Alice in Borderland Series 2 (2022)

Series 2 picks up right where we left off, with Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) and his new friends taking on the face card challenges in the hopes of finding their way out of the bizarre other world they are trapped in. Episode one begins with a burst of violence as the King of Spades guns people down mercilessly in a much-changed Shibuya, showing that nobody is safe. This proves to be true as the deaths pile up throughout the series, including several shocks. We see several more games this time around, all ultra-violent twists on old classics, such as a guessing game where the losers are doused in corrosive acid, or a high-octane game of tag that sees contestants running around a giant industrial structure. The large budget is evident on screen in the fantastic sets and special effects, particularly bringing to life an abandoned Tokyo overgrown with weeds, and the swooping, wide-angle shots that make the unreal seem believable. There are elements of disaster movie, action, romance, and science-fiction that are all underscored with the central emotional drama of the main cast. Most are returning characters, with the inclusion of newcomer Yuri Tsunematsu as a no-nonsense high-school girl. The central mystery is not unravelled until the final episode, and then with a couple of entertaining misdirections (referencing two other popular ‘death game’ series, “Kaiji” and “Gantz”). Wrapping things up is a big task and the solution may prove unsatisfactory for some viewers who were hoping for a different explanation as to what happened, but it does a solid job of bringing together the themes of the show in a way that feels fitting.

The ‘Death Game’ genre lives or dies on its characters. “Alice in Borderland” remains opaque enough throughout that viewers are free to interpret its message as they like. It works as a socio-political satire with the unseen forces of the world putting its citizens through a meat grinder. The arbitrariness of death, the senseless nature of the games, the unbeatable odds, all lend themselves to interpretation, either philosophical or political. The series’ intent is to shock its viewers into living life rather than losing hope. It shouts at us that we need to keep fighting, to keep trying, however hard or futile things seem, and that in the end the only thing that matters is life. Throughout Arisu is searching for an answer, a meaning to his life, or an explanation to this world, and the series continues to deny this to him, and by extension the audience. In the instance that the truth is revealed we are almost beyond the point where the answer has any meaning to us. Instead the underlying message of the series is that of human solidarity in the face of adversity, confronting our mortality, and the idea of simply living as an end in itself.

Hell Dogs (2022) by Masato Harada

Goro Idezaki (Junichi Okada) is working his first shift as a patrol officer when five people are gunned down in an armed robbery. Believing he was to blame he sets out to kill the members of the Chinese gang responsible. He is later picked up by the chief of the undercover crime squad and asked to infiltrate the Toshokai yakuza group. Under the name of Kanetaka he pairs with another yakuza hitman called Muroka (Kentaro Sakaguchi). The two are assigned to protect the new head of the family, Toake (Miyavi). As he gets closer to bringing down the group, Kentaro must ensure that his cover is not blown.

Based on a comic book by Akio Fukamachi and directed by Masato Harada, who also wrote the script, “Hell Dogs” is a stylish crime thriller with flashes of nihilistic violence. The story will be familiar to fans of the genre, with an undercover cop; various double-crosses; sexual liaisons that threaten to undermine the operation; and gangster in sharp suits. The array of characters creates a sense of realism, with bosses and capos, enforcers, the mob wife, the police chief, the love interest, an assassin, call girls, and more enlivening the world, although due to the constrictions of film many are little more than plot drivers. The central relationship between Kanetaka and Muroka is well-done, although there is never any real sense that Kanetaka has conflicted loyalties, which seems like a missed opportunity to create some tension. Several side characters, in particular Noriko (Shinobu Otake) suffer from this lack of time, with their backstories largely brushed over. That being said the star-studded cast is firing on all cylinders, bringing these archetypes to life with charisma to spare. The action sequences are well-done, leaving no doubt about the brutality of these criminal regimes, though they occasionally tip into the ludicrous, such as when two people miss each other several times from point-blank range. These moments occur often enough to be considered the film’s ironic humour, or a sideways comment on genre conventions, as when a character comments on never having seen a female assassin before.

Idezaki’s redemption arc sets him on a hero’s path, journeying through hell to make amends for his past mistakes. Although he is not personally to blame for the initial crime, his determination to set things rights displays a lex talionis sense of justice. A question arises as to whether Idezaki is driven by a sense of justice, or something darker, hate, drive to dominate, or pure aggression. Bosses on both sides of the criminal divide point Idezaki at a target, which begs the question of how different they are and whether Idezaki’s life is guided more by luck than free will. This comparison is brought up again, when Muroka relates Idezaki’s story, not knowing who he is, suggesting that ideas of honour, loyalty and justice are mirrored in the police and the yakuza. One side story that is given short shrift is that of Muroka’s ex-girlfriend, who has begun a survivors group for people who have lost loved ones to gang violence. It is one of several curious ideas thrown into the mix, another being the various undercover agents who are revealed throughout and the police force’s negligence in taking care of them. A complex crime thriller with enough interesting characters to breathe life into the well-worn story of a cop going undercover in the yakuza.

