Standing at eight episodes in total with close to an hour for each, it’s difficult to get past the need for a more brisk pace in dialogue and story delivery when it comes to episodic dramas. With Shinsuke Sato’s Alice In Borderland, it certainly helps that this one is an action-packed stimulant from a filmmaker credited for some of the most ample, worthwhile successes in action direction.
From the first episode onward, manga author Haro Aso’s own titular work is the basis for this story as we meet Ryohei Arisu, (Kento Yamazaki), a gaming addict and overall slacker. When he’s not wasting away at the controls to the chagrin of his much more successful, albeit judgemental brother and father, he escapes from under their microscope to hang out with friends Karube and Chota. After getting chewed out by his family and thrown out, Arisu convenes with his friends at the Shibuya Crossing for their usual galavanting and hijinks, nearly causing an accident before running and ducking police in a public bathroom stall.
Soon, the building mysteriously goes dark and quiet, and Arisu, Karube and Chota exit the building whilst slowly coming to the realization that nearly all of Tokyo may be empty, and it’s a matter of hours before they would discover that not are only small selections of people still alive and present, they would all soon find themselves trapped in a deadly dystopian nightmare where they would be forced to gamble their lives in a variety of death games, each with the only certainty that the games would get more and more difficult, along with the imminent possibility that more people would die, be it by the game, or the hidden overseers operating precision lazers from the sky above targeting anyone who quits or runs out of visa days.
Midway into the series, Arisu forms a friendship with Yuzuha Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), an adventurer and survivalist making her way through the city’s desolate grid. Grieving and traumatized by the new and unforgiving world around him, he is left in Usagi’s care, and they embark on the solving the games and finding the answers together. Finding clues and sightings along the way, they learn of a place called “The Beach”, once a lavish resort under a different name – now even more latitudinarian, adopted by Boshiya (Nobuaki Kaneko), whose own restrictive ground rule obligates all residents to compete in the games and acquire all the cards in order to return to the old world.
As Arisu and Usagi tread the terrain of the Beach’s escapist, laissez-faire allure, Arisu is exposed to the Beach’s even dark underbelly, including and not limited to the underlying and toxic rivalry between Boshiya and his ragtag militant guardsmen, led by maniacal heavy-hitter and former cop, Aguni (Sho Aoyagi). Arisu also gets roped into helping the guileful, Chesire Cat-inspired Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami) and beautiful cohort, Hikari (Aya Ashinya), to steal the cards, but things eventually come to a head as the militants commence a deadly takeover of the Beach. It’s only a matter of time before the hotel is stricken by a new game in which, once again, everyone will be forced to fight for their lives, just as Arisu and Usagi will fight for each other.
Without rehashing the aforementioned blurb on story pace, Alice In Borderland may certainly have its highs and lows for anyone familiar with the manga and anime with their own takes on its handling. To that end, least one reason why shows like this one are so marketable is because their entire property is new to the West, a fact that serves well the notion of Sato’s prominence outside Japan as one of the foremost filmmakers of his time. Having proven himself in recent years with feature and serial IPs like Library Wars, I Am A Hero, and Bleach to name a few, Sato further invokes his otherwise ample ability to transition mangas to screen and bring characters to life in a fluid, palpable way that doesn’t go much against the grain.
The series frugally explores the backgrounds of most of our characters, with Arisu’s flashbacks serving as climatic transitions between select scenes of introspection. A few of the more important arcs explored include that of Boshiya and Aguni, and the history that led to their fallout. Hikari’s story is also one of the show’s more interesting and illuminative points of characterization go to Ashina’s portrayal of Hikari, whose own pivotal backstory reveal during one of the show’s penultimate action scene with sword-wielding menace, Kazudo (Shuntaro Yanagi), explores her struggle with gender dysphoria against her ultraconservative karate dad’s biases. It’s understandable that some viewers and fans may take issue of Ashina’s casting as somewhat trans-baiting in that the role isn’t played by a transgender actress. Nonetheless, at least for me, this doesn’t take anything away from the phenomenal effort Ashina puts forth in her performance in conjunction with the writing, which is equally fantastic.
The action and action direction throughout is also great from start to finish, with one other highlight being Tsuchiya’s own physicality on full display. When she’s not running marathons and standing atop buildings overlooking the city, she’s holding her own pulling moves right out of Andrzej Bartkowiak-directed Jet Li flick. The show’s R-rated violence definitely increases per the stakes; From lazer-zapped heads to fatal electrocutions and maulings, the gravest of scenes include the rampant gun violence and mountainous disposal of human bodies within the second half. It lacks the kind of grotesque handling that would deem the violence to be off-putting. Instead, Sato trades Miike-style bluster for bravura in the writing, characterization and cinematography to coincide with the violence, so while the effect is still horrifying, it’s not without redemption by way of Sato’s usual storied cohesion.
If you’re as new to Alice In Borderland as this critic is, your own perceptive measures of cinema notwithstanding, you’ll certainly get a thrill out of this series. At best, it should serve as a decent and fair introduction to the show’s cast and starring lead actor Yamazaki, for further posterity. The show is his reunion with Sato since being on the set two years ago for last year’s extravagant action epic premiere, Kingdom, and considering both the show and said film are up for future continuations, I’d say Alice In Borderland is certainly worth a go. So is Kingdom, although that’s a different topic for another post.
Stream Alice In Borderland on Netflix.