Monday Anime: Alice In Borderland

This week, I’ve got something a little different for you guys. A three episode series, based on an ongoing manga, that arrived in late 2014, and somehow, seems to have gone completely under the radar. Why is it different? Well, first off, it shows what you can do in only three episodes, and makes you want more of it, yesterday.

Now, most animes are often thought of as little more than long commercials for manga. From that viewpoint, Alice in Borderland certainly serves as an excellent ad, since I’m seriously thinking of getting into the manga just to find out what happens next. On the other hand, as an anime, this is a damn fine piece of work, and I’d almost rather hold out hope that it gets more episodes at a later time, just so I can revel in the beauty of it.

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Briefly, and with as few spoilers as possible, Alice in Borderland is the story of three high school delinquents. Arisu, Karube, and Segawa are bored with their lives, with the town they live in, and are not, at first glance, the kinds of characters that would make good protagonists. Arisu lives in his brothers shadow, Karube is treated as a thug by everyone, because he looks like a thug, and Segawa is so small, hyper, and horny, he has a hard time being taken seriously, or being serious about anything. As friends, they find comfort in each other, but they have no real goals or ambitions to speak of.

Until one night, while they are hanging out, and see a strange fireworks show, including one particularly large and brilliant firework. They wake up the next morning, seemingly in the same town, though it now appears overgrown and abandoned. As they explore, trying to figure out what to do, they encounter a brightly lit festival, and a woman named Saori, who tries to explain what’s going on, but fails, as Arisu and Segawa still aren’t taking things seriously. Only Karube listens, but it’s much to late.

They have all been taken to a strange place called the Borderland, where you must participate in deadly games in order to win stays. Those stays are counted in days, at the end of which, if you don’t have a new stay, you are killed by a strange light from the sky. The games themselves, however, are every bit as dangerous, as the three quickly learn, not to mention nearly impossible to win at.

What separates Alice in Borderland from other survival horror type series is the fact that no attempt at all, at least within the anime series, is made to explain just what Borderland is, how they got there, who has set these games up, or why. The situation simply is what it is, and the three episode arc focuses instead on building the characters, giving them context, motivation, and depth.

Which is where Alice really shines. Of the three characters we initially meet, all are very distinct and different, but not to the point you can’t see why they are friends, and appreciate how much that friendship means to each of them. Saori gets a bit less development, since the story focuses largely on Arisu as the protagonist, but what we do learn about her gives a lot of depth and complexity to the character.

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Much of what makes the brief series work as well as it does is bound up in the characters, and their interactions, so I don’t want to give too much away here. It’s very well written from a character standpoint.

The other highlight of the series are the games themselves. We only see three, with another referenced, but these are some seriously messed up games. The first one is incredibly complex and requires some outside the box thinking on the characters part to deal with. At first glance, the game is very simple, but the longer it goes on, the misdirect of that simplicity is understood. It also sets the stakes for the viewer, as we quickly figure out that these games are about nuance and critical thinking, so every little thing matters, especially the things that appear to be the least important.

The second game is just terrifying. Straight up terrifying. Not so much for the nature of it, but what they have to deal with. There’s something about a gun toting dude in a horse mask that gives me the willies.

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The third game was just… evil. I can think of no other word for it. It was evil. Whoever, or whatever, is behind these games is a sadist of the highest order.

In terms of animation, Alice looks pretty good. It’s from studio Silver Link, and while there are a number of shots that are really gorgeous or eye catching, overall it’s just solid animation that doesn’t take too many chances. The same goes for the character designs. They are fairly generic looking for the most part, with the exception of Segawa, who is probably one of the more original anime characters I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the dude looks like a person that would really exist. None of this is bad, it just isn’t anything special, which is perfectly fine.

Because the real strength of this is in, again, the character work. A lot is done with subtle moments, with subtext, with little reveals that add so many layers of complexity to these characters, is just amazing. In only three episodes, Alice does more to develop the characters than a lot of shows do in 13.

The direction is very good, as well. The camera knows when to be still, when to pan, and most of the really great shots are the big wide angle ones that give you a sense of how much control over the area those in control actually have. Lighting is used very well, giving shadows where they need to be, and spotlighting what you want to see the most. Since the games all take place at night, it would have been easy to make them muddled and hard to see, but they aren’t. Everything is very well lit, even when you kind of wish it wasn’t.

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The plot leaves a lot of threads dangling, since it’s only three episodes long, but what it does do is amazing, as it sets up a near alternate world of some kind, or possibly a pocket dimension, and make it pretty damn believable. The games are different enough from the kind you normally see in survival horror as to actually be interesting, and the logic twists in solving them are abstract enough to not be obvious at first. In terms of world building and plot set up, Alice does a great job.

If you’ve ever seen the 1997 Canadian sci fi film, Cube, then you’ll have a fair idea of what sort of thing you are walking into here. It’s kind of like that, only with a lot more complexity.

One of the shorter shows I’m ever likely to recommend, I do have to say it is well worth the viewing. Creative, tense, and populated by interesting characters, Alice is well worth the hour and half it’ll take to check it out.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if there’s an English translation for the manga, cause this is one ad that sold me.

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