This “Alice in Borderland” review first appeared in Philippine Daily Inquirer on Dec. 11.
Want to watch an Asian show where people engage in mind-bending challenges against each other, sometimes turning on each other, for survival in a mysterious situation while also serving as societal commentary?
No, it’s not “Squid Game.”
It actually came before that, is much more violent and may be cleverer.“Alice in Borderland,” an 8-episode Netflix series out of Japan, came out in 2020, gripping viewers with its mind games, stunning them with its body count and utterly vexing them with the enigma behind its events. The Korean “Squid Game,” also from Netflix, would come out a year later to much wider acclaim. But it’s the differences between the two shows that make “Borderland,” now back for its second season, a better draw for slightly younger viewers despite the deaths.
Based on a manga by Haro Aso and directed by Shinsuke Sato, “Borderland” is loosely (and rather viciously) inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It centers on a slacker named Arisu (yes, literally, Japanese for “Alice,” played by Kento Yamazaki) who spends all his time playing video games instead of going to going to job interviews.
One day, he and his friends are in Shibuya Crossing when most of the population of Tokyo suddenly vanish. Arisu and friends find themselves battling it out with others in inventive, deadly locked-room mysteries and after surviving each game, they receive visas, which extend their lives in Tokyo, if that is where they are. Once the time on their visas run out, lasers literally rain down from the skies to incinerate them.
At the end of the first episode, a girl watches Arisu’s group from the shadows. This is our first look at Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya). Usagi soon joins their group, and the games, based on playing cards, become more dangerous as players turn on each other as some form groups; but desperation soon lead the players on a murderous rampage that end up nowhere.
At the end of the first season, Arisu, Usagi and allies find themselves faced by an entire new set of games with still no clue who are behind the games.
Between seasons, viewers ponder the possibilities: Aliens? Simulations? Cruel reality?
Now, with season 2, the showrunners fix the two criticisms people had about the first show: the pace and the character development. The episodes mercilessly slash forward, mowing down characters you’ve grown to love at a video-game pace. The games now openly involve the players instead of through subterfuge, and the collection of the key cards to get to the final boss involve sacrifices.
The other aspect, character development, is solved by moments where Arisu and Usagi, in particular, thoughtfully reveal their back stories, and viewers witness the real state of the protagonists’ relationships. Unlike the first season, the second season has a definitive ending. Or does it?
It might be best to watch the second season with friends so you can discuss the exact implications of the show’s final episode which either ends the franchise or throws everything into question. You won’t get Tsuchiya to answer that, but she will answer other questions. She explains that the games are a 50/50 balance of psychological mind games and physical games.
While Arisu was clearly the star of the first season, it’s Usagi who emerges as the standout of the second season, with many more scenes. Usagi gets to talk more about the effect of her father’s death (something we found out in season 1) but has a whopping number of action scenes that shows off the character’s mounter-climber’s athleticism.
As a result, Tsuchiya has an almost completely different set of challenges, particular physical ones. “She’s a character who has never experienced martial arts or combat,” she says to reporters through a translator via Zoom. “So, when she is in combat or in a battle, her movements can’t look too cool. So instead of trying to accomplish cool movements or cool action sequences, I always wanted to put her emotions behind her maneuvers or movements.”
Sense of love
And this went into her character as well: “She’s not only a strong character what I liked about her Sagi is the fact that she also has her weakness. And she has this feeling of love and then most of that because of that when I was working on playing her I always wanted to have this sense of love when I was portraying her.”
Shooting the series was no tea time. They had to undergo shooting under COVID-19 protocols; their body temperatures are taken constantly and wear masks during rehearsal, which made it difficult so see each other’s expressions. But they never suspended shooting. There were moments of odd levity, such as when they were shooting at the tallest building in Shibuya at five o’clock in the morning.
“The crew were obviously very sleepy at that time and we were basically like in a situation we look like we are about to die in a minute, but then at that moment, for whatever reason we burst out laughing. And I’m sure the crew members didn’t understand why we were laughing that hard but there was a moment because, you know, because it’s such a tough world that we are trying to portray.”
As for Tsuchiya’s favorite episode?
“I love episode 7 and I love the fact that we all assemble and work together on this that we have this camaraderie that help each other and we take action.”
This is not Tsuchiya’s first time as part of a big Japanese franchise. She’s the adorkable Sai-wielding action girl Misao in three “Rurouni Kenshin” movies, “Kyoto Inferno,” “The Legend Ends” and “The Final.”
She sings, writes her own songs, dances and is a model as well, of course. The interesting thing is that this is actually the third time that Tsuchiya and Yamazaki (the live-action TV adaptation of the “Death Note Manga” and the 2018 Japanese adaptation of the Korean “Good Doctor”) have worked together: the movie “Orange” and the TV show “Mare” both in 2015.
“Borderland” season 2 continues to bristle with the “Lord of The Flies” element of throwing all these different parts of Japanese society—otakus, salarymen, yakuza—into a powder-keg sukiyaki and see what comes out.
The use of the playing cards motif is carried out even better this season, and the science-fiction aspect is ingeniously fleshed out, no matter how you interpret the ending. As a result, “Alice in Borderland” season 2 is more epic and “I believe season 2 is even more enjoyable because the scale is bigger,” Tsuchiya says to Super. “And the CGI and technology’s bigger, and there we created a world I’d never imagined before.
So, I think the whole thing is an upgrade.”“Alice in Borderland” season 2 starts streaming on Netflix on Dec. 22.