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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.

Sources in this episode: Review: Netflix's "Alice in Borderland" Uses Sci-Fi to Highlight Japanese NEETs' Woes

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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?