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Alice in Borderland (2020): The Will to Live

Ghouls talk about the underrated Netflix show, Alice in Borderland. This show features an apocalyptic world where people play games not only to survive but to live another day. Gabe talks about hedonism in the shadow of death. Kat talks about millennial nihilism and our existential dread.

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Alice in Borderlands (2020) Director: Shinsuke Sato Manga Creator: Haro Aso

Summary by IMDB: A group of bored delinquents are transported to a parallel wasteland as part of a survival game.


Alice in Borderlands: Millennial Woes & the Will to Live by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Synopsis: Arisu, Karube and Chota are best friends and according to the on-screen text NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). Arisu is a gamer and a ‘nothing’ person who his family seems disappointed in. Karube is a mischievous and wild bartender. Chota is a salaryman, trying to abide by society’s expectations. They're all sad, best friends, just trying to enjoy the life they have. They meet up to hang out and end up hiding from police in a building when the power goes out. When they emerge from the building, everyone is gone. A stark contrast to the busy Shibuya crossing that is notorious for it’s overcrowding. It's haunting and unsettling to see the desolate space and the boys quickly split up to see if they can find anyone. I’d argue this scene would be even more unsettling were we not in the middle of a pandemic when I watched it. Empty, desolate streets were kind of a norm in 2020.

Anyway, it’s eerie and unsettling as they come to the realization that people have vanished instantly. Then a giant monitor on the face of a building flashes the words: “WELCOME PLAYERS, THE GAME WILL COMMENCE SHORTLY.” They end up participating in their first game - a hellish puzzle where each room features two doors. One marked ‘live’ and the other, marked ‘death’. It is assumed it's a joke until a contestant runs through one and ends up dead. Then, it gets really real. I don’t know how this game was supposed to be solved but Arisu figures out the building's dimensions because he saw a car outside and knew its dimensions so he quickly calculates his way out of the maze. Puzzles? In this Apocalypse? No, thank you. [See my thoughts about puzzle murder games in our Squid Game episode]

They survive and learn that upon completion, players are given a visa that allows them to live and not be murdered by a sky laser for a few more days. As their visas set to expire, they must seek out more games to gain more time. The games are rated by difficulty with playing cards representing the difficulty. Lower numbered cards can be easy to complete but result in a low number of visa time. Higher numbered cards are difficult while face cards are sinister. The suits of the cards also give you a hint as to what kind of game you’ll be playing. Clubs are games of balance and collaboration (multiple people can survive if they work together). Spades are games of physical strength (won’t catch me there). Diamonds are games of intelligence (higher diamonds tend to have only one winner). And lastly, Hearts are games of psychology. According to the Alice in Borderlands wiki, Rules of many Hearts games also tend to mislead the players into believing that it requires sacrificing other players to claim victory, but would otherwise be unnecessary if all participants could calmly deduce the true nature of each hearts game. In fact, it is possible to complete all Hearts games (obviously except the Face Card games) without having to kill a single person. The Hearts are truly the most vicious and difficult games to play and result in the most heart-breaking of episodes.

Unlike Squid Game, this is a strictly play-to-survive scenario. There is no promise of money. In fact, we don’t get much in the way of answers for why any of this is happening. The show is exciting and stressful as you try to solve the puzzles along with the protagonists. It’s heartbreaking in a different way than Squid Game. In those murder-games, you know there can only be one winner. In Borderland, there’s no real expectations or rules, no end game. So when characters die, sometimes completely unexpectedly, it leaves the audience vulnerable and uncertain.

Like most apocalypse horror narratives, the how and why of the apocalypse is less important. Sure, there are murder-games and people are fighting to survive. But it’s more of an exploration of morality. When our everyday rules and societal obligations are removed - what do we become? The games pit the players against each other either inherently through the rules or simply in using our survival instincts. Each game forces the players to consider what they would do to survive, who they would sacrifice, each time sacrificing a bit of their own humanity just for a few extra days of life.

**Now entering Spoiler Central**

What the Apocalypse Reveals About Who You Really Are:

The show, through character flashbacks and focus, becomes a character study. We get to learn who these people were in the normal world and see how that affects who they’ve become in this new apocalypse world. For example, Last Boss (Takatora Samura) is a member of the militia-group of villains. He wields a sword, has tattoos everywhere and is an overall bad dude. Through flashbacks, we learn that Samura was also a NEET. He was obsessed with explorers and men that accomplished things. In this new world, Samura was able to become a new man - one with power, one he thought was pretty cool.

