By Shermaine Lee
Bopian. This couldn’t-care-less, go-with-the-flow attitude drives most Singaporeans to lead purposeless lives. It is this same attitude that Ryohei Arisu, the protagonist in Shinsuke Sato’s TV adaptation of Haro Aso’s Alice in Borderland (2020), begins his journey with in the treacherous, post-apocalyptic Tokyo he is transported to. The drama’s title and characters are a distant nod to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), but viewers soon see it is far from a fairy-tale as the characters are forced to play sadistic games with fatal consequences for the losers and those who try to escape, testing their moral resolve and willingness to live. Although all are determined to survive, characters who persist to prevail against the odds seem to do so through leveraging on their painful experiences and desire to live on for others, channelling this into their ikigai.
Ikigai roughly translates to one’s life’s purpose. First introduced by Mieko Kamiya in her book Ikigai ni Tsuite (1966), ikigai has become a pillar of Japanese culture and framework to boost productivity in living. While the exact definition of ikigai remains ambiguous, most studies agree the journey of finding one’s ikigai is more valuable than the destination. Definitions differ between ikigai as jiko jitsugen, “self-realisation”, or as ittaikan, one’s “commitment to group or role”. The latter suggests one’s ikigai lies in the fulfilment of one’s social role, such as being a model employee, whilst the former argues there is a “self-underlying” aspect of ikigai that allows people to pursue their individual dreams. Anthropologist Gordon Matthews (1996) attempted to reconcile these definitions, arguing ikigai was ultimately one’s “individual choice of deepest commitment to something in its real or imagined social world”, characterising ikigai as both social and individual. Ikigai is social as individuals either “seek a self that will be more highly valued by others”, or hope to exceed the expectations of oneself in a future social world. Ikigai is also individual, where individuals may be influenced by others to pursue a certain ikigai but the decision ultimately lies with oneself.
Alice in Borderland explores ikigai as both social and individual through characters’ discovery of their ikigai. Much research has been done about how individuals may find ikigai through self-reflection of their passions and voluntary actions, however, can ikigai also be borne out of pain and hardship, and how does it strengthen one’s mental resolve? This article will explore this through the transformational journeys of 2 key characters, Ryohei Arisu and Hikari Kuina, discussing how the hardships they faced led them to find their ikigai, and how they channeled it into a form of strength. I will also suggest how the modern definition of ikigai tends towards jiko jitsugen through evaluating the characters’ ikigai.
Ryohei Arisu: Friendships & Love as Jiko Jitsugen Ikigai
The protagonist, Ryohei Arisu is the disgrace of his family, dishevelled in appearance and a problem-solving genius in his early 20s who eventually finds his ikigai in his love for his friends. The drama opens with an intense scene of Arisu blasting away on his computer games before his younger brother chides him for skipping yet another job interview, reminding him he is a lost hope to the family. Arisu’s seemingly detached persona is contrasted against his sentimentality and emotional connection towards his friends, Chota Segawa and Daikichi Karube, best reflected in Episode 3. The trio are thrown into a sadistic game where there can only be one winner who will walk away alive. Karube and Chota eventually deem Arisu should be the one to stay alive, given his intelligence and potential, and die shortly after. The tragedy results in Arisu falling into a depressive slump, lying on the streets conscious, but motionless for two days. He blames himself for their deaths, murmuring that “[he] was the one who killed all of them. [he killed them]”.
It becomes clear to viewers that Arisu’s motivation to live, and hence his ikigai, lies in honouring the friends he loved and their belief in him, when Arisu is eventually persuaded by Usagi to live on and participate in the next game. Arisu’s ikigai is perhaps the most notable in the series, where he can channel his painful past into a memory that inspires him to live on. The building of ikigai from wounds is supported in comparisons with other Japanese films, where it is observed that the “silence, melancholy and resilience of wounds and pains” stemming from past experiences may form a reason for living.
