Do you ever feel like the place you’re in is not the place you know? Something just isn’t right. It’s like everyone else has vanished, or like things aren’t quite where they should be. Unfamiliar names on the television, unfamiliar shapes on the skyline, or unfamiliar rules for your reality. These shows are about that feeling. Whether it’s an abandoned city, a virtual reality, or the panels of a comic book, these shows capture what it means to be, quite literally, out of this world.
Alice In Borderland (2020)
Based on a Japanese manga, Alice in Borderland tells the story of three friends who accidentally cause a traffic accident and run into a train station bathroom to hide from the police. When everything suddenly goes quiet, they go out to find that the entire city seems to be deserted. As night falls, advertising screens light up with a mysterious message directing them to take part in a “game”. They soon find out that they are not alone in this world, when they see a man screaming at the heavens before a laser bolt from the sky kills him. In this world, you have to play “games” to survive. Playing can kill you – but failing to play means death as well. If you survive, you win a brief reprieve – but the clock keeps on ticking, and only playing more games will extend it. From that start, Borderland dives into what it means to be trapped in this situation. Like all the best stories of this type, it pushes on the boundaries of its premise and is much more about character than spectacle.
“Death game” manga are popular in Japan, and Alice In Borderland is a good example of the genre. The comic began serialisation in 2010 in Shonen Sunday Super, a fairly mid-tier manga magazine aimed at the shonen (teenage male) demographic. Alice was popular enough to move to the publisher’s main magazine Weekly Shonen Sunday in 2015. This put it in the pages of the fourth best selling manga magazine in Japan, with a weekly circulation of 350 thousand copies, and alongside legendary series like Detective Conan. This popularity also prompted an anime adaptation, though it came in the form of OVAs rather than a full series. An OVA – original video animation – is traditionally an anime produced for distribution on disc rather than broadcast on TV or released in theatres first, though nowadays it’s also used for standalone special episodes of streaming shows. Three OVAs were produced and bundled with the tankobon (collected book volumes) of the comics. (The OVAs are hard to get as they never had an official western release, and not really worth the effort as they’re not very high quality. If you’re curious, they cover the same events as the first three episodes of the Netflix series, though since each OVA is only 23 minutes long they don’t go into as much detail.)
The obvious cultural touchpoint of Alice In Borderland is one of the most famous stories about falling into another world: Alice in Wonderland. The main character, played by Kento Yamazaki, is named Ryohei Arisu. (Since Japanese used a single phoneme to cover both the English “l” and “r” sounds, the pronunciation of “Alice” in Japanese sounds much like “Ariss” to English speakers’ ears.) The female lead, played by Tao Tsuchiya, is named Yuzuha Usagi. “Usagi” is the Japanese word for “rabbit”, and the White Rabbit is a major character in Wonderland. (Incidentally this was not Tsuchiya and Yamazaki’s first time working together. In 2015 they played the leads in the teen movie Orange, one of the top ten highest grossing films in Japan that year. Securing such high-profile stars shows how seriously Netflix took this adaptation.) Playing cards play a major part in Borderland, just as they do in Wonderland, adding another layer of connection, and there’s even a mad hatter later in the show.
There’s a lot to like in Alice in Borderland. The actors are highly talented, with Yamazaki in particular putting in an amazing performance. The show does rely on the tired trope of putting the female lead in danger of sexual assault at one point, though thankfully it doesn’t lean on it too heavily. On the other hand, it does have some of the best trans representation I’ve seen in a show where that wasn’t part of the plot. Speaking of the plot, it manages to strike the balance between immediate stakes and overall mystery pretty perfectly, and ends with a great setup for the second series that is (thankfully) coming later this December.
