Anime Reporter gets more than it bargained for with the complete anime series, (12 episodes), of Ben-To. Ben-To is one of the most unusual series’ this reporter has seen in a long time and, in the world of anime, that’s a pretty big claim so readers are advised not to dismiss the show based on its premise and to read on for a more developed description.
Ben-To follows Yo Sato from his first day of high school. Unfortunately, Sato is staying in a dorm where only breakfast is provided and his allowance doesn’t leave a lot of room for meals. This is why, on his first day of school, Sato is hanging around a supermarket at night, waiting for them to put a 50% discount on their bento before the end of the day. “Bento”, for anyone unfamiliar with the word, is essentially a Japanese lunchbox or packed meal.
What Sato doesn’t know is that so many students in the area are in the exact same situation as he is and that he’s about to enter a very dangerous world. Bento-Brawling is, well it’s not just a sport, it’s really more of a sub-culture, the kind of thing you could compare to Fight Club. Every night, fighters wait for the signal to battle it out for the right to a reasonably-priced meal. And “battle” really is the word to use. These students more or less beat the hell out of each other, walking over the bodies of their fallen foes, just for the right to enjoy a decent meal. That really is the premise of the show.
Sato makes a few allies and earns himself something of a reputation, learning along the way that Bento-Brawling is about many things, but never forgetting that it’s mainly about the rumbling in his stomach. The fight scenes are intense with fast-paced action and a surprisingly well-delivered sense of tension and high-stakes thrown into so many scenes. That isn’t to say that this series relies solely on its violent premise to keep viewers’ interest. Ben-To’s characters are, in many instances, some of the most cleverly designed and bizarre to grace a recent series. For example, Ohiroi, one of Sato’s first friends from school, is somewhat obsessed with Sato as a muse for her erotic writing. She seems to draw inspiration from a lot of aspects of his life and in situations where any other character might react with surprise, terror or an offer of assistance, she’s more preoccupied with getting every detail she can onto the page.
The humour of this series is absolutely excellent. At first, there were many indications that Ben-To was just another action-heavy, boob-laden piece of fan-service, but there was a moment, when this reporter’s perspective entirely changed. A few episodes in, I noticed that Brunette, a side-character nicknamed entirely for the colour of her hair, seemed to be appearing in a conversation with her breasts at the centre of any shot she was in. Then it hit me, I didn’t think I’d seen the top half of her face since she was introduced. Once I noticed this, it was impossible not to laugh. In every scene, Brunette’s face would be cut off by the top of the screen or obscured by a random obstacle and a few shots of characters around her would have her chest taking up 30% of the screen. Brunette might be the perfect parody of the way girls are portrayed in fan-service.
Ben-To itself might just be the perfect parody of anime in general. The series takes a fairly simple premise; students are hard up for cash and so there’s a lot of competition for bargain bento, and gives it the signature “This is my life now” anime treatment. Characters are typically obsessed with bento-brawling above so many other aspects of their lives, essentially putting all of their energy and passion into it and there’s the common trope of characters quickly advancing in strength only to find greater challenges springing up in their path. Sato shares the trait of many a fan-service protagonist in his preoccupation with breasts and the show reflects this with a very tongue-in-cheek attitude with the way the “camera” shows the world and quite a lot of superfluous jiggling. There are also a couple of truly tense moments where a female character shows a lot of unwanted affection and attention to others. One of these scenes in particular is fairly harrowing and it provides a startling contrast to earlier examples of girls groping each other in the background for comedic effect. If this is a commentary, as I think it is, about the way women are often treated in anime series, then it’s a fairly powerful statement.
While there’s a lot of fairly standard innuendo and humorous misunderstandings, the cast manages to carry these so that they always feel fresh and seeing the way Sato’s life can unravel in moments is always handled with humour and intelligence. If this reporter is giving Ben-To too much credit and it really is just fan-service for fan-service’s sake, then it’s still a clever and funny show, but it really does feel like the creators are poking more than a little fun at some of the trends in anime.
Ben-To is available on DVD from Manga Entertainment on March 16th 2015 in the UK and Ireland. Fans of action, humour or copious amounts of suggested nudity will certainly find a lot to love here.
85% – “Priceless” – Ben-To is either a slick and wildly impressive piece of satire, or just a very funny, occasionally disturbing piece of fan-service and in either case, it’s a seriously strong example of anime entertainment. At moments, it can get more than a little intense, but this can often be remedied when you remember that it’s essentially The Hunger Games, except that the losers don’t die, they just have to settle for instant ramen.