Falling Down The Rabbit Hole
Reading Time: 4 minutes
“Anime live-actions are never a good idea.” That is what anyone who watched the atrocious “The Last Airbender” (2010) live-action or the disappointing “Death Note” (2017) adaptation will tell you. From whitewashing characters to completely ignoring the plot of the original material, they seem to do just about everything wrong. While this undoubtedly holds true for many live-actions, Netflix’s “Alice In Borderland” defied all my expectations, as I fell into its magical rabbit hole and finished it in a single day.
The show follows Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and his friends after everyone in Tokyo suddenly disappears, leaving those who remain in the Borderland, where they must compete in perilous games in order to survive. Arisu and his friends then commit themselves to uncovering the truth and confronting the maker of the games.
Most anime adaptations fail for one of two reasons: they stray from the original source manga’s plot, or they simply look bad aesthetically. It wasn’t surprising to find that the show deviated from the manga like other anime adaptations, but that doesn’t mean the show was any less interesting. There are minor differences in the characters, such as Arisu being an aimless, obsessive gamer without a job in the show, while he is a highly observant and intelligent student in the manga. This characterization actually helps to bolster the story since making Arisu a gamer builds the idea that though he might be physically weak in the real world, his vast perceptiveness and knowledge about puzzles are vital strengths that allow him to survive the games.
The most surprising difference concerns the Borderland itself. In the show, it’s never clear how Arisu and his friends, Karube (Keita Machida) and Chota (Yuki Morinaga), enter the Borderland. In the manga though, Arisu is pulled into the Borderland after watching a fireworks celebration and wishing for a more exciting life. His wish is granted, and he and his hopeless friends thus enter the Borderland. Not including this element, however, only fuels the viewer’s suspense and anticipation of how Arisu is supposed to return home.
While deviating from the manga’s plot has always been an issue for anime fans, it doesn’t seem to be a problem in this case. The show still caters to non-anime viewers and manga fans alike by deviating from the manga in order to add suspense and substituting certain events with other gruesome, gut-wrenching scenarios that leave you itching to find out how the characters will make it home.
Being a psychological thrilleris another reason why “Alice in Borderland” has done so well compared to other Netflix adaptations. This genre of anime has always been very successful and a personal favorite, with the most notable series being “Death Note” and “The Promised Neverland” (2020). Though gruesome and sometimes disturbing, the desperate need to find out what happens next and shocking twists are what pull viewers in and give these series so many good reviews. Being a psychological thriller means the show doesn’t incorporate many supernatural elements that would have otherwise ruined it.
Since anime adaptations are typically action or fantasy, they rely heavily on CGI and special effects to capture supernatural elements. In the mangas, creatures like titans or gods of death look normal since they’re all drawn with a certain style. But when put next to a human being, the computer-generated renditions of these otherworldly creatures look out of place and fake for most to even bother paying attention to the plot. “Alice In Borderland” doesn’t have any of these issues, making it visually appealing compared to many other adaptations that have flopped.
What makes this live-action especially appealing is how much it surprised me. When I first started watching, I thought the series was just another predictable anime that resembled the “Saw” franchise, like “Danganronpa” (2010-2017), in which people are subjected to sadistic forms of torture decided by some authority figure or master. After watching three episodes however, I, as well as many others, was shocked to see how quickly the series seemed to change courses.
As Arisu plays the games, he learns that they are each determined by a playing card with the number denoting the difficulty, and the suit denoting the game’s genre: diamond focuses on intelligence, clubs on teamwork, spades on strength, and heart on psychology. When he and his friends encounter their first heart game, they begin to turn on each other. By the end of it, viewers are stunned to see the puzzle-solving genius be the only one to walk out of the game after having brutally lost his three best friends due to his own selfishness. What I thought was going to be a story arc where Arisu, Karube, and Chota struggle to return home together gets cut short after three episodes in a gut-wrenching game. After having killed off two main characters, any preconceived notions about the show being predictable are immediately forgotten, leaving viewers baffled as to how the show would proceed.
The show surprised me with plot twist after plot twist as Arisu learns more about the Borderland and the gamemakers. This show isn’t a cheap “Saw” knockoff like I initially thought it would be. Though gruesome and violent, the show’s emotional and psychological aspects overshadow its brute horror, turning it into a taxing mental battle between Arisu and the gamemakers to see who can outsmart the other first.
“Alice In Borderland” has certainly left an impression on its viewers this quarantine and completely changed my expectations for anime live-actions. Its minimal special effects and suspenseful storyline aren’t what I would’ve expected for a successful live-action, and yet, after having watched it, sometimes less is more. With only eight episodes and a cliffhanger for a conclusion, “Alice In Borderland” has shocked millions, leaving them hungry for more.