From its first episode to about halfway through the finale, Alice in Borderland is a study in tension and brutality. Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), and their allies and enemies have so far survived the cruel games inflicted upon them by the faceless Gamemasters. They even made it through the mad slaughter that claimed the lives of nearly everyone living in the Beach proto-community. But a new set of challenges await; 12 face cards, Jacks through Kings, with torture, death, and betrayal awaiting nearly everyone. Can the survivors defeat the Gamemasters, discover the secrets of the Borderlands, and return home? Or are they trapped forever in this endless cycle of violence?
There’s so much about Alice in Borderland that I love. This entry in the survival genre excels at ratcheting up the tension until all the viewer can do is click that next episode, especially in this second season where many games are divided. The action is beautifully violent, with just the right amount of gore and solid wirework. Violence is not glorified; gunshot, knife, and bludgeoning wounds look appropriately traumatic and their effects are not shrugged off. Though we only see a few games played in their entirety those we do see are appropriately bleak. There’s something about watching half a dozen intelligent people realize there’s no escape from the sulfuric acid pooling overhead that makes for compelling television. That’s to say nothing of the King of Spades’ hunt for players hiding in Tokyo between games. There’s no longer any guarantee of safety in Shibuya, no matter how much time remains on one’s visa, and the King is as relentless in his pursuit as Jason Vorhees. The series is beautifully shot, with brief moments of peace standing out from the violent chaos. One scene where Arisu and Usagi share an unexpected hot spring stands out as a moment they’d never experience in the real world before it’s shattered by a reminder of their circumstances.
Chishiya (Nijirô Murakami) and Kuina (Asahina Aya) get the spotlight several times, and we follow former Board member Ann (Ayaka Miyoshi) as she tries to discover alternate Tokyo’s secrets. Several supporting actors get the chance to shine, particularly Arisu’s friend Tatta (Yutaro Watanabe) and the loathsome murderer and attempted rapist Niragi (Dori Sakurada). Season Two adds a number of characters to the cast and they’re almost all fantastic. We get to know several of the Gamemasters; each takes part in their particular challenge, and their lives are equally at risk. They’re fanatically committed to their roles, with the fearless determination of Zack Snyder’s Spartan warriors. Of particular note is King of Clubs Ginji Kyuma (Tomohisa Yamashita). He and his teammates challenge Arisu and the others to a game of “Osmosis,” a complicated version of Capture the Flag. Kyuma calls himself a citizen of this strange land, and his Zen calm at the possibility of death provides an interesting contrast to the players’ constant anxiety. Not to mention he’s naked the entire time.
But not everything in the second season is a thrilling life-or-death challenge or booty shot, and that’s where the show struggles a bit. It falls victim to the traditional anime problem of pausing a deadly fight between two characters so they can discuss their opposing viewpoints. Character A is bleeding to death but B and C need to finish their moral debate before we can move on. Sometimes these conversations are interesting. Others are a chance for Chishiya to prove he’s smarter than everyone else. There’s also a tendency for Arisu’s inherent gentleness to put himself and his friends at great risk, and several times he refuses to commit violence despite the obvious consequences. It’s a problem that continues right through the final episode, and exacerbates the story’s biggest issue; its ending. To be fair, Alice in Borderland is far from the first sci-fi series to fumble at the goal line. Lost, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica all faced similar issues wrapping up their mythos into a neat package. AiB has the added challenge of being the adaptation of a popular manga, and what works in print doesn’t always work on screen. The answer to the riddle is so much less interesting than the possibilities laid before us that it’s anticlimactic. It’s not helped by an ending that’s irritatingly vague if you haven’t read the manga or checked a wiki. That said, it wasn’t a terrible climax, and doesn’t detract from the inventiveness that got us there.
Alice in Borderland’s second season is a thrilling battle for survival with a surprising amount of humor, considering its bleak setting and a first season devoid of laughs. The Gamemasters are an excellent addition to the cast, and the increased focus on several of AiB’s badass female characters makes for several thrilling battles. Despite a finale that by turns frustrates and confuses viewers, this is definitely a card game worth playing.