The Japanese series trails Arisu, a teenager, and his best friends Chota and Karube, who suddenly find themselves in the middle of an empty Tokyo with an on-going virtual reality game. Each night, specific venues turn into a gaming venue for the participants to play & survive. The type of games is classified based on one of four suits of playing cards – spade, heart, diamond or club. If the participant clears the level, they are given “rest days” and will not need to participate until their rest days are fully utilised.
Games of Guilty Conscience : Landing in the strange virtual world of reality games, the 3 friends have to learn the tricks to survive in these games. Any misstep may end in their death. Groping in the dark, the 3 friends find other participants secretive and usually not willing to share information. As the friends survive one level, they learn that human’s instinct for survival can be brutal and human will do anything in order to survive.
Chota injures his leg in the 1st game, whereby the friendship starts to show cracking signs. While Arisu and Karube enter another game to find out more information, both begin to understand that each suit of game is reflective of different genre whereby Diamond represents game of wit, Club represents team play, Spade represents test of endurance/ strength and Heart represents game of treachery. During the game, a few more characters are introduced ie Usagi a fit & independent female climber, Asuni a brutal leader hell-bent on the offensive and Chisiya an observant but secretive player.
Game of the Hearts : As Chota’s rest day is expiring, the friends opt to enter into a game and find themselves trapped in a game of the heart. In a game of betrayal of the friends, only 1 place of survival is given for all the players. The game definitely tests their friendship but ultimately Chota & Karube give up their life to save Arisu’s. Heartbroken to have lost his friends, his extreme guilt drives him to despair. When Usagi sees Arisu’s lack of will to continue to live, she sends food and encourages him. Both enter the next game of endurance (and trickery), which provides perspective to Arisu and the motivation to live on for his friends.
Game of False Utopia : Arisu & Usagi look for the elusive The Beach, thought to be a sanctuary but turns out to be a tightly controlled camp by the slightly mad “Hatter”, assisted by an executive committee (the brain) and the military (the brawn). The participants freely enjoy themselves at the hotel, living each day as their very last day. As Arisu & Usagi manoeuvre through The Beach, they find themselves in deeper danger as they find themselves right smack in the middle of a battle between the brain and the brawn.
The world of utopia in The Beach falls apart when the hotel venue became a game venue, with another game of heart to witch-hunt the murderer. In the chaos, more unsettling information is unearthed.
Game of Reality : As Arisu & Usagi watch the recorded videos of the “dealers”, they are dealt with the reality that participants are used to plan the games in exchange for rest days. In their pursuit of the game master, deemed to be the controller of the game, a new set of games is introduced for the face cards ie kings, queens, jacks.
The series started off at a fairly slow pace, almost with a deliberate linger to introduce the characters. When the 3 friends find themselves at the Shibuya’s crossroad totally empty of crowd, the series totally evokes an eerie feeling. The pace picks up significantly when the friends enters the apartment building (game venue) and realise they can lose their lives. With just 8 episodes, I thought the series is nicely paced.
Arisu’s character represents a neglected & sensitive but protected teenager in an organised normal world. There is nothing that he needs to worry about other than facing the cold wrath of his father and his nagging but well-intent brother. Thrown into a chaotic world of games, Arisu faces the pressure well but his soft & kind heart seems to be a burden especially when he intends to help underdogs in some of the games. The same personality in 2 different worlds in fact brings out different results – a misunderstood & slightly rebellious lad in a peaceful world and a kind-hearted & helpful lad in a chaotic world. Kento Yamazaki as Arisu portrays the character very well, showcasing his great acting skills.
The lads are with very different personality & background, but strikes such strong friendship. In their pursuit of young & innocent fun, they also support each other in their need for companionship. I had to take a double take when Karube “exploded”, and felt the grief experienced by Arisu. Their parting words to Arisu – live on for us – will forever haunt poor Arisu.
The development of friendship and then romance between Arisu & Usagi happens quite naturally too. Not unexpected, but I like the combination of the couple – the quiet strength of Usagi and the passionate kindness of Arisu.
There are other smaller characters, less screen time but no less important – the unique bond of Hatter and Asuni. The secretive Chishiya always giving me the creeps. The adorable Kuina on the outside, but such an impressive & strong she fighter! The tragic fate of the young Momoka and Asahi as the dealers.
The soundtrack is very impressive, doesn’t disappoint and totally suits the various scenes – haunting, raggedly utopian, eerie…. Entirely composed by Yutaka Yamada, and yeay! Introducing to me a great composer.
My only grouses : Main one – at the Beach the girls are all skimpily clad, as if it is a deliberate ploy to attract viewership. Shallow! The next one, it is a hanging ending, arghh! Obviously not so patient to wait for the next season, I am half-way reading the manga, and preliminary observations – there are advantages in reading the manga. With more stilled pictures, there are further areas for interpretations & imaginations on the characters. There are more side stories in the manga, and definitely room for more seasons.
Watch it! The characters are fleshed out nicely, and there are so many conversations & perspectives to the personality, their actions & decisions. In such chaotic times, surprisingly the characters did not annoy me as there are always a side story to it which helps the audience to empathise with their predicament. In my mind, some of the characters and their choices are fodders for discussion on psychology, with the questions on morale, virtues and the whys. Some scenes are obviously violent, but I thought it was a “muted violence” which lends a sympathetic ring to the series. Looking forward on how the next season will be portrayed.