The Violence Action (2022) by Toichiro Ruto

An undercover assassin is tasked with taking on a dangerous Yakuza syndicate in this comic-book crime caper. Kei (Kanna Hashimoto) works as an killer-for-hire, with dual cover as a University student and call-girl working out of a ramen shop. This compilation of Japanese pop-culture action cinema tropes extends is completed with a wacky side-kick with a bullet-proof wig (Takashi Okamura), a love-lorn fellow student who traipses after her; over-the-top gangsters led by a dad-joke loving boss; a villain possessed of supernatural martial prowess; Kei’s fellow assassin, the sniper Daria (Yuri Ota); love hotels; warehouse fights; gangland shootings; and a handsome, morally dubious love-interest.

“The Violence Action” is based on the comic book by Shin Sawada and Renji Asai. The film adaptation, written and directed by Toichiro Ruto, co-writte by Itaru Era, suffers from two major issues. One is the tonal inconsistency, shifting gears from slapstick comic action (bullet-proof wigs; aerobatic gunfights) to ultra-violent scenes (albeit with CG blood) including people being shot with a nail-gun. The puerile humour twinned with the mature tone is reflective of a trend in pop-culture of infantilisation; merging entertainment for kids and adults. Children’s films become more violent, while adult films are stripped of emotional depth. This results in what we have with “The Violent Action”, a film that never seems sure of what it is doing, other than throwing as many elements from other enjoyable films into the pot and giving it a stir. The issue with this is that you are consistently reminded of better films. The second failing of the film is in its headache-inducing editing, with hyperactive cuts that are unnecessary, giving it a music-video style that adds nothing to the drama. Unfortunately, these cuts are often use to disguise a lack of technical ability in the cinematography, the rapid cuts perhaps seen as the lesser of two evils by the director. The film suffers by comparison to “Baby Assassins” (2021), which managed to establish some degree of character for its protagonists and pulled off the comic-action vibe much better.

It is hard to know if the film is aiming for a B-movie feel, many elements would suggest this, but even if it were it still fails to create significantly outrageous set-pieces that would allow it to pass in the genre of more wacky action films. There is such a confusion of plot lines (an assassin questioning her choices; a leadership struggle within the Yakuza; a man double-crossing the mob; a love-sick teenage boy lusting after a dangerous girl; the sniper with a dark past; the hospitalized friend and dreams of revenge), all of which have been done before, and none of which are given enough time here to become the main focus. “The Violence Action” is akin to flipping through a series of action movie trailers, getting a brief impression of each one, but no consistent plot or memorable characters.

Bubble (2022) by Tetsuro Araki

Mysterious bubbles descend on Tokyo, destroying the city and leaving it mostly submerged under water. Years later, the survivors have formed into teams who compete in parkour competitions for scarce resources. Hibiki (Jun Shison) is a member of the Blue Blaze team, fighting against the Red Lobsters, Denki Ninjas, and the dangerous technologically-advanced Undertaker group. The Blue Blaze squad live on a ship with Makoto (Alice Hirose), a scientist who is researching the strange bubbles that are still present and that have led to odd permutations in gravity. Hibiki, a solitary figure, finds companionship in the shape of Uta (Riria), one of the bubbles who comes to life in a modern take on The Little Mermaid folk tale.

There is a lot to like in “Bubble”, drawing as it does on various popular tropes and ideas from anime, fantasy and folk tales. The central story, a post-apocalyptic group of survivors provides an interesting backdrop to the romantic Little Mermaid-esque tale of Uta and Hibiki’s relationship. The film’s philosophical underpinnings reference both environmentalism, in the shape of the flooded city and vast cosmological ideas such as the inevitable desctruction and potential rebirth of the universe. The animation and artwork are exceptional, with detailed depictions of the sunken city and colourful, opalescent light shows with stars and bubbles creating a psychedelic experience. The action is top-class with a focus on parkour being a great way to show the CG-enhanced environments. The story is underexplained, perhaps relying on audience famliarity with both the romanctic and post-apocalyptic genre, with the characters also falling into easily recognizable stereotypes. No real explanation is given for the bubbles, or Uta’s apperance, and there is little character development outside of Hibiki, whose struggle with over-sensitivity to noise (his name meaning “sound” or “echo”, alongside Uta’s “Song”), is an emotional angle to the loner protagonist archetype. However, what the film does do well is in creating a moving, energetic, thought-provoking experience; not always logical, but alwasy engaging. The score by Hiroyuki Sawano complements the heart-pounding action and quiet contemplation of the film.

“Bubble” features the sunken cities of 2009’s “Shangri-la” and the frenetic, death-defying action of “Attack on Titan”, the vibrancy and detail of Makoto Shinkai, and the magical fairytale dreamscapes of Mamoru Hosoda, but brings it all together in a unique package. It may be slightly lacking in a strong central motivation for the characters, but the visual spectacle means that it is easy to ignore this lack of depth and simply marvel at the colourful animation and emotionally chaged romance. In a final summing up, the film reaches for some sort of message for humanity, settling on a traditional moral characterised in the saying “Fall seven times, get up eight,” in suggesting that loss can be overcome and people will always rebuild from destruction. This life-death cycle could have been worked in to the story earlier, and more sense made of the bubbles, which are window-dressing for the most part, but overall the film succeeds in being a magical experience.