If you’ve ever found yourself waking up on the sidewalk, struggling for consciousness and aching with intense physical pain all over your body, there’s a decent chance you need to go seek help, from both a doctor and an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. But for You Satou, a slightly more perverted than average teenage boy, this advice really doesn’t apply. Yeah, he did find himself waking up face down in the pavement at the center of a crowd of worried onlookers, with a strange girl from his school babbling incoherently about some epic fight that he can’t remember, but instead of a hangover and the deep shame that comes with it, all You Satou can feel is an empty stomach demanding food, an empty wallet demanding cheap food, and an empty head demanding answers. To make matters worse, this all happens while he living all alone in a strange town, staying away from his family in the dormitories of his high school, living on a strict budget, and his only clue comes from a mysterious white haired girl who gives him one simple warning; Stay away from the Supermarket.
Of course, budget wins out over brains, and he finds himself once again visiting the grounds of his unexplained injury, and he happens to get there right when the owner is about to place half-off stickers on Ben-To boxes full of fresh food that didn’t get purchased that day. Satou charges in, stomach roaring, youthful enthusiasm pounding away inside of him… Only to get dragged into a world of culinary combat as the lingering loiterers around the market explode into an all out war over the discounted food. The rabbit hole only goes deeper from there, as he suffers yet another defeat at the hands of Sen Yarizui, the white haired warrior, who takes him and his other new friend Oshiroi under her belt to become better Ben-To brawlers. If they ever want to stand a chance of landing budget friendly food to dine on, they’ll have to train, improve their fighting skills, and learn the intricate philosophies of Wolves, Dogs and Laurel Wreathes, but most importantly of all, they’ll have to have the hunger for victory. With wars breaking out between guarded territories, ambitions rising all around them, and a series of increasingly bizarre circumstances unfolding around them, will Satou have the stomach to survive in this game, or is he destined to lose his lunch?
If you’ve ever heard the name David Productions before, it’s probably because you watched the 2012 adaptation of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Aside from that, and to a lesser extent Ben-To, they really haven’t had any big hits. They formed in 2008, and spent a year or two offering production assistance to a couple of big name shows, namely Code Geass, Soul Eater and Black butler, before finally branching out on their own in 2009, releasing some obscure titles. They finally broke ground in 2011, releasing Level E and Ben-To, a couple of generally well-received but NOT popularly known titles. It was born from the minds of some former employees of Studio Gonzo, and much like it’s year-mate, Ben-To feels like some of Gonzo’s better looking titles, and I’m not just talking about a specific genre here. Gonzo’s visual style varies from show to show, with fast animation in it’s light hearted action shows, intense focus and gritty detail in it’s more hardcore action titles, and just enough smart camera work to make even the most mundane of slice-of-life shows feel lively and engaging. Ben-To is all three of these achievements stuffed tightly in a half-priced supermarket bento box.
To start, the slice-of-life scenes take place primarily in a school, and if not that, then at least primarily around students. The day-time and in-class segments look on the surface like they could exist in pretty much any anime that shares a similar setting, with clean and sharp=looking exteriors and a bunch of uniquely designed background characters occasionally reacting to the quirkier crowd that makes up the main cast. To be clear, there isn’t quite as much background movement as you might find in a Kyoto Animation title, such as the first season of Haruhi, but it’s more than enough to keep the rest of the country’s population from looking like a bunch of cardboard cut-outs, and furthermore, it sells the idea that there IS a world outside of the main cast. Scenes taking place in Sen’s club-room or near and inside the supermarket aren’t nearly as bright or sterile, but in a possibly ingenious move, they feel darker in a warm, inclusive kind of way… When you’re watching the main cast interacting with each other and other patrons, it feels like you’re among friends and equals away from the conformity of everyday life.
