I’ve been watching the Netflix television series, Alice in Borderland the past few days. Not in a binge watch, but in episode or two bites. I think it is an interesting enough effort to make a few comments on the show while I work my through.
To recap: AiB is a Japanese language show filmed in an alternate Tokyo where a population of people chosen for unknown reasons are forced to play “games” along the lines of escape-room tropes. The games are always potentially deadly and are sometimes set up so that only one participant can “win” under the conditions given. (Ryōhei) Arisu is the main character so far, a 24-year old man obsessed with video games and a bit of a society dropout. Players must participate within a given timeframe, or the “visa” expires and they are killed by whomever is controlling the games via lasers or bullets to the head (it is unclear). Some of the antagonists, it turns out, are likewise forced participants who will die if they do not participate in the games as enemies.
Last night, I watched episodes 3 and 4.
When I first posted about the series a few days ago, I was critical of some of the writing, but episode 3 seemed to break away from those problems. Episode 2 had made strides to move away from some of the requirements of suspension of reality to enjoy the show, but episode 3 is where you could see some of the potential for the series come out and I felt like it wasn’t just another MTV Shannara Chronicles, something it threatened to be in the first (which is helped by a long shot by the avoidance of the silly costumes that Shannara employed that made the story even more campy, like a Terry Brooks version of Twilight).
Episode 3’s ending actually was fairly gut-wrenching, something that takes a bit of guts to do as a writer. While I have some quibbles about one character’s response to the events (her reaction was not logically consistent with her previous actions), I found myself both wanting the climax to continue longer and to be over with at the same time.
Spoiler: I like to be made uncomfortable by music, movies, books and TV. The main reason I dislike most movies and TV is that they either succumb to using standard discomfort tropes (rape seems to be the big one these past two decades) or avoid all discomfort altogether (even the bad guys survive!). One of the reasons I liked Star Blazers /Space Battleship Yamato so much as a young kid was that characters died, which never happened in any “cartoon” that I could find at the time. I like it when there are risks and consequences. Unfortunately, American television (especially) and movies (frequently) tend to negate any risks taken by diminishing or eliminating any meaningful consequence for a decision made by a character.
Arisu in episode 3 takes a risk he later regrets and is so traumatized by the consequences that he tries to let his body die in the beginning of episode 4. I watched him laying out in the middle of the street like a murder victim waiting to be chalked and I knew that feeling all to well myself. Just lay there and wait to die. If you are uncomfortable, then become the discomfort because you’ve earned it and it is no longer discomfort, but your just desserts. But the body sometimes wants to live even when the mind does not and he comes back. Again, between the acting and the writing, it felt authentic. So, it seems, the writers started to get into their own story (which is based on a manga title, by the way). Then — the next “game”, like all of them, is about misdirection — giving the “players” information that cannot be trusted, yet is still critical to understanding the solution to the particular game. Again, it is Arisu’s choices that lead to a happy (albeit quite accidental) consequence.
But people die, and trust is hard to earn. In that respect, it is like The Walking Dead, where Benjamin Franklin’s “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately” seems to be the ruling philosophy (except for those damned hearts suit games, games of the heart and betrayal). No one wants to trust the other people in the Borderland, but they usually fare better if they bond together and help each other. Of course, as I’ve already alluded, bonding together can also lead to disaster.
So far, I feel like this is a faster-burner than Dark (German language television show), which didn’t really get interesting until season 2. It’s not campy as the Twelve Monkeys television series, but it does have enough humor to give you a break from darkness (I think that was one of the major pitfalls of TWD, especially after the Negan and eternal war crap near the end — there were no funny moments that I can think of in the series, nothing light at all; even GoT had some lighter moments to offset the dark overtones).
i hesitate to recommend Alice in Borderland. It has a very specific taste to it that won’t sit well with a lot of people. I guess — if you enjoy Japanese anime and those kinds of sentiments/tropes, you’ll probably enjoy Alice. Hunger Games? I guess it is a close analogue. If you’re expecting something Shakespearean, something like Rom/Horror/Fantasy like Twilight, or even standard American action… you’ll probably not enjoy it.