Arisu’s ikigai challenges the notion of ikigai as ittaikan, whereby he is unbothered by the social expectations on him to be a contributing member to society, but is deeply affected by his individual guilt and love towards his friends. Although one might argue that ikigai as ‘being a good friend’ leans towards the ittaikan definition, I reason that the role of a ‘friend’ differs from that of a social structure such as a ‘family’ or ‘company’, in that there is more freedom in choosing one’s friendships than one’s occupation or family, hence Arisu’s active choice to live on for his friends instead tends towards the jiko jitsugen definition.
Furthermore, Arisu’s dedication to living on amidst the difficult circumstances to honour the memory of his friends parallels the definition of ikigai as the action one takes in pursuing happiness, or in this case, hopes of survival. A flashback to the Botanic Gardens game where Chota and Karube urge Arisu to “live on for [them]” inspires Arisu to get his head back in the game. He returns to being his compassionate self, offering other participants clean water at the cost of his own thirst in Episode 4. Driven by his ikigai, Arisu appears to find new meaning in his life, wanting to make the most out of it, proclaiming by the end of Episode 4 to Usagi that “I will live!”, a sharp contrast to his depressive vegetative state at the start of the episode. Arisu’s ikigai is also driven by his friends’ belief in him. He ascertains he is only alive because his friends “died believing in [him]”. Towards the end of the series, Arisu is bound, blindfolded, and tortured by some of the antagonists. As all hope seems lost for Arisu, he is transported to a flashback of him with his friends, laughing and reminiscing about an arcade they used to visit. The flashback ends on an omniscient note, as Karube encourages Arisu to “Live [his] life to the fullest”, while Chota adds to “Live [his] life for [him]”. With renewed determination, Arisu struggles against his bonds and successfully escapes. Ikigai here is introduced as social in how Arisu wishes to fulfil the expectations of his departed friends, although we also observe how it is individual through Arisu’s active decisions to live by his ikigai.
Arguably, Arisu’s ikigai is not the sole reason for his renewed purposefulness in life. With the threat of death always looming nearby and literally numbered days of survival, the human instinct to stay alive is a large driving force for the characters. However, we note that ikigai goes beyond the desire to live, but instead finding joy and purpose in living. Arisu initially fears dying, seen in his inability to open the door in his first game that could lead him to his death. Following the death of his friends, Arisu states “My body wants to live…But there’s no point in me living,” reflecting his human desire to stay alive as opposed to his pessimism about life, having not found his ikigai.
Moreover, Arisu goes beyond living for the sake of living, but aims to do more with his life with his newfound ikigai. This is sharply contrasted to the past, where Karube remarks “ever since you dropped out of university, all you’ve ever done is say sorry”, reinforcing that his ikigai drives him to pursue what is important to him, on top of staying alive. Arisu’s character development and resilience despite hardships are evidence of how one’s ikigai can strengthen a character both mentally and physically.
Hikari Kuina: Redefining Ikigai as Gendered vs Universal
Hikari Kuina is another character with a strong ikigai developed over the hardships of her past. Her blue bikini and cigarette seem to suggest she is an allusion to Carroll’s Caterpillar, a well-suited analogy as Kuina transforms from her past by the end of the series, emerging from her struggles as a butterfly. Born the son of a dojo master, Kuina is treated harshly during martial arts despite giving her best effort and is disowned by her father when her liking of makeup is discovered. Kuina, having accepted and grown confident of herself after transitioning into a woman, visits her sickly mother in the hospital. Kuina’s mother is initially shocked by her appearance, stating that she “came back a totally different person”. However, her mother goes on to surprise her, gushing, “you look beautiful”. Her mother’s acceptance of her identity and unconditional love, juxtaposed to her father’s rejection, is what becomes Kuina’s ikigai as she seeks her reassurance.
Kuina’s ikigai is an exception to traditionally gendered definitions of ikigai, whereby previous research in the 1980’s suggested the “dominant ikigai of men is work; the dominant ikigai of women is family and children”. As a transgender woman, it is unclear what the dominant ikigai of Kuina would be. The ittaikan definition would suggests Kuina’s ikigai would be based on fulfilling her duties as a son, but this is clearly contradictory to Kuina’s happiness. However, Kuina still finds ikigai in her role as a filial child who cares for her parents, seen from her love for her mother, calling into question the seemingly outdated social roles suggested in the ittaikan definition. The jiko jitsugen definition of ikigai would allow for a wider interpretation, as Kuina finds ikigai through “self-realisation” that she loves her mother because the latter is able to accept herself.
