past a visa expiration means death. Who is controlling this, and why? And how do they get back to their normal lives?
Review:

The shonen manga Alice in Borderland released 18 volumes between 2010 and 2016, not counting assorted spin-offs. It also spawned a three-episode OVA series in 2014, which is, unfortunately, not legally available in English. This 2020 Netflix Original series adapts the story into eight live-action episodes averaging roughly 50 minutes each. The result is a traditional closed-venue death game set-up which should satisfy genre fans but will probably not hold much appeal to those who do not care for death games and/or bloody fare in general.

And that is the first and most important thing to understand about this series: it is quite graphically violent. People die in every episode (usually in multiples), whether by gunshot, wild animals, laser beams, multiple-story falls, or bladed weapons, and the production is not tame about depicting blood splatter where relevant. Titular character Arisu also gets bloodily beaten more than once, and one late episode has a graphic autopsy scene. Attempted or successful suicides and an attempted rape scene add to the unsettling content. Though the series has no frontal nudity, it does feature a couple of strongly-implied sex scenes and naked bodies laying face down on autopsy tables. In other words, take the TV-MA rating seriously.

The source manga is also not yet available in English, but based on synopses that I have found online, this adaptation makes one major apparent change by aging initial trio of Arisu, Karube, and Segawa, as well as later arrival Usagi, up into their 20s. (They were high school students originally.) Functionally, this has little to no impact on the actual story, however. With a changing array of companions, Arisu and later Saori spend the first four episodes progressing through a widely-varied series of death games. Along the way they must deal with the emotional consequences of friends and allies lost in the game and contemplate what they would or would not do to survive, something which becomes a recurring theme for the series.

The series shifts gears dramatically when Arisu and Saori reach “The Beach,” an organized gathering of those who have been transported to the game setting. For a while, the story becomes at least as much about the loose governance and internal tensions within The Beach, though the games are not entirely set aside. Since this is also partly a post-apocalyptic scenario, the structure of this “paradise” is fragile, and naturally things fall apart in a big way before everything is done. Unsurprisingly, how everyone is getting transported here, where “here” actually is, and what the point is to all of this is never explained. The series also never offers more than a suggestion on how the smartphones, equipment, and playing cards keep popping up, and even that is a stretch.

The death games themselves are interestingly creative, and the mechanics where cards from a standard deck are used to define both type and difficulty level (a five of clubs would be a mid-level team scenario, for instance) works, but the story in general is quite formulaic. The mostly-standard character roster puts Arisu in the role of the premiere puzzle-solver, while Saori represents the athlete, with the twist in this case being that she is an expert mountain climber. (Some of the most exciting scenes show her putting her climbing skills to good use.) Other recurring characters are the standard mix of sly types, military types, sexpot types, gun nuts, and tattooed sword nuts. One character who appears at The Beach is strongly implied to be a trans woman, but it is a throwaway detail with no impact on the story.

The production qualities of the series vary. Many of the “empty Tokyo” shots look like they were done with a scale model, but it takes careful attention to notice it. The wild animals other than rabbits that show up on a couple of occasions are likely CG constructs, but are done well. So are the blood splatter effects. The first two and last three episodes zing along, but in between the pacing drags as efforts to build tension or show the malaise that affects one major character bog down the story instead. The mostly techno musical score is unable to compensate at these points, though it sufficiently helps build tension at other times.

Acting quality also varies, for both the original Japanese actors and the English dubbers. On both fronts, the best performances belong to Hatter, the almost cult-like leader of The Beach, while the weakest belongs to ex-soldier Abe; he is supposed to be poker-faced as a character, so the fault here may be more with the writing, but he carries the stoic impression so far that he sometimes seems like he is just standing around waiting for his turn. Beyond them, acting quality is about average on the Japanese side, while the English dub, except for one or two other hiccups, is above average for live-action dubs. Per Netflix norms, numerous other sub and dub options are also available.

In total, Alice in Borderland (“Borderland” is apparently what this place is called, though that term is never used in the series) provides a modest amount of entertainment value for its roughly 6½ hour time commitment.

Grade:
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Art : B-
Music : B-

+ Good variety of death games, Saori's climbing stunts can impress
Too little is explained or justified, pacing is hit or miss

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