Alice in Borderland splices together familiar genres and story elements in a slick, energetic package that is perfectly binge-ready.
This review of Alice in Borderland is spoiler-free.
The most striking thing that Shinsuke Sato’s Alice in Borderland does in its earliest moments is just getting straight to it. Admittedly, under ordinary circumstances, it would have been how it somehow manages to clear out Shibuya Crossing, one of the most famously heaving intersections in the world, but Covid-19 has been emptying densely-populated areas all year, so that old 28 Days Later trick has lost some of its luster. But that willingness to just get on with things still feels fresh. Here, the show says, are three best buds. Now things are going to get crazy. Enjoy.
And it’s really difficult not to just enjoy it. There isn’t half an episode of exposition and careful backstory-building. There isn’t even that much obvious franchise setup, really, even though the show is an adaptation of the Haro Aso manga and there’s significantly more of that than is adapted here. There isn’t a dense explanation for anything, even the characters – the various quirks and utilities of the important players are doled out as they become relevant and never really lingered on, and the audience’s understanding of what’s actually going on keeps pace with the characters’. We know what they know, and little else besides. What’s most pressing to them in the moment is most pressing to us, and it’s usually their immediate survival.
The “Alice” of the title is Ryohei Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), a college dropout slacker and video game enthusiast with a colossal intellect, especially when it comes to deciphering the logic of puzzles and games. This quickly becomes very useful indeed since he and his friends, the tough-guy ladies’ man Karube (Keita Machida) and dorky IT specialist Chota (Yuki Morinaga), all enter a toilet cubicle together in Shibuya Station and emerge to an empty Tokyo, now full of deadly survival challenges categorized by playing cards denoting their type and difficulty. Instructions are relayed by smartphones, and failure results in a messy death. Arisu and his friends will have to work together both with each other and different players, including the hyper-athletic mountain climber Yuzuha Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), to stay alive long enough to figure out what’s going on.
So, yes, Alice in Borderland is Battle Royale and Saw given a contemporary game-y makeover and a very comic-book-y sensibility. None of its composite elements are new, but this is a very refined and energetic version of a binge-ready format, content to rocket along at a breakneck pace and only dispense plot or character information as it’s needed, confidant in the diversity and excitement of the games themselves keeping viewers engaged. And boy, was I engaged. The production is slick, the action is well-choreographed and exciting, the games are clever, and the characters are believable as best friends thrust into an unpredictable and dangerous situation. At eight episodes all under an hour, this is a lightning-fast riff on a well-worn format that might prove to be the streaming highlight of the weekend.