(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: Alice in Borderland
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: What if Battle Royale and Saw had a sick, twisted baby that that puts its characters through a series of manipulative, tortuous games — usually with a high body and splatter count?
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Based on the manga of the same name by Haro Aso, Alice in Borderland has the unfortunate fate of having a bad title. Or at least, a confusing title that doesn’t really convey the kind of horror/sci-fi series that Alice in Borderland is. But once you get past the idea that there is no one named Alice in Alice in Borderland, and that the dystopian riff on Alice in Wonderland is thin at best, you’re in for a twisty little ride.
Alice in Borderland follows Ryohei Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) a directionless young man who cares only about video games and about hanging out with his similarly directionless two friends: his nebbish IT tech friend Chota (Yûki Morinaga), and the brawler bartender Daikichi (Keita Machida). While evading the cops after pulling a prank in the middle of Shibuya crossing, the three of them suddenly find themselves transported to a completely empty Tokyo. There’s no living person in sight — not a person, not an animal — and all technology seems to have shut down. Cars have been left abandoned all over the highways, their phones won’t work, and they wonder if everyone had been suddenly evacuated from the city. Then night falls and the lights turn on at various buildings scattered throughout the city. The trio enter one and find themselves forced to participate in the first of many violent life-or-death games alongside several other stranded Tokyo residents, including born survivor Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), whose name, coincidentally, means “rabbit.”
Alice in Borderland is very much of that “based on a manga” variety, in that its over-the-top tone — both in the extreme violence and the big, oftentimes hammy, performances — feels very anime. But it never tips over into unwatchable live-action anime camp thanks to a grim realism that permeates the series. We’re introduced and immediately grow attached to the main trio, led by the disaffected but smart Arisu, whose wide-eyed affability gives us an emotional anchor even as the show grows more ridiculous. Usagi, at first a mysterious figure who hops in to save Arisu, is also given a tragic backstory and a clean bob haircut that immediately places her as “hero.” There’s an undercurrent of class disparity that gives Alice in Borderland some more depth to it too, though those themes quickly fall by the wayside as the show becomes more about the extremely complicated, extremely deadly games that our protagonists are thrown into.
Sometimes they’re Rube Goldberg puzzle boxes that they have to solve, or be incinerated. Sometimes they’re death matches in a huge apartment complex, in which they’re hunted by a masked killer. Or sometimes they’re games of wit, in which Arisu and Usagi must outsmart the players who have gathered a huge army of followers in barren, dystopian version of Tokyo. The whole time, the answers behind this sick series of games elude us: why are they here? What happened to the people of Tokyo? And who is orchestrating these games? Alice in Borderland smartly plays the long game and only answers those questions with more questions — you’ve got to keep people coming back for season 2, after all.
/Film – ‘Slash Film: The Quarantine Stream: ‘Alice in Borderland’ is a Twisty Japanese Thriller With Plenty of Puzzles and Exploding Heads’
Author: Hoai-Tran Bui
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February 23, 2021