According to an article on Cinema Escapist titled, Review: Netflix's "Alice in Borderland" Uses Sci-Fi to Highlight Japanese NEETs' Woes by Xingting Gong these character developments are a glimpse into some of the complicated societal strains on millennials in Japan.

“How each character’s past informs their decisions and persona in this new world adds another layer of complexity: in this alternate free-for-all reality, does the worst or best of ourselves come to the fore?

Though the point above is quite general, there are certain quirks to the colorful characters in the show that strike one as being unique to Japan. Despite being a first world country, Japan ranks notably low amongst developed nations in progressive ideologies. A consistently stagnant economy and high-strung working culture place undue stress on Japanese youth. Gender inequality remains a significant issue, with more and more modern Japanese women rejecting marriage altogether. In addition, an incredibly strong collectivist mentality, in tandem with the rise of neo-conservatism in Japan, has led to a country that resists the kind of cultural modernization taking root in other nations around the globe.

In this article, Gong goes on to explain the Last Boss character’s motivations and need to be ‘special.’ Takatora Samura, for example, exemplifies the modern day hermit in Japan, defined as someone who experiences “physical isolation, social avoidance and psychological distress that lasts six months or longer.” A recluse who lives in a dark room and spends all his time writing blog entries with 0 viewership, Samura discovers a sense of liberation and purpose in the morally depraved Borderland. Japan’s collectivist mentality has made it particularly susceptible to hermits such as Samura, who lack an outlet for individualism. “In Japanese there’s a very famous saying, ‘a protruding nail will be hammered down’,” explains Takahiro Kato, a professor of psychiatry at Kyushu University. (Kat explained this quote and the pressure of conformity in our TAG episode).

In a place ranked as having the gloomiest millennials (according to several sources), it’s a question of what the show wants us to get out of this new freedom. When the characters are offered this alternate world where they can become whoever they want, when the rules and expectations that were suffocating and oppressive are removed, when you can murder people to survive another day against a sky-laser, is the message “be careful what you wish for?” Will you like the person you see in the mirror?

In an essay by Brendan Mackie titled, Meritocracy and Battle Royale, Mackie explains this power that comes from murder-games like Battle Royale and ultimately, Alice in Borderland. To Mackie, these games are the answer to our feelings of ineptitude. As Kat described in our Squid Game episode, Millennials are a generation of people who were told that if they worked hard they’d get anything they desired. What we were met with after that hard work was a crumbling economy and anxiety. We were deceived and lied to, quickly learning the game of society is incredibly skewed and in favor of the one-percent who profit off our hard work while we fight for scraps. Games like Battle Royale and those found in Alice in Borderland, strip us of society’s limitations, rules, and expectations and allow us the actual chance to succeed.

"Battle royale games are the stories kids tell themselves about this culture of cutthroat competition. Just like the real world, in battle royale games only the one percent win. But these games are a fantasy in which this unequal outcome is produced transparently and equitably, albeit violently, a fairy tale about how the meritocracy should really work. Though it is tough, brutal, and difficult, it is fair; and though you have only a small chance of winning, the forces that oppress you are not unseen — they are clear and distinct. The decks are not stacked: everyone has the same health, the same armor, the same access to weapons and upgrades. You'll probably die. But you will live and die on your skills alone." said Mackie. The problem here is that we still don’t win, we still don’t have control - it's a forced achievement and someone else is always pulling the strings.

Mackie further explains that in an article titled, Battle Royale: From Dystopian Thriller to Cult Classic, on Unseen Japan the author ties Japan’s history with our generations disappointment with society, “Alyssa Pearl Fusek has argued that Battle Royale is a commentary on Japan’s “lost decade,” a time when the invisible compact between generations was breaking down. The life of a middle-class Japanese citizen was supposed to be a hard, rewarding climb up the ladder of success, from a good college to a good job at a big firm. But in 2000, after a decade of economic stagnation, the salaryman jobs that had once promised a lifetime of reliable employment were dwindling. The competition, however, the endless slog of studying and striving, was still there. The battle in Battle Royale is a bloody, explicit enactment of this grinding, near-pointless competition.”

This struggle for self-worth and sense of achievement is evident in our protagonist right from the beginning. Each of them (Arisu, Karube and Chota) are trying to simultaneously find their purpose in life while also simply trying to survive in a world that finds their desires, hopes, and dreams to be meaningless, of having no value in a society that places all value on status. Status they were told they could achieve through hard work only to find it impossible, nonexistent even.