Secondly, the light-hearted action animation had a lot of money poured into making it look as smooth and kinetic as possible, despite the questionable material it wound up being used for. Satou is the butt of a lot of physical comedy, both funny and non, and despite being a completely different character in both personality and disposition, the kind of things he lives through could easily be compared to that of Keitaro from Love Hina. He’s not even the unluckiest character in the show(we’ll get to that), but misfortune follows him wherever he goes, and the show’s obviously generous budget captures it all in sometimes excruciating detail. Speaking of detail, some of the more intense action scenes are so vividly animated that they could almost be confused for clips from Hellsing Ultimate, particularly because of the use of shading. Ridiculous premise aside, there are moments in this puppy that are meant to be taken dead serious, and they probably would have fallen flat without such intricate visual direction. These two action-oriented animation styles make for a beautiful combination during supermarket brawls, and while a few shots are recycled, it happens scarcely enough that you’d have to watch the series multiple times to notice.
The character designs are fairly standard and archetypal, but not lazy in any way. Satou looks like your typical anime hero with an average face, messy brown hair and no other real distinguishing features. Yarizui looks like your typical cold-hearted girl, ala Rei Ayanami, with the short white hair and everything. Oshiroi looks like your typical Fujoshi/Manga-artist character, complete with mousy demeanor, pony-tail and glasses. Ayame, Satou’s cousin, looks like your typical sexually-forward character, with long blonde hair and a generously proportioned rack. The rest of the cast isn’t as obvious as these four, but they’re still designs you’ve seen before, and it’s not hard to draw the connections, which would be annoying if each character wasn’t branded with a ‘nom de guerre’ that blatantly calls out their specific archetype. I won’t spoil what name Satou eventually gets, but the fact that the cold-hearted Yarizui is referred to as an “Ice witch” should be a proper example of why these designs were picked. Other than that, it’s up to the characters themselves to shine beyond their rather ordinary looks, which they do.
When it comes to the music, I’m working with a bit of a handicap here, so you’ll just have to bear with me on this. I usually look up OST tracks on youtube during the writing process, but I can’t do that with Ben-To, because I can’t for the life of me FIND any ost tracks to listen to. It’s bad enough that the series’ title is a difficult one to search effectively, I swear to God I’m getting more results about actual Bento food than I am for the series itself, but I can’t even find the soundtrack on amazon or Ebay, and rewatching it twice in one month just to listen for background music sounds like overkill, but after a quick rewatch of the first two episodes, I’ve noticed that it doesn’t actually have much of a soundtrack. Most anime have a set list of tunes that can play either in short bursts or on repeat for longer scenes, but the music in Ben-to is never just there to be there. If there’s no music needed, or if we’re just listening to dialogue, there’s little to no music present. When music is needed to complement a certain tone or emotion, one of many vastly different short-length tunes will play for the exact purpose, and disappear the minute it’s no longer needed.
The opening theme, LIVE FOR LIFE by Aimi, is awesome, and a perfect fit for the series by all standards. The song is upbeat and intense, the visuals synchronize with it perfectly, and it features some stellar animation. I never thought the simple shot of characters walking around in a supermarket, passing in front of the camera as they move between aisles, could be so much fun to watch. The characters are given proper introductions, and at a few points are even given a small bit of depth, if you’re paying attention. Some outstanding fight animation is also featured, and the transitions between shots are just gorgeous. The ending theme, like most for this type of show, is a lot calmer and with a much more steady pace. It takes place at the end of the day, with all fights behind us, and nothing ahead but the solemn rendezvous afterwards. It’s a nice tune with a soft ambiance, and the visuals offer a heartfelt look at what Yarizui’s new club members, the pups she’s taken under her wing, truly mean to her, and how they’ve changed her life with the implication that she’s transitioning from student to master herself.
