Anime Review – Ben-To – Street Fighter meets half-priced bento boxes
January 1, 2012 2 Comments
Ben-To is quite frankly crazy, utterly insane, off the wall, mad as a hatter, and quite probably seeing stars, and I love it. Ben-To was also quite a surprise for me, I had gone into this show not expecting all that much apart from a slightly silly show, which is apparently about fighting over half-price Ben-To boxes, and I have to admit I was shocked. This show was so very good that it is easily in my top three for the season, and while there shows that I preferred (Mashiro, Majikoi) in terms of shear adrenaline fuelled, hallucinogenic entertainment, Ben-To is easily the best.
The story of Ben-To is quite simple; it is essentially about those who fight (quite literally) over half priced bento boxes. Into this mess walks Satou, who one evening, while trying to get cheap food since he is on a tight budget gets knocked out and wakes up in that particular supermarket’s storage room with no real memory of what happened. After a little exploration he quickly discovers that a Senpai at school, Yarizui is the leader of the ‘half-priced food lovers club’, a club specifically for those who fight for the honour of the half-priced bento boxes known as ‘wolves’ (ookami). Now at this point I am scratching my head because I am wondering what on earth bits of classic marshal art films, bushido code and half priced bento boxes have in common. The answer is of course absolutely nothing, which does not stop Ben-To from doing it anyway. Here is a little bit of information about the fights and the rules that govern them, I have add this since it is explain in the light novel series on which this show is based.
Bento brawls are big, all-out, free for all battles for half-priced bento boxes, where victors are decided by who claims the bento first. The brawls are governed by a set of unspoken rules among the brawlers, mainly to keep each brawl fair and even.
- Every brawler must wait away from the bento area until the God of Discounts, the ones who put the half-priced sticker on the bento boxes, put the sticker on the bento boxes and leave to the break room before beginning to battle. To take one beforehand and to harass the God of Discounts is disrespectful as the last thing they need at the end of their shift are people harassing them for their discount.
- If another brawler manages to get a bento for themselves, they cannot be attacked. If two or more brawlers get their hands on the same bento, then they fight among themselves until the others let go of the bento.
- A brawler can only take one bento, to take another would be greedy and would spoil the victory for another.
- Brawlers should never do anything to cause a bento to spill, doing that would mean one less bento for someone to get.
Asides from that, whatever methods one can use in obtaining a bento can be used from simply brawling to using baskets and chopsticks as weapons, even running around avoiding fights altogether are valid strategies. Sometimes brawlers fight in groups, such as the Half-Priced Food Lovers Club (Sato, Yarizui and sometimes Hana) and the Orthrus pair who will often fight with each other while going after separate bento or team up to take out a threat before brawling with each other.
Those that fight for bento boxes are often known as “wolves”. Inexperienced bento brawlers are considered “dogs”, usually considered as such when they do not understand the essence of bento brawls and use tactics that are looked down upon. Those that go against the rules and will selfishly go after bento and harass the staff are known “boars” and have no respect among brawlers. Bento brawlers will often do everything in their power to stop boars from obtaining bento as they go against everything brawlers stand for and thus do not deserve the bento. Strong and notable brawlers are often given titles, though for some how they got their title (and in the case of Sato, the title itself) are usually less than impressive.
I’ve added this because it adds another dimension to the story, but also makes it even more ludicrous. The idea of having such a strict code for a fight over half-priced bento boxes is a brilliant idea and I love it.
Each episode consists of Satou learning more and more about the bento fights, battling new and increasingly powerful opponents and getting to know Yarizui more. The anime takes elements of classic martial arts and fighting anime and live action films with Sato learning more about the ‘warrior code’ of bento fighting, including learning more about himself. He must overcome himself to truly get better and understand the meaning behind the bento fights, helped on by his ‘master’ Yarizui. Now, this all sounds preposterous, and actually it is, the entire concept is pretty silly, but I love the way in which this anime is very tongue-in-cheek about it. You can tell it doesn’t take itself seriously, I would even suggest that it revels in the absurdity that ensues whenever a fight takes place. For example there is even an episode at the pool, your classic swimsuit episode employed by almost every anime ever made. However, bento gives it a little twist, the pool provides a new and unique twist to your standard bento box brawl, complete with floating food and a bento box made up to look like a pair of breasts.