Another character I want to cover regarding the ‘who they were vs. who they’ve become transition’ is Kuina. She is a badass who honestly stole the show for me. Kuina is out to not just survive the games, but escape. Alongside, the questionable Chishiya, they attempt to steal the cards acquired by the Hatter (I’ll explain this in a moment) and get Arisu involved. She ends up going toe-to-toe with Last Boss towards the end of the series. It's an intense and exciting fight but the best part is Kuina’s flashback which reveals she is trans. She’s an excellent fighter and we get to see that she grew up suppressed and judged by her loved ones. But unlike the characters in Borderland who needed something like an ‘end of the world’ scenario to become who they were always meant to be, Kuina had transitioned before the games - out there in the real world she was fighting to be who she is. Kuina is also trans in the manga which I found really phenomenal. It’s not often we get decent trans representation in horror/apocalypse media including mangas. When you also look at the oppressive society of Japan and its treatment of those ‘nails that stick out,’ you come to truly respect the strength and endurance of Kuina. She also completely kicks his ASS! She ruins him and it's amazing to see this woman who is so true to herself destroy a man loosely held up by his interpretation of what power is.

The Beach & Hedonism:

I think it’s important in covering shows like this to not just highlight the survival response that forces people to hurt those they care about or slowly become monsters. There’s another response to these stresses and the threat of death (by ominous sky lasers) and it’s the need to live despite all of that. Not just survive, but live.

Arisu experiences some truly awful trauma (think of the Marbles episode of Squid Game) and decides this play-to-win (only a few extra days) lifestyle isn’t for him, he wants to die. He is paired up with mountaineer Usagi at this time and we learn of her life through a flashback. She knows all too well what it feels like to want to give up, to no longer try, to lose ambition or drive, your will to live. Usagi asks Arisu, “Do you want to live?” and it’s important to note that this is during their visa time - they’re not in a game, they’ve survived another day.

In an article on titled, Forget "The Stand" – "Alice in Borderland" is the wild dystopian ride we've been waiting for by Melanie Macfarland they dive into the strength of Usagi who is motivated by more than just “survival” but instead her pure will to keep on living, her refusal to die. “Through Usagi's refusal to let Arisu give up, she shows a determination to live within this world as she survives each trial. This may also increase her odds of "winning," whatever that means. Watch closely and you may notice that she and other players who clear impossible games and navigate dangerous alliances share a drive to move forward as opposed to being motivated by the chance to return to their old lives.”

So with the help and motivation of Usagi, Arisu continues his fight to survive and eventually learns of an apocalyptic paradise within the game world known as the Beach. Participants live there where they party, do drugs, have sex, and have an overall good time before going on group excursions to complete games as a team. Honestly, sounds genius to me and if I somehow survived literally any of these damn mind or physical games, I’d beeline for the Beach.

The Beach is run by The Hatter (get it, because Alice??) who seems to have figured out the bigger picture. He is seeking to acquire all the cards, a full deck. He believes that any player who acquires the deck will be given the chance to return home. (I stress acquire because he doesn’t earn them - others do and give it to him because they’re blissed out). I don’t actually care about that though it is an important discovery and causes chaos in the show.

I want to talk about hedonism in the shadow of death. People tend to think fear is the only way to control the masses into subservience. You read 1984 in High School and it makes sense. (It does). Big Brother, thought police, manipulation, neighbors tattling on neighbors, alternative facts, etc. All are very real ways governments and people in power have controlled people. But I think the most accurate and honestly, frightening ways to accomplish this is actually by catering to humanities hedonism. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we see that people completely ignore their oppression when they’re given a distraction like drugs or good feelings. I’d argue that our current society is a wonderful mix of both Orwell and Huxley’s proposed futures. The Beach made SO much sense to me.

If you were plopped into an apocalypse where death lingered right outside, in the sky (lasers), and you were forced to play games to survive just a few more days and for who knows how long and to what end - no answers. Wouldn’t you desire some reprieve? Yes, when there are no rules and we have to fight to survive, people become monsters. But we’re social creatures that also have simple needs and desires. Those don’t go away because death is here. Trauma manifests in many ways and overindulging in narcotics or sex is one of many ways to escape the horrors outside. I was so appreciative of this part of the show. We don’t often spend time in the in-between of murder-games. Usually, characters are dropped in and they fight to the end. But what happens when there’s no end and this is the new normal? We don’t just murder and resort to anarchy and chaos, we live. We’re being reckless. We don’t know if the people we share our bed with today will be here tomorrow. We don’t know if we’ll be here tomorrow. More than is the case now (we’re all always dying). So I felt this was the most natural and interesting response to this apocalypse.

