Test of will to live in ‘Alice in Borderland’
AN aimless gamer named Arisu joins his friends, Karube and Chota at Shibuya Crossing. They get into mischief and cause a road accident.
The friends hide from the authorities inside a toilet, but are suddenly plunged into darkness. When they emerge, they discover another Tokyo that appears deserted.
This is the opening of Alice in Borderland, Netflix’s Japanese live-action adaptation of Haro Aso’s manga.
The series draws inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Arisu (meaning Alice in Japanese), his friends, and other unfortunate souls have unwittingly entered the Borderlands, a liminal space between worlds.
Those who have fallen into the Borderlands are issued visas. Once their visa expires, they are executed by lasers from the sky. The only way to extend one’s visa is by participating in death games held across this abandoned Tokyo.
The games are based on playing-deck cards: spade games demand physical athleticism, clubs need teamwork, while diamonds are games of logic.
Hearts are the most feared games, for their wicked psychological twists compel players to betray others. The higher the card number, the harder to survive, but the more days a player earns on their visa.
Among my favourite games is the thrilling five-of-spades game of tag. Set in an apartment complex, players must evade a gunman while searching for a saferoom before the time limit ends.
Another fan favourite is the seven-of-hearts where Arisu and his friends must play hide-and-seek. In a shocking twist, only the seeker can survive, while those hiding will die.
This game establishes heart cards as the cruellest since the players are forced to decide who among them deserves to live the most.
Alice in Borderland thrives at interspersing flashbacks throughout the games as narrative devices that explore characters’ interiority, personal history and motivations.
I particularly enjoyed how Kuina and Last Boss share their respective traumas and how they despise their former selves. As the pair fight to the death, Kuina learns to embrace her painful past as her strength to survive.
Meanwhile, the King of Diamonds game is an excellent exploration of ethics, although it initially appears as a complex game of probability. The intellectually gifted Chishiya (named after the Cheshire cat in Carroll’s tale) battles the Diamonds King.
While playing, they learn of a shared commonality. In the original world, the King was a lawyer and Chishiya was a doctor; both were pressured to sacrifice the poor to prioritise wealthy clients. The Diamonds King explains that his game is designed to measure the true value of human life.
Alice in Borderland triumphs at sustaining the mystery and despair of its world. Since nobody knows whether they can return home, the characters experience painful uncertainty and doubt the value of fighting so hard if nothing matters.
Yet, that is precisely why the Borderlands and its games exist: to test people’s will to live. A poignant theme throughout the series is finding one’s personal reason to continue living even in a hopeless world.
Kuina is determined to return home to care for her sick mother. Gutsy schoolgirl Akane, who lost her foot during her first game, vows to live because her future self owes her for working so hard to survive.
For Arisu, who never had a purposeful life and who is hounded by survivor’s guilt, a reason to live remains elusive.
But, during the final game, when the Queen of Hearts entices him to quit life, Arisu remembers his reason to live resides in the new friends who have become precious to him.
I enjoyed the series so much that during a recent trip to Japan, I visited filming locations where the games were played, including Osaka’s botanical gardens where the infamous seven-of-hearts was held.
It was meaningful to stand in the very places the actors and characters I love, stood.
While comparisons to Squid Games are understandable, Alice in Borderland is superior. Its games are more complex, its storylines more intriguing, and its characters’ struggles more nuanced.
The series has the rare ability to surprise; the sudden devastating appearance of the 10-of-hearts is among the most genuinely shocking twists I’ve seen.
In the end, the Borderlands are revealed not as purgatory but as an opportunity for the characters to earn the right to live. Yet, the revelation of the Joker as the last card reminds us that the hardest game to play is life.
Source: Test of will to live in ‘Alice in Borderland’ – New Straits Times
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