The English dub is a Funimation effort, and it was made by exactly the right people, with John Burgmeier directing, and the ever-thoughtful Monica Rial working on the scripts. I’ve praised Monica’s writing several times before, but with Ben-to, I think she;’s added another feat to her list; She can do a Jamie Marchi script WAY better than Jamie Marchi can. No, I’m not just attacking Marchi for shits and giggles, let me explain… Marchi likes to pack cheeky comedy shows like this one full of slang, double-talk and quirky innuendo, taking every possible opportunity to make the characters say something outrageous. Monica does the same thing in this dub, except with the slang toned down and allocated to specifically the characters who might use them, outrageous dialogue used sparingly so as to enhance the effect and not drive the audience into sensory overload, and innuendo divided up among the characters with the dirtiest minds. Oshiroi, when she’s fired up about her boys-love novel, takes on the brunt of this, and Felecia Angelle has so much fun with the material. The fact that nobody else in the cast gets to say the insane, perverted things she does is not lost on her, which is probably why the passion in the character’s voice always feels so natural.
Austin Tindle and Trina Nishimura play the main characters, Satou and Yarizui, but it’s kind of difficult to talk about their performances without also bringing up the kind of development they go through, and it’s not really time for that yet. To put it in broad terms, they both start off sounding like pretty much what you’d expect from their character designs, but just as much development awaiting them as their is their characters. Satou is a character who grows thro9ughout the series, finding passion and strength, and while Austin /tindle may play him as a normal male student most of the time, he’s more than capable of getting fired up whenever his character does. Yarizui seems cold and untouchable at first, but as we learn more about her, she becomes a lot more vulnerable and relatable, both to Satou and the Audience, and Trina is able to deliver on this depth in spades. Tia Ballard plays the ACTUALLY cold hearted character, a far cry from the roles she’s more famous for. She plays the menacing class representative Ume Shiraume, and as demanded, she plays the role like a cold-blooded killer, speaking plainly and as needed, with volumes of venom injected into her words, making the character feel like a legitimate threat. That’s not all I could say by a long shot, there are a ton of Funimation actors who show up in both large and small roles, and… They’re great. They’re all really great. I recommend this dub, although if you’d prefer, the sub’s just as good.
So, there’s a good chance that, by the end of my plot description alone, you’ve already decided whether or not you’re going to ever watch this anime. I’ll be perfectly honest with you guys, it’s pretty fucking out there. This is a show that basically combines the worst of black Friday with a literal interpretation of The Hunger Games. People beat the shit out of each other in the middle of a super market… No, not even a supermarket, a convenience store, three pumps away from being a gas station… for half-price boxes of leftover food. They don’t do this spontaneously, either. Oh no, this is their lifestyle. It is taken with complete sincerity, Satou nearly gets his head knocked off at one point for questioning it, and at no point does anyone compare the money they’re saving when they win a bento to the possible cost of hospitalization. There is actual drama at play here, with more than just hunger on the line. It’s a matter of pride and respect. I will never be able to hear someone dismiss this series based on it’s plot without completely understanding why. But among people who’ve actually watched it, and fully experienced it, Ben-To is a very well-regarded and even respected title. How is that possible with such a ludicrous premise?
Well, first of all, you can say whatever you want about that premise… It’s insane, it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense… But it is dead fucking serious, and it never wastes any time questioning or second guessing itself. If it did either of those things, it wouldn’t have as much time to explore every single possibility that it’s premise might allow, branching itself out to cover just about every detail that it can, and fleshing them out in ways that make sense because it MAKES them make sense. It builds upon the idea of brawlers beating each other up for cheap food by figuring out why they fight, what their philosophies are, what the rules are, what kinds of people break those rules, how the brawlers interact before and after each fight, what turf wars might look like, even going as far as figuring out ways that different convenience store items, from chopsticks to shopping baskets, might be used for in combat. If you have a question about the world of bento brawling, and it’s not about the realism or practicality of the situation, it’s probably answered at some point in the series. I, for one, felt a whole new sense of depth when it was revealed that some brawlers retire from fighting and move on to take more neutral roles in the community, even though their pasts might come back to torment them.