The traditional gendered roles mentioned in his work is a limitation Matthews notes and attributes to how his work is only a snapshot of society’s attitudes in the 1980s-90s, at the time of writing. I hence argue jiko jitsugen provides a more comprehensive modern definition of ikigai.
One might ask, is Kuina’s ikigai not her determination of her gender? Through transitioning, Kuina feels shiawase, the Japanese word for happiness. While ikigai also brings about happiness, it is also forward-looking, hence I argue Kuina’s ikigai is her love for her mother as it is what motivates her to survive her ordeals. This is reinforced by Matthew’s argument that we pursue ikigai to “maintain a sense of significance in [our] lives, a sense that comes only from other people”. Kuina gains a sense of satisfaction from making her mother proud, as previously seen from her relief at her mother’s acceptance. Kuina explains to Arisu and Usagi, “My mom is sick in the hospital. She can’t even relieve herself without my help, and yet I had to be separated from her. So I want to return alive”. Her source of strength is the memory of her mother whom she cares for dearly. Towards the finale of the series, a violent group of participants orchestrate a fatal witch hunt. Kuina’s ikigai in her will to live inspires her to defend another inhabitant from tattoo-clad, katana-yielding Takatora Samura (“The Last Boss”) as she single-handedly tries to defeat him.
The power of Kuina’s ikigai is also attributed to her decision to reconcile her past, enhancing her belief in herself and her eagerness to survive. Mitsuhashi iterates that when searching for ikigai, one needs to examine both their past and present to truly know one’s self. In the showdown, Kuina acknowledges both herself and “The Last Boss” “despise [their] pasts”. Initially, like the Last Boss, Kuina rejects her past, answering that she “worked in a clothes shop”, instead of telling the truth about her martial arts practice, when asked about her skilled fighting.
However, to take down the Last Boss, Kuina chooses to “face [her] past once more in order to survive”. She assumes the fighting stance she learnt from her father and employed the martial arts practice she learnt in her past. By becoming at peace with her past, Kuina takes the voluntary action to enhance her ikigai which in turn empowers her to make clean moves that disempower the Last Boss. Kuina’s example supports the notion of ikigai as both social and individual, whereby Kuina is motivated by an external party, her mother, to persevere on, and is driven by the “sense of significance” she feels from being able to do both of her parents proud. Moreover, Kuina’s individual choice of letting go of the past empowers her as she integrates the lessons learnt, turning her pain into another source of strength.
Alice in Borderland was a hit among Netflix audiences globally and was renewed for a second season just two weeks after its release. I argue its success can be attributed to its ability to inspire through its various examples of the resilience and motivation one can get by actively engaging their ikigai, which may stem from an intrinsic motivation or from a crisis and the pain of past events, reflected in the tragic pasts of the characters. The drama also redefines ikigai, where individuals may not be fully happy as they pursue life but are at least able to make peace with themselves and face forward with renewed determination, having reconciled with the past. It also challenges older definitions of ikigai as one that is more aligned with ittaikan, suggesting ikigai as jiko jitsugen allows for a more flexible interpretation of ikigai as times, and people, evolve.
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 Noriyuki Nakanishi, “‘Ikigai’ in Older Japanese People,” Age and Ageing 28, no. 3 (1999): 323, https://academic.oup.com/ageing/article/28/3/323/31016.
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 Gordon Matthews, “The Stuff of Dreams, Fading: Ikigai and ‘The Japanese Self,’” Ethos 24, no. 4 (December 1996): 728, https://www.jstor.org/stable/640520.
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 Shinsuke, Alice in Borderland, Episode 7, 27:58.
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 “Alice In Borderland Renewed For Season 2,” 8 Days, December 24, 2020, https://www.8days.sg/entertainment/hollywood/alice-in-borderland-renewed-for-season-2-13837544?redir=1.