The characters are also pretty entertaining, each with their unique name, fighting style and crazy personality. Sato is a classic, almost generic male lead to begin with, seemingly lacking any kind of personality and a bit on the pathetic side. However as the series progresses he gets stronger and makes his own decisions, he also happens to be the punching bag of Ume Shiraume. She is the student council president, clearly a lesbian and punches Sato in the face every time she sees him. She is also infatuated with Hana Oshiroi, a Boys Love (BL) novel writer who is easily excited and joins the Half Priced Food Lovers Club on a whim.
There are also two other main characters, along with a host of side characters; these two main characters are Sen Yarizui and Ayame Shaga, Sato’s sempai and half-Italian cousin respectively, along with being the love interests. Yarizui is known as Hyoketsu no Majo (The Ice Witch) and is the strongest bento brawler in the area, along with being president of the half priced food lovers club. Shaga is known as Mizumi no Reijin (The Beauty by the Lake), and uses chopsticks in battle. She is a fan of fighting games, often playing them with Sato, and also appears to have a massive crush on him.
The fight scenes are one of the main draws of Ben-To, and I particularly love how a simple fight over a half-priced bento turns into a martial arts contest with aerial moves and things like ‘honour seals’. What’s brilliant is that one moment Sato is being beaten up by Shiraume, but as soon as he sets foot into a supermarket he transforms into a martial arts expert with the ability to leap through the air and do almost every martial arts in the world. Now if this were any other series, I would likely point out this major inconsistency, but in Ben-To it curiously works. Sato’s amazing ability to do roundhouse kicks while flying about 5 meters into the air, only to land perfectly and do some complex set of kun-fu movements doesn’t bother me and only adds to the ludicrously that takes place on screen. And more importantly I enjoy every minute of it.
The art is nice, nothing spectacular, but works, in fact the fight scenes are slickly done and the backgrounds are well drawn. I did not see any real inconsistencies in quality between episodes and overall the artwork was slick and well polished, although not as extravagant as some other series from the autumn 2011 season. The soundtrack, while nothing special was excellent and I think fit the series well. Also, Ben-To had one of my favourite opening sequences from 2011 anime, with each character starting off with their titles, although it does allude to a possible love triangle that never really materialises. One more point to make would be on the silly titles that each episode had. Every episode is named after a particular bento box, often the main bento box for that episode, and in particular episode 10 has what is probably the longest title for an anime episode that I’ve ever see – It was a Warm Gentle Flavour that Reminded Me of my Grandmother. A Japanese Dish that was Kind to Both Body and Soul. Plum and Dried Baby Sardines over Rice with Plenty of Seasonal Vegetables Stewed Bento 480kcal – which is something of a mouthful if there was ever one. (Here is the Japanese if anyone is interested Sore wa Mukashi Sobo no Ie de Tabeta Atataka de Yasashii Ajiwai. Kokoro nimo Karada nimo Yasashii Wa no Ryōri. Ume to Chirimenjako Gohan to Kisetsu no Yasai Tappuri no Nimono Bentō 480kcal (それは昔祖母の家で食べた温かで優しい味わい。心にも体にも優しい和の料理。梅とちりめんじゃこご飯と季節の野菜たっぷりの煮物弁当 480kcal)).
I do feel that Ben-To was a little rushed, and the potential love triangle between Sato, Yarizui and Shaga, which was hinted at during the opening and several episodes never really materialised. I feel that this is in part due to the source material. Ben-To is based on a light novel series, currently on 9 volumes and on-going, so I assume that there is more development in that relationship in the novels. The problem with light novel adaptations (and I feel this holds true for everyone of them), is that there is too much material to put into a shorter 12/3 episode series. Ben-To has the potential for a sequel, whether it materialises or not is another matter, but I can hope. The story is pretty much none existent in places, and there are times when it feels rushed (especially the ending), but overall Ben-To has been a joy to watch. I often feel that too many anime with silly concepts take themselves too seriously, if there were more series like Ben-To the world would be a happier, and potentially a less hungry place, even if you have more bruises as a result. Ben-To is easily in my top three for the autumn 2011 season and one of my favourite shows of the year, definitely recommended.