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Anyone who ventured into central Tokyo while the state of emergency was in effect earlier this year may feel a twinge of recognition watching “Alice in Borderland.” The producers of this splashy Netflix drama must be ruing the effort spent on achieving its signature effect — a city devoid of people — when they could have captured the same thing for free in April.

It isn’t a pandemic that’s caused everyone to vanish in this sci-fi suspense series, directed by Shinsuke Sato. Even readers who’ve made it to the end of the Haro Aso manga on which it’s based may struggle to explain exactly what’s going on.

For Ryohei Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) — the “Alice” of the story’s title — the adventure starts not with a trip down the rabbit hole, but into a toilet cubicle in Shibuya Station. When he emerges, alongside friends Daikichi Karube (Keita Machida) and Chota Segawa (Yuki Morinaga), they find the place suddenly deserted, and all the lights have gone out.

Alice In Borderland (Imawa No Kuni No Arisu)
Rating
Run Time 8 episodes
Language Japanese
Opens Streaming Dec. 10

The mystery deepens as night falls, and a glowing message leads them to the first in a series of survival games. Instructions are relayed to players via smartphones, and the stakes are high: Let’s just say that anyone who loses tends not to emerge with their skull intact.

Ryohei, a university dropout who spends most of his time playing video games, quickly starts to recognize the logic underpinning the game designs, though some are too fiendish even for him to crack. As he encounters other players who’ve also found themselves stranded in the deserted capital, he strikes up an alliance with Yuzuha Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), a mountain climber whose physical prowess turns out to be just as valuable as Ryohei’s problem-solving skills.

Given that some of Netflix’s most successful Japanese productions to date have been anime, it makes sense that they’d create a live-action drama targeted at the same audience. There’s some solid talent behind “Alice in Borderland,” not to mention a sizable budget.

Sato is an expert at turning hit manga into movies that are actually entertaining, most recently with last year’s “Kingdom,” which also starred Yamazaki. He also directed one of the series’ most obvious precursors, “Gantz” (2011), which similarly featured a group of mismatched characters trapped in a mysterious purgatory, where they’re forced to take part in missions with an alarmingly high fatality rate.

As in “Gantz,” the protagonists of “Alice in Borderland” have a tendency to vacillate at the most inopportune moments, and while it isn’t specified anywhere in the rules, each game seems to require at least a few minutes’ worth of heavy emoting.

If only the players were actually interesting. Few of the cast leave much impression, though Tsuchiya makes for an effective action heroine, and Nijiro Murakami has some fun as a smirking loner. Some of the other performers appear to have been sculpted out of various kinds of hardwood.

Only the first four episodes were made available for review, so it’s hard to say if the series ever rises above the level of serviceable binge fodder. The production values are sufficiently slick that viewers are unlikely to grumble that it would’ve worked better as an anime. But just like Ryohei and his pals, even during scenes of life-or-death importance, I kept feeling the urge to look at my phone.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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