Meet Kuina: a stunning example of positive trans representation on television

Close-up shot of Kuina from "Alice in Borderland"
Photo: Screenshot

The following article contains spoilers for both Seasons of Alice in Borderland. Read at your own discretion.

Round 1: Fight — She Scores! 

When she is first introduced, Alice in Borderland’s trans character, Hikari Kuina, is easily dismissible as shallow due to her clothing and mannerisms. Bikini-clad and often seen with an unlit cigarette in her mouth, she at first gives off the vibe of a carefree girl living comfortably in the alternative Tokyo featured in the Japanese series – which is a thrilling and gut-wrenching story of characters who find themselves transported to a parallel world where they must compete in deadly games to survive. 

Although initially perceived as a reckless schemer alongside her partner in crime, Chishiya, Kuina ultimately emerges as the most intricate and meticulously developed character in the show, which justifies her being a fan favorite. She is analogous to The Caterpillar in this retelling of Alice in Wonderland, and she transforms into a radiant butterfly by the conclusion of the story.

Proving first impressions might not always hold true, she shows both bravery and decisiveness in the first game in which we see her take part. As the story unfolds and we witness her in action, we gain greater insight into her character, her anxieties about mortality and her mother’s illness that necessitates her increased responsibilities. 

Her anxieties are born from her realization that life can be fleeting and unpredictable, as evidenced by the dangerous games she finds herself playing in Borderland. It’s a real person we start to see behind the initial untroubled facade. She’s still a schemer, but her confident front begins to leak vulnerability and show a complex human being.

Her character becomes increasingly dynamic. Even when her life was at stake, for example, Kuina displayed empathy toward the protagonist, Arisu, who was left behind and betrayed by Chishiya. 

Refreshingly different from the usual clichés for transgender characters, she does not suffer a tragic fate. Additionally, her personal growth arc is not centered around her sexuality — an often overused focus in transgender narratives. In fact, it is not even addressed. The show cements her self-confidence as a transgender woman who embraces all of her traits, even those traditionally assigned to males. 

In Borderland, Club games emphasize teamwork almost exclusively, whereas Spades games call on athleticism. Kuina undergoes a transformative journey of self-discovery, starting off as a skilled Clubs player and eventually becoming an adept Spades player, in a nod to the newfound embrace of her physical prowess, a quality often associated with masculinity. 

With her sheer will and past expertise, Kuina impressively fights her opponent, who is referred to as the Last Boss, without the aid of any weapons, showcasing the conclusion of her process of self-acceptance. Flashback scenes reveal her past struggles with an abusive father during her martial arts training, with Kuina bravely confronting these painful memories and overcoming her fears.

Round 2: Final Fight — And She Definitely Wins! 

Furthermore, her closure is much better than those of many other characters because she comes full circle and reunites with her father and mother, and she gets a happy ending, with her father accepting her after having kicked her out of his house just for being who she is. 

“I will face my past once more in order to survive,” she says firmly to the Last Boss, as she courageously confronts her past once again to save herself. Despite initial similarities in their outsider status, it becomes increasingly evident that she is categorically distinct from him. She is not a criminal, nor does she possess any psychopathic tendencies. She is just different, and that is perfectly okay. 

Her own father and society had dubbed her an outcast, but she is closer to a hero than many in the series. When confronting the man who was actually a monster, she got rid of the monster society tried to make of her due to her gender identity. Thus, she gets rid of that darkness hovering over her and continues her journey toward a well-deserved happy ending. 

Although poignant, the image of her bare feet being lacerated with glass as she endures excruciating agony to evade the Last Boss pales in comparison to the torment she endured from her father and society at large simply for being her authentic self. 

It was disheartening that she had to learn survival skills from her own father, who belonged to the same group of men she would have to fight against. Had she been showered with love instead of hate, her life would no doubt have been different. Her father’s acceptance only came about due to the prospect of him losing his child. Only in this extreme scenario did his love for Kuina rise up. 

Round 3: One Big Miss 

Of course, the decision to cast a cisgender actress (Aya Asahina) as a transgender character in such a mainstream successful series is a squandered chance for trans visibility and representation — an especially bad move since the media serves not only as entertainment but also as a source of education for its viewers regarding the intricacies and diversity of human experiences. 

While Kuina is far from being insensitively portrayed, the casting of a transgender actress in such a prominent role would have provided better visibility and validation to transgender people. 

It would have also sent a powerful message of inclusivity and acceptance in a country like Japan, where the social acceptance of transgender individuals is limited. By casting a cisgender actress for this character, the idea that the transgender experience is something that can be easily replicated or appropriated by people who do not actually live that experience was unfortunately reinforced. 

The primary purpose of accurate and diverse media representation is to dismantle systemic oppression and empower underrepresented communities by creating an inclusive and equitable society. 

At least Aya Asahina’s gender identity is female, even if she is cisgender. Worse casting choices have been made. For instance, Toma Ikuta, a male actor, was cast to portray the transgender woman in Karera ga Honki de Amutoki wa (When They Knit Seriously) in 2017. But of course, two wrongs do not make a right.

Choosing a cisgender actress to portray Kuina is unjustifiable, but Kuina’s story is nevertheless a refreshing celebration of a transgender woman as a complex and empowered human being in mainstream entertainment. 

Her character defies stereotypes and expectations by owning her body and life while avoiding the usual emphasis on drama, tragedy, or sexuality. 

By successfully conquering agency and independence throughout the story, Kuina provides a compelling narrative that deserves recognition and praise. As fans adore and appreciate Kuina’s representation in Alice in Borderland, we can hope that it leads to a brighter future where transgender people are accepted and celebrated in real life as well.  

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