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-[Television Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Japanese Cinema

‘Alice in Borderland’ (2020, 2022): Dreams of Parallel Tokyo

Created by: Shinsuke Sato, Kaata Sakamoto, Akira Morri  || Written by: Yoshiki Watabe, Yasuko Kuramitsu, Shinsuke Sato

Directed by: Shinsuke Sato || Starring: Kento Yamazaki, Tao Tsuchiya, Yūki Morinaga, Keita Machida, Ayame Misaki, Nijirū Murakami, Yutaro Watanabe, Sho Aoyagi, Ayaka Miyoshi, Dori Sakurada, Aya Asahina, Shuntaro Yanagi, Kina Yazaki, Tsuyoshi Abe, Nobuaki Kaneko, Riisa Naka

No. of Seasons: 2 || No. of Episodes: 16

In my childhood (1990s-2000s), the foreign culture that seemed all the rage in the United States was that of Japan; Japanese car (e.g. Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi) and hardware (e.g. Sony, Toshiba) brands were ubiquitous, recent Hollywood “instant classics” like Back to the Future (1985, 1989, 1990) referenced the nation’s technological prowess, and most everyone knew of at least one clique in their elementary, junior, or high school that was into Japanese animation (anime; see also weeaboo). Hell, even I contributed to the American infatuation with Japanese soft power through my interest in the Godzilla (1954-) franchise, though I drew a hardline at the likes of anime serials such as Dragon Ball Z (1989-1986), Pokémon (1997-), etc., and to this day remain ambivalent toward the critically acclaimed, beloved feature-films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

Tsao Tsuchiya costars as the female lead of Borderland, here battling the Queen of Spades in the show’s second season.

The long-term population decline and stagnating economy of the quintessential East Asian island nation, along with the rising soft power of nearby neighbor Korea (e.g. Korean New Wave, Samsung, K-pop, K-dramas, etc.), has called into question the durability of Japan’s cultural influence, particularly with respect to its filmmaking and entertainment industries. Japanese filmmaking to this day feels limited outside of animation — only three of its top 20 highest grossing movies of all time are live-action — and most Japanese auteurs seem unable to compete with their modern Korean counterparts (e.g. Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho) in any capture technique. Strong arguments can be made that the most infectious big-budget storytellers northeast of the Himalayas from the 2010s onwards are in the Korean peninsula, that the future of East Asian soft power has more of a Samsung tint than a Sony one.

A major exception to the aforementioned trends exists — where else (see also: Lost Bullet [2020, 2022], Black Crab [2022], Blood Red Sky [2021], etc.)? — on the Netflix streaming platform with the Japanese live-action adaptation of Haro Aso’s Alice in Borderland (2010-2015) manga. Co-written and directed by Shinsuke Sato, who’s made a career out of adapting various manga and/or anime properties into live-action productions (e.g. The Princess Blade [2001], Gantz [2011], I Am a Hero [2015], Bleach [2018]), the longtime filmmaker and videogame designer may have achieved his magnum opus here with one of the better long-form, yet not longwinded series on Netflix. Alice in Borderland’s first season debuted in December 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and almost nine months prior to the release of Squid Game (2021-), melding the postmodern, labyrinthine diegeses of Cube (1997) and The Platform (2019) with the high-tech, dystopian competitive violence of Battle Royale (2000) and Tron (2010), all of which are further enmeshed within the science-fiction background mythology of LOST (2004-2010). Given its memorable Tokyo location-shoots, prolific yet often subtle digital FX, great cast, and impressive, diverse cinematography across a multi-season, 16-episode arc, Borderland may be the most effective international Netflix Original Series since Sacred Games (2018-2019).

The premise of Borderland revolves around a handful of dejected Tokyo misfits (Kento Yamazaki, Yūki Morinaga, Keita Machida), led by protagonist Yamazaki, who are teleported to a supposed “parallel universe” version of Tokyo (Parallel Tokyo?) where the vast majority of the population has vanished, recalling the iconic opening sequences of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002); in place of the depopulated metropolis’ normal society, our principal gang and a modest number of other “survivors” are mandated by omniscient, often unseen forces to participate in various physical, mental, emotional, and teamwork-oriented exercises with life or death consequences, whose characteristics and difficulty level are denoted by their playing card titles (e.g. 7 of Clubs, 9 of Hearts, etc.). Numerous archetypes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) feature throughout the series, including the Cheshire Cat (Nijirō Murakami as “Chishiya”), the Blue Caterpillar (Aya Asahina as Kuina), the Mad Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko as Danma Hatter), the March Hare (Sho Aoyagi as Aguni), the Jabberwocky (Takatora Samura as “The Last Boss”), the White Rabbit (Tao Tsuchiya as female lead Usagi) and of course the titular Alice (Yamazaki’s lead). This combination of dystopian social commentary, science-fiction world-building, action set-pieces, and detailed characterizations make Borderland the complete package for most audiences. Not only does it have the stylish camerawork, from subtle dolly oners to swooping Steadicam long-takes to creative blocking and rack focus techniques, not to mention the screenplay’s genre thrills, but it has the budget and production values to make them seamless.

Top: Yamazaki and friends enter a bizarre “Parallel Tokyo” where most of the population has vanished. Middle: Some of the fun, nightmarish games involve big cats! Bottom: In the memorable 10 of Hearts centerpiece, Aya Asahina (right) battles a katana-armed Shuntarō Yanagi (left).

Borderland’s few weaknesses, therefore, are more comparable to the better auteur-driven blockbusters of modern Hollywood (e.g. Top Gun: Maverick [2022], The Suicide Squad [2021], Overlord [2018]) or the ambitious long-form series of premiere Western television like HBO’s flagship properties (e.g. Game of Thrones [2011-2019]) than, say, high-concept filmmaking from South (e.g. RRR [2022], 2.0 [2018], Dhoom 3 [2013]) or East (e.g. Warriors of Future [2022], Wolf Warrior 2 [2017]) Asia. Too many times in too many set-pieces characters turn into de facto commentators to explain to each other the audience what the hell is going on, rather than illustrating the action sequences’ rules in a visual way, which is a function of both complex game designs as well as convoluted exposition. On a separate note, too many supporting characters survive too many extreme injuries due to unbelievable plot armor, especially in Season 2.

Thanks to overall effective screenwriting and creative special FX, however, Alice in Borderland never breaks its immersive diegetic tone and therefore its oppressive, unyielding, memorable backdrop maintains tension at all times, powering the development of all major characters. Throw in a series of short yet detailed flashback sequences, and Shinsuke Sato’s Netflix debut remains one of the premiere Original Series on the platform. Those of you interested in quality adaptations of Japanese manga or animation will find much to like here, while the tight direction and strong characterizations will persuade most other audiences on the fence about violent, dystopian sci-fi. Instead of waiting another year or two for the next season of Squid Game, I recommend you check out something else you might like just as much, if not more. Japanese filmmaking’s still got it.

——————————————————————————-

SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With mythology as intriguing as The Green Frontier (2019) yet as cinematographically action packed as My Name (2021), Shinsuke Sato’s riff on Alice in Wonderland by way of Cube will leave you breathless across 16 long episodes, which is better bang for your buck than most decades-long Hollywood blockbuster franchises. Borderland is the complete package with brains, brawn, and heart.

However… dialogue during the show’s otherwise unforgettable set-pieces often grows repetitive, while half of the surviving cast should’ve died by the end of Season 2, if not Season 1.

—> Game cleared, congratulations! Alice in Borderland comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

? Life is like a game, so enjoy it more.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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