One of the last big outputs of 2020 content from Netflix came in the form of several foreign television shows in December. One of the ones I sat down to watch was an adaptation of a popular Japanese suspense manga, Alice in Borderland (Imawa no Kuni no Arisu, original Japanese name) and it was quite the ride. A fun mix of suspense, fantasy, and horror elements this show has the feel of many other live-action manga adaptations. However, unlike most of the previous efforts by Netflix to adapt popular Japanese IP (Death Note (2017) and Fullmetal Alchemist (2017) being the standouts of mediocrity) this show is a lot of fun intertwined with earned emotion and edge-of-your-seat suspense, and thoroughly delivers a faithful and praise-deserving adaptation that will excite and entertain audiences.
Alice in Borderland follows a group of outcasts as they find themselves transported to a parallel dystopian world. Once there, they find that this wasteland is an exact mirror of the world they left with the exception that they appear to be alone. However, they quickly learn that is not the case as this world reveals itself as a giant survival game that pits them against each other and other people who have found themselves in the world.
The premise of this show is a very fresh and unique idea for American audiences and it plays out really well. The mystery of how and why everything in this parallel world is happening combined with the heart and camaraderie between the cast of characters delivers a fun plot and likeable characters that you can easily latch onto and root for. The ideas behind “the games” that the characters must fight through are all well thought out and very unique when compared to survival/death games found in other properties (Hunger Games franchise and Escape Room (2019) for example) and create tension-filled set-pieces that leave you guessing and carry each episode in unique and interesting ways.
The performances are also quite good, particularly from the leads Kento Yamazaki and Tao Tsuchiya. Both of these actors carry the show and subvert many of the stereotypical acting tropes found in a lot of Japanese media. Despite this, many of these acting and script tropes found throughout Japanese dramas do riddle the show and make it a bit of a harder sell for American audiences. Whether it is prolonged monologues, frequent flashbacks to previous scenes in the same episode, cheesy one-liners, or never-ending scenes of characters staring at something in slow-motion, the DNA of this show is definitely J-drama, and while I am a fan of the genre and just accept these annoyances and forced dramatic moments as a part of the package, I don’t think average American audiences can get behind it when they are used to high-quality shows that fit their entertainment sensibilities more.
Despite these critiques, I still contend that this show is great. While there are moments of forced tension and eye-rolling drama, there are many more moments where it is entirely earned and highly enjoyable. While I don’t think that this is a good first step into introducing oneself to Japanese television, it is an enjoyable ride that I would recommend to anyone who is looking to try something new, especially if they’re fans the fantasy, suspense genre.