From Wonderland to Death Game Wasteland
This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Chloe Holm (Ehime)
A deathmatch in the most iconic burroughs of abandoned Tokyo. Live action beloved characters—Alice, White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat—pitted against each other in a cruel game of betrayal. A showdown with the sick and twisted Queen of Hearts in her own garden. Why are these childhood characters forced to indulge in twisted death games that seem designed to cull most of the players? Why are they the only inhabitants in a now abandoned Tokyo? Who really is the Queen of Hearts and mastermind before it all? Or is it all a twisted upside down Wonderland reality?
Alice in Borderland is a locked box death game series and you can expect plenty of gore, death, and heart wrenching betrayals. With plenty of survival games the characters must endure before their “visa” runs out, the games are extra cruel with the different categories of games: Spades, physical; Diamonds, intellect; Clubs, team-based; and, perhaps the cruelest, Hearts, betrayal. While the games are a primary focus, a unique feature to the series is the time it spends world building and developing mysteries around the circumstances of the games and world. The games are, of course, horrifyingly entertaining, thoroughly engaging with that morbid curiosity as we imagine how we would handle and strategize to survive the death games, but the mystery around the world is really what keeps the audience’s attention for the larger scheme. Paired with some really interesting and uniquely retold fairy tale characters that actually have you rooting for them in the pretty unfair and brutal games. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to see an epic action shootout in the iconic crossroads of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s most famous neighborhoods?
(This will be a spoiler free overview and review, minus some basic exposure of some of the mechanics of the story and some insight into the games. No character deaths, revelations, or major plot points will be discussed. In addition, the series includes a few snippets of shorter games or previous games in montages, but I will only be looking at the games that take up a significant portion of the show and that reveals game mechanics and how the characters navigate those in present time.)
In an age when Netflix and the media seems to be pumping out as much thrilling content in this death game genre (think Squid Game, Hunger Games, Escape Room, etc.) something beyond the lure of thrilling survival games needs to capture our attentions, as much as I love death games of chance, strategy, and improbable odds. What Alice in Borderland really excels in is bringing the traditional beats of an anime to the mainstream, more digestible live action format that can appeal to an even broader audience, and, as it was one of the biggest Japanese hits on recent American streaming, I’d say it succeeded. It’s also refreshing how much emphasis on world building and character depth it has that enhances a lot of the simpler games. When the complexities of the game are lacking, the characters’ differences and motivations bring a lot of suspense and humanity to the games, season 2 being a great example of how to enhance and expand upon an already well established premise and season.
Season 2 improves and extenuates what makes season 1 engaging, but adds the extra element of having characters run the face card games. Every face card game runner adds much needed depth to the games, to avoid it being a mindless gorefest and death game cash grab. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved each face card character and the emotion I felt for these characters, albeit acting as in-game adversaries. A few standouts would be the King of Clubs and Queen of Spades, each bringing emotional depth, human connection and, surprisingly, quite a few laughs in an otherwise bleak environment. So now the game players can make connections with each other as well as their mysterious adversaries, and can set their sights on the mastermind of the games and the dreaded meeting with the Queen of Hearts. I cared a lot more for the deaths and it felt less like a gore-fest for shock value that some of season 1, at times, felt.
Overlooking the explosive collars reminiscent of the infamous carnage in Battle Royale, Alice in Borderland plays with a lot of creative ways to picture death: death by falling, death by explosion, death by lasers, death by sulfuric acid. It’s horrible, it’s gruesome, and it’s super engaging as this is a show not afraid to kill off major players. Chishiya and Kuina are stark standouts, representing the Cheshire Cat and Absoleum (the Blue Caterpillar), with some of my favorite outwit and fight scenes from these two. Alice and Usagi are likable to root for as the main protagonists, and the Queen of Hearts is exactly diabolical of what I imagine an anime rendition of the character would be.
