Netflix’s Alice in Borderland blends Lewis Carroll, video game visuals-Entertainment News , Firstpost

The survivalist thriller will, no doubt, see a glut of entries in the years ahead, thanks to the runaway success of Squid Game in 2021; the Korean show is one of Netflix’s most popular products of all time. Instead of watching yet another Squid Game wannabe, though, I highly recommend a Japanese show that actually predates Squid Game by an year. This is Shinsuke Sato’s Alice in Borderland, which just released its second season after a triumphant opening in 2020. And arguably, the second season is a significant improvement on the first, across several departments. The show tracks the fortunes of Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), two youngsters who find themselves adrift for very different reasons — Arisu is a video-game-playing slacker who doesn’t really get along with his family, while Usagi is a mountain-climber dealing with the recent, tragic loss of her beloved father.

After an unspecified cataclysmic event happens in contemporary Tokyo, Arisu and Usagi find themselves a part of a band of survivors who are caught in the titular ‘Borderlands’, a post-apocalyptic wasteland. These ‘players’ find themselves in life-and-death games designed to test their mental, physical and even emotional aptitude; losers are executed on the spot via a beam that shoots down from the sky (or from massive blimps).

“Off with their heads!”

All of the games are thematically and aesthetically from the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, stylized after a card of decks. The first season sees Alice and Usagi playing games for numbered cards—the number next to each game card indicates the difficulty level while the suit decided what kind of challenge it was (spades meant physical challenges, diamond cerebral tasks and hearts would be emotional tests, of course).

There are also some characters straight-up borrowed from Carroll’s world—a typical ‘loose cannon’ character here is called ‘The Hatter’ for example. Not to mention, ‘Arisu’ is clearly a spin on ‘Alice’ while ‘Usagi’ is just Japanese for ‘rabbit’; Usagi is inspired by the White Rabbit and shows some traits displayed by Carroll’s character, too (speed, climbing ability and general air of mystery about them). Similarly, ‘Chishiya’ is the Cheshire Cat and shares the enigmatic smile and general inscrutability we associate with the iconic character.

The second season, which wrapped up recently, saw Arisu and Usagi teaming up to find the face cards—tougher and much more elusive than the numbered-card challenges. Every face card is controlled by a ‘gamemaster’, a kind of ‘level boss’ as they say in video game terminology. The gamemasters are stronger, smarter and much more ruthless foes than the players themselves—in the first season, Arisu, Usagi and their friends (like the wily Chishiya) only had to deal with fellow players, remember.

For example, the ‘King of Spades’ is basically a super-soldier, a single-minded killing machine with expertise over a wide range of weaponry and seemingly infinite ammo (supplies are air-dropped to him via his personal blimp). In the second season, this character’s kill count is in the hundreds, if not more, and it takes Alice and Usagi all the help they can get—including a surprise appearance from frenemies Niragi and Aguni—to square off against the King of Spades.

The show’s dominant narrative mode sees it treating the Alice in Wonderland-themed games as a kind of morality play. For example, Chishiya finds himself playing the King of Diamonds’ game in one episode; this is Kuzuryu, formerly an executive member of ‘the Beach’ in Season One. The King of Diamonds was a corporate lawyer prior to the Borderlands, and he witnessed firsthand how the system is stacked against the weak and the poor and the already-disenfranchised. When he found himself at the helm of a face-card game, he “vowed to make it fair”. How to assess the value of a human life, is the philosophical query upon which he bases the eventual King of Diamonds game (I won’t spoil it, but it is a lot of fun, this episode).

Alice in Borderland isn’t all about grisly deaths and shock-jock visuals, although it does craft its death scenes lovingly and with more than a touch of the baroque. At its best, it interrogates the way people build societies, alliances, cultures. Its tonal shifts are frequent and sometimes even jarring, but the pace is never allowed to slip. If you like your survivalists with a splash of high-stakes character-driven drama, this is the show for you.

The Lewis Carroll multiverse

Lewis Carroll, of course, casts a giant shadow over Alice in Borderland., as he does across popular culture for the last 5-6 decades. For example, when I was a teenager (in the early 2000s), the PC game American McGee’s Alice was one of the hot new things on the gaming market. Chronologically speaking, the action in this third-person adventure game took place after Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. But in the game’s violent, cruel and often macabre world, we find an Alice driven to the edge of madness after a house fire claims the lives of her parents and leaves her scarred all over. She must undertake a new journey to the Wonderland to heal herself physically and mentally—but the fantasy lands she (and we the players) knows so well have been corrupted and twisted, reflecting the assault on her psyche.

This was a deeply weird game but it was also a visual achievement for its time. The game’s designer, American McGee, had been involved with some of the pioneering action games of the 90s, including Wolf, Doom and Quake. And Alice was his masterpiece, the game he put his name to.

If you remember the first trailer for The Matrix Resurrections (2021), you’ll remember how it used the Jefferson Airplane song ‘White Rabbit’. The white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, of course, is a bit of a recurring theme for the Matrix movies; in the first film when Neo (Keanu Reeves) meets Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss) for the first time, she has a tattoo of a white rabbit on her shoulder. The song ‘White Rabbit’, with Grace Slick’s trippy vocals, has become something of a staple in montage sequences and trailers. Its lyrics make the connection between the scenes and attitudes described by Carroll—and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

In the world of comics, Batman has always had a soft spot for Lewis Carroll references. The Batman villains Hatter and the duo Tweedledee/Tweedledum are plucked straight from the pages of Through the Looking Glass. In the 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean), several story arcs as well as the visual design of the book is inspired by Carroll’s works. In fact, Morrison credited the work of the iconic Czech filmmaker and artist Jan Švankmajer, who directed a brilliant, subversive 30-minute animated adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in the 80s.

A word here about one of the most unusual and inimitable graphic novels of the 21st century, Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland (2007), which straddles the lines between fiction, memoir, academic treatise and literary criticism. An impressively unclassifiable book, Alice in Sunderland explores Lewis Carroll’s links to Sunderland (Talbot’s adopted hometown) and how the town inspired some of his most famous creations. The history and geography of the town are interspersed with remarks about the characters from Alice in Wonderland, as well as their mythical or real-world inspirations.

It’s not just the immediate identifiability of Lewis Carroll’s world that makes Alice in Wonderland such a rich source of cinematic allusions and references. It’s that Alice’s story itself is such a wonderfully broad template for all manner of coming-of-age tales. Obviously, creations like the Jabberwocky or the Cheshire Cat are also pretty convenient if you’re a storyteller looking for a big, flashy personification or metaphor. This is a world that lends itself relatively easily to psychological projection and narrativization.

Alice in Borderland is the latest sliver of pop culture to realize this, and it utilizes its inspiration rather well. When Arisu meets the final stage boss, the Queen of Hearts, in the second season, she tells him, “Life is just a game we play with each other, Arisu. Try to enjoy it.” Not only does the statement telegraph the show’s video-game underpinnings, it is also a hat-tip to the fact that above everything else, Lewis Carroll’s world is about being playful. Whether it’s the ‘network logic’ of Alice in Sunderland, the macabre inventions of American McGee’s Alice or the hallucinatory wails of ‘White Rabbit’, Carroll has been inspiring this ‘spirit of play’ in creators for a long, long time now.

Alice in Borderland season 2 is streaming on Netflix

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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