Memories of the Alhambra (2018)
While Alice in Borderland transports its heroes to another world that reflects our own, Memories of the Alhambra superimposes another world onto our own courtesy of Augmented Reality contact lenses made by J One Holdings. Their CEO Yoo Jin-Woo (played by veteran actor Hyun Bin) is attending a technology conference in Madrid when he gets an email asking him to come to Granada to meet Jung Se-Joo, the creator of a revolutionary new AR game. When he arrived the creator has vanished, so in order to track him down Jin-Woo takes a room at a youth hostel run by his sister Jung Hee-Joo (played by Park Shin-hye, whose breakthrough role was as the lead in the Hong Sisters drama You’re Beautiful). Jin-Woo also begins playing Se-Joo’s game, which turns out to be an AR RPG with seemingly impossibly high-quality graphics and action combat. Matters are complicated first by a rival CEO on the same trail, and then by the game seeming to bleed over into reality. Jin-Woo soon learns to dread the sound of the classical Spanish song (and theme tune of the show) Recuerdos de la Alhambra, and the onset of rain that nobody else can see.
Memories makes the most of its setting, glorying in the Spanish streets and fortress walls. Even when the action switches to Seoul it never loses that visual flair. Some of the enemies in the AR world are also astounding. The show’s budget was clearly well spent, with amazing special effacts and an all-star cast and crew. For once it’s clear that someone who understood how videogames work was involved in writing the show. This is unsurprising though, as Korea is well known for its videogame scene. Online gaming has been massively popular in the country for over twenty years, with Korean MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) being especially notable. The game in Memories of the Alhambra draws on that cultural knowledge, which saves it the effort of having to explain every detail to its audience – or why such a groundbreaking game would be worth so much to a CEO like Yoo Jin-Woo. It wasn’t the first time writer Song Jae-jung had drawn on a popular trend in his work; or the first story about worlds colliding he’d written either. Two years earlier he’d written a show about something even more quintessentially South Korean: webtoons.
W: Two Worlds Apart (2016)
Kang Chul (played by Lee Jong-suk) becomes a South Korean hero after unexpectedly winning Olympic gold in pistol shooting in his first ever international competition. At least until his family is murdered, and Kang Chul is the sole suspect for their deaths. Cleared for lack of evidence but shunned by society, he contemplates suicide but decides to live and find justice for his family. Fuelled by determination and a genius-level intellect, he becomes the billionaire CEO of an e-commerce and broadcasting company, meting out vigilante justice from the shadows while hunting for the murderer of his family.
If that sounds a bit cliched: well, that’s part of the point. Because (within the show) Kang Chul is actually the main character of South Korea’s most popular webtoon, W. A webtoon is a type of comic that was created in Korea back in the year 2000, which takes full advantage of the online format. This includes having mood music playing while certain parts are read, having some panels animated (similar to Western “motion comics”), and most notably having no page breaks – panels are published in one long “infinite canvas” that readers scroll through. This is usually optimised for reading on smart phones, though the technique predates their wide use. Webtoons are also distinct from manga and other East Asian comic types by almost always being published in full colour, with a wide variety of art styles. Nowadays webtoons are massively popular, pulling in a revenue across multiple companies of $3.6 billion in 2021 – about three times that of the entire US comics industry. Naturally this has led to multiple adaptations of webtoons into movies, anime, and TV series (for example, The Uncanny Counter). It’s not surprising that Song Jae-jung chose the format when writing a series about the lines between fiction and reality breaking down.
That breakdown comes about when series author Oh Seong-moo (played by Kim Eui-sung, who you may recognise from Train to Busan) tries to kill Kang Chul off and end the series. Seong-moo vanishes, and when his daughter Oh Yeon-joo (played by Han Hyo-joo) visits his office to look for him she gets pulled into the world of the webcomic. A cardiac surgeon in training, she saves Kang Chul’s life before being brought back to our world by the appearance of the words “To Be Continued”. What follows is a show that fully leans into the implications of its metafictional premise, asking questions about the nature of creativity and what it means to be alive. Along with the perils of being linked to a massively popular piece of media, of course: among other things, Yeon-joo first gets harassed by her boss for spoilers and then faces further consequences when she actually starts appearing in the published strips. By the show’s fourth episode it had already gone places I had expected to take the entire series, and things only get wilder from there.
This is all made more complicated by the fact that we know both of these worlds are fictional, of course. Neither Kang Chul nor Oh Yeon-joo are real, but is one of them less real than the other? Reading a good book or watching a good TV show is how we can transport ourselves to another world, something that lets us put ourselves in the shoes of these protagonists. Still, at least we get to return to reality when we finish watching. Don’t we?