I was also surprised with the very present transgender representation we see in one of the characters. The character’s identity played a big role in their own character development and arc in the series, and it was a great breath of fresh air to see such open representation in media, let alone Japanese media that tends to be more conservative with social issues. The women characters are really stand outs in this show: they have great depth, intellect, and specific attributes that logically lead to them making their own decisions throughout the games. The show definitely passes the Betchel test and it’s honestly some of the most badass female characters I’ve seen on TV, with a martial artist, forensic scientist, and archer. I think Alice in Borderland did a great job with creating well rounded characters that we can root for as well as appalling villains we can vilify and some characters in their own morally gray spaces.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe the weakest part of the series to be the initial three episodes of season 1. Without going into spoiler territory, the first half is widely different than the second half and, while the second half establishes more characters and more plot based elements, the first half is effective enough in setting the intriguing and bleak tone of the show. However, my issue lies within the games themselves. Season 1’s games are a bit more simple than the face card games we see in season 2, but without the proper build up of character backgrounds, some of the games felt like simple gore cash grabs, the exact opposite of what I want from a death game show. But where season 1 takes its time to walk, season 2 picks up those character ties and runs headfirst into the action.
For the shortcomings of season 2, there’s quite a bit of plot armor around some characters. Characters get shot, stabbed, burned alive, blown up, fallen off buildings, and even then I wouldn’t be sure they’re dead until I see the body. There’s a lot of over the top explosions and flashy action shots of characters epically moving through the flames in a bikini without a mark on them, but it’s pretty forgivable for how epic the shot is. I want to see my favorite character take down the villain in a cool shot of Tokyo looking cool doing it. There’s a lot more to the show than flashy shots like these, so I tended to enjoy the ones we got.
What really brings it all together, and elevates this show from mindless fun survival games, is the end reveal. Trust me, it’s worth sticking around for and brings everything together in a way other deathmatch shows don’t. I’d even say that another shortcoming for the show is wanting more of the character’s backgrounds and even more games to enjoy. Leaving room for a third season and making me want to rewatch the entire series again? I would say, despite some less than perfect storytelling, Japan did something right with this one.
All Alice in Borderland Games Ranked
- Balance Scale (King of Diamonds)
A brutal game of wits showing off Chishiya’s intellect and ability to read others. This is how you make a numbers game epic.
- Survival (King of Spades)
More of a hunting ground than anything, this omnipresent shooting arena really added suspense, although some might be let down by the lack of a traditional “game.”
- Checkmate (Queen of Spades)
Not only is the Queen a super charismatic character, it’s also a fun game of tag in a cool action set piece. Enough said.
- Solitary Confinement (Jack of Hearts)
Another of Chishiya’s games, this game of betrayal lets his mind and cool-and-collected personality really shine.
- Witch Hunt (10 of Hearts)
Mafia style hidden role game of betrayal that reveals the worst of humanity. Pretty entertaining.
- Osmosis (King of Clubs)
This is essentially just a watered down version of tag, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t fall in love with the King of Clubs and his… eccentricities.
- Tag (5 of Spades)
Fairly basic but engaging, simple but effective, a classic game of tag with the added threat of death. Solid.
- Lightbulb (4 of Diamonds)
Figuring out the lightbulb logic puzzle, it’s a quick game of intellect under pressure, and it thrills in exactly that way. Albeit a bit simple and short lived.
- Dead or Alive (3 of Clubs)
A good opening game of chance but fairly simple compared to the others. It’s hard to care for the characters as much with it being the first as well.
- Distance (4 of Clubs)
Probably the most unclear instruction wise. Things happen but mainly just running; it’s not the best game.
- Croquet (Queen of Hearts)
A simple game most are probably familiar with, it’s hard to rank as this game is less about the game and more about the meeting with the Queen of Hearts.
- Hide and Seek (7 of Hearts)
I rank this game last for the pure mechanics of it. It’s a simple child’s game but doesn’t evolve past that.
Chloe Holm is a first-year ALT living in Ehime. She is also the AJET CONNECT Magazine’s Travel Section Editor. On her days off, you can find her trekking to the movie theater two hours away or binging Netflix at home with plenty of snacks. Her favorite movies are 9 to 5 and Skyfall.