In the carefree, pre-pandemic Before Times, escape rooms were all the rage as fun group activities, where people had to solve a puzzle or mystery, or complete a series of tasks, in order to escape. Alice in Borderland, a hugely entertaining new Netflix series from Japan, takes that concept to a whole new level, transforming Tokyo into an alternate dimension called “Borderland.” Those trapped therein must compete in deadly games to survive, and escape is by no means guaranteed. This is an emotionally intense, addictive series you’ll definitely want to binge.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
As previously reported, the series is based on the Japanese manga by Haro Aso. It has elements of Alice in Wonderland and Ready Player One, with a dash of Lord of the Flies and the 1997 sci-fi horror film, Cube, thrown in for good measure, but it’s very much an original vision. The TV adaptation is directed by Shinsuke Sato, best known for 2001’s The Princess Blade and last year’s Kingdom, and co-written by Haro Aso and Yasuko Kuramitsu. The manga tells the story of Ryōhei Arisu (Arisu can be translated as “Alice”), a bored high schooler who longs for a more exciting life. Arisu’s wish is granted during a fireworks celebration: he and his two best friends find themselves in a post-apocalyptic parallel world known as Borderland.
The Netflix adaptation follows the same basic premise, with a few minor tweaks—most notably, the central characters are young adults rather than high schoolers. Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) is “a listless, jobless and video-game-obsessed young man.” Karube (Keita Machida) is a bartender who has just been fired for sleeping with the boss’s girlfriend, and Chota (Yûki Morinaga) is a bored, mild-mannered office worked. After a mysterious power outage, they suddenly find themselves in an eerie, emptied-out version of Tokyo.
As night falls, neon signs direct them to what turns out to be a gaming “arena.” Once they enter the arena, they are issued smartphones that deliver instructions for the game at hand—in this case, a locked room puzzle in which they must repeatedly guess the correct door to pass from room to room in a building. Guess wrong, and the room will engulf them in flames. They must win the game (i.e., survive) in order to exit, and they do so, thanks to Arisu’s quick thinking. But they are still trapped in this strange world, along with many others, and must keep playing games to survive. They do find other allies along the way, most notably a young woman named Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), a mountain climber with excellent survival skills.
Games are held every night after sundown. Each game comes with a particular playing card. Win the game, and the player is issued a “visa”—a pass wherein they don’t have to compete for a certain number of days, corresponding to the number of the card. The four suits are specific categories of games.
Spades are games that require physical strength (Usagi and Karube excel at them), diamonds are games of wit and intelligence (Asiru’s specialty), clubs are games where teamwork is required (Chota’s forte), and hearts—well, hearts are the cruelest games of all, since they are psychological games that involve emotional manipulation and betrayal. You can win a game of hearts, but that victory will come at a tremendous cost, and it might just break you entirely.
The locked-room game, for instance, corresponds to the 3 of Clubs, so when they win, Asiru and his pals have three days’ respite before they have to compete in another deadly game. The penalty for not playing is being zapped into oblivion by a deadly laser beam shooting down from the sky, so let’s just say the unwilling participants are highly motivated to comply. There are also “dealers” charged with infiltrating the games for the express purpose of sabotaging them, in exchange for visas.
Much of the pleasure and dramatic tension of Alice in Borderland arises from the sheer sadistic ingenuity of the games. For instance, a twisted game of tag (5 of Spades) gives all the players 20 minutes to find a safe base somewhere within an abandoned apartment building, while avoiding the person designated “It”—whose job is to gun down any player he or she encounters. After 20 minutes, the entire building is rigged to explode. As for Hide and Seek (7 of Hearts), all the players don a special electronic collar; one person is the “wolf,” the others are “sheep.” Lock eyes with the wolf and you trade designations. The person who is the wolf after 15 minutes wins the game; the sheeps’ heads explode. (Yes, the body count for this series is substantial.)
Another strength: the many different colorful characters, each with their own compelling back stories—the better to break the viewers’ hearts should one of them eventually lose a game. There is a version of the Mad Hatter, known simply as the Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko), who sets up a collective of survivors dubbed “the Beach,” with the aim of cooperating to play enough games to collect all the cards in the deck. (There is an unconfirmed rumor that this is the only way to escape Borderland.) A mysterious figure known as Chishiya (Nijirô Murakami), aka “Cheshire,” forms an alliance with Kuina (Aya Asahina), a former clerk in a clothing store with martial arts training, who in turn has a bikini-clad showdown with a katana-wielding tattooed psycho known as the Last Boss (Shuntaro Yanagi). And so forth.
The pacing is relentless, chock-full of unexpected twists and WTF scenes, plus a few well-placed moments of downtime to give viewers a chance to catch their breath now and then. The stakes rise fast, and thanks to the expert plotting, the stakes keep rising all the way through to the finale, which—in time-honored Netflix fashion—wraps up a bunch narrative threads while setting up a possible second season. The remaining players “level up” to the next stage, but we still have no idea of the identity of the master(s) behind the games.
There’s no official word yet on the show’s renewal. S1 roughly covered events in the first 31 chapters of the manga; a second season could easily encompass the remaining 33 chapters. Here’s hoping Alice in Borderland escapes the streaming giant’s brutal, pandemic-driven budget axe, and we get the chance to lose ourselves down this deliciously bonkers rabbit hole once again.
Alice in Borderland is now streaming on Netflix. In Japanese with English subtitles.