The Ones in Charge:

In the end, there’s a jarring discovery, a “we don’t know anything and there are no answers” type of discovery which reveals that there are in fact people pulling the strings. But who are they? Why are they doing this? How are they doing this? For whom are they doing this? We don’t know. What we do know is that...there are...villains. But we already knew that so the ending is pretty lackluster. I will say though, there is a scene in the end that reveals Beach goers to be pawns for the ones-in-charge that I found really unsettling. I won’t spoil who it is and what they were doing. But I actually appreciated the vague answer to the puppetmaster. I hope there is a Season 2 where we can explore that further but honestly, who’s doing it and why (probably rich people, for kicks/views/more money/status/whatever) is the least interesting part. In the apocalypse, it's never the monsters or situations that are horrifying but the people just trying to live. Each of us has the potential to be a monster.


Millennial Nihilism: We Already Live in the Apocalypse by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

The most interesting piece of this show for me, was how people operate within the realm of these “play to live” scenarios, where the prize is not money, but survival. Humans, as they are, are extremely resilient and adaptable. Which one could credit to our ability to survive almost every area of this planet, living in unique ways to operate around the climate. The scenario that Alice in Borderland proposes however is inherently different than a lot of society has collapsed films or tv shows. Where it’s less about what you would do in this scenario, and more who the heck would want to even be there. Surviving in the Alice scenario requires an entirely different set of knowledge and adaptability. There is also a requirement of luck for a lot of the games, where you don’t know what you’re playing until you’re already in it. The fact that there are games where everyone but one person HAS to die makes it less a matter of skill, and way more a matter of luck. While in some ways that could even the playing field, it also encourages people to abandon any semblance of hope and lean into cruelty. While human beings are extremely resilient, and adaptable, I find it hard to believe anyone would want to survive this kind of scenario, but do believe that instead of wanting to, would just do so because of a baseline human instinct to survive. In this way creates an understanding that no one should want to win these games, and the dread alone of what would be necessary to survive, would leave me likely in the “I’m just not gonna participate and die regular please” category. In even the most devastating game, Arisu wins, not because he wants to live, but because his friends recognize the odds, and accept that surviving these games even after this round, isn’t guaranteed, likely or even necessarily worth it.

For the sake of this episode though, let’s pretend we’d want to survive. What would you need in your wheelhouse to do so? An acceptance that trying in any real capacity is futile, and the only real thing to do is go to the beach, drink and party until you ultimately die. It’s the more glamorous way to go out than just sitting in a building until your time. At least at the beach you aren’t alone. You are surrounded by some pretty scary people though, who are willing and ready to sacrifice you the second you blink wrong, or a game requires it. I think the most devastating piece of this show is that to survive you have to be lucky, but also willing to sacrifice just about anything, including any and all goodness that remains within you.

Something that is generally interesting about the scenarios society collapses is that the way the brain shapes itself around these scenarios is really fascinating, because there are ways in which the brain will help you and harm you. It kinda ties back to many people's favorite “what if” scenario, what would you do if society collapses, what if zombies though? It always kind of links up with whether people are doing well in the society that already exists. What is their attachment to the system already in play? If they are fulfilled and happy in their current way of living, the loss of that alone can be devastating enough to break someone’s spirit. If you already feel like an outcast, or detached from the people around you, or even oppressed by the people in charge, there are ways this scenario can be very exciting because of the fresh start of sorts that it provides. There is knowledge that comes from that experience as well, their physicality, their skill sets, that influence the ways in which survival becomes possible. In most other “society is gone” scenarios, your skill sets will actually matter in a way that they kinda don’t in the Alice scenario.

The reality of what society would look like in America if there was a collapse is scary for a lot of reasons. The population itself was intentionally made dependent upon the systems in charge, that surviving without them would be the reason many people initially die. Most people who exist, outside of the farming industry, or the construction industry, don’t know the basic skills necessary for surviving in such a scenario, cause we wouldn’t know how to rebuild. So inherently, survival in this “post-apocalyptic” society, largely ties to whether or not you were doing well in the old society, or gained skill sets that make you independent of the government. Whether or not you were dependent upon the systems in place for your survival. Something that’s kind of powerful and cool about our entire generation is the collective thought that we need to learn how to take care of ourselves, cause the government won’t. In my opinion I think many millennials would do well surviving in a post-apocalyptic society purely because of the shift in understanding that we have to fend for ourselves.


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