It’s all part of the sincerity of the series. It knows what it should be, but refuses to be anything other than what it wants to be… A combination of melodramatic black comedy and straight forward shounen action. For those of you who don’t know what melodrama is… Which is understandable, as it’s one of those words people hear all the time without ever really looking up… It’s the story-line equivalent of making a mountain out of a molehill, and it’s not the easiest thing to pull off successfully. In order for the audience to take the material seriously, you have to take the audience seriously. You can’t blow something out of proportion and hope they won’t notice. It’s possible to get them swept up in the emotion of the story, but once they start thinking about it, they start to realize that the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they thought. Yeah, people love Angel Beats, but eventually, they start to wisen up and pick away at the show’s many plotholes and deeper issues. That’s why the melancholic element has to be up front and straightforward. If it’s the central conflict, any question about it can be answered with a hearty “Yeah, so what?” By using that element as an obvious foundation to the story, and building from there in terms of themes and characters, the added depth gives people a much better experience upon further viewings.
As for the nature of that depth, it’s surprisingly thorough. When we meet Satou, he makes a point to inform us that he’s lived an ordinary, boring life that’s been devoid of purpose or direction. He initially enters the bento brawls as a curiosity because he’s attracted to Yarizui in both the traditional sense, the way any boy his age might pursue a girl, but also in a deeper sense. He doesn’t just want her, although he does, he wants what she has… A passion, a purpose, something to dedicate his life to. He begins tio pursue both, and as he progresses, they both slowly become a part of him. He develops as a fighter, discovering the pride of a wolf and the reward of sportsmanship, all as he gradually becomes adopted into the community of like-minded fighters. He learns what the sweet taste of accomplishment is like, and almost immediately afterwards, he learns that an undeserved victory doesn’t come anywhere close to it. This is all as he comes closer and closer to Yarizui, who’s going through an arc of her own, although it’s not as obvious. I won’t go into too much detail about where their journeys take them, but they are definitely in a different place than they were at the beginning of the series, both as individuals and together.
There are a lot of other colorful characters supporting the story, including Satou’s boisterous cousin Shaga and her friend Asebi(who I am begging to see as the main character of her own show), and while this may seem like a weird thing to praise, Satou’s relationship with classmate Hana Oshiroi is like nothing else I’ve ever seen in an anime. The two of them clearly hit it off and have chemistry, but there isn’t a drop of romance between them. They form a charming dynamic right off the bat, and while Oshiroi openly objectifies him and bases her boys’ love novel on his exploits, they still wind up feeling like platonic friends on equal footing, which is a refreshing change in a genre full of forced and unwarranted affections. Unfortunately, Oshiroi also offers a segue into this show’s weaknesses, which run almost as deep as it’s themes. She doesn’t come into the story unencumbered, she comes packaged with a psychotic lesbian stalker who attempts to control her life and beat the crap out of anyone who comes close to her, male or female. This is already bad, as she’s yet another entry into the anime medium’s collection of predatory queers, an insulting stereotype that it can’t let go of, but she takes it to much worse levels.
She’s not so bad at first. Her relationship to Oshiroi is ambiguous in the early episodes, and her beatings on Satou are even kind of funny… moreso than Naru’s from Love Hina by a long shot. However, as her methods get more and more severe, any humor they could have had gets lost not only in predictability, but in the story’s refusal to ever have her suffer consequences or comeuppance for her actions. She strips Satou naked in class, makes death threats, appears out of nowhere just because the writers need her as a crutch, and in the thankfully rare moments when she’s interacting with other female characters like Shaga or Oshiroi herself, the scenes play out in extremely rapey fashion, which I swear to God isn’t even supposed to be funny, but sexy. Yeah, I get the appeal of the whole girl-on-girl thing, but what kind of broken, depraved mind finds rape of any kind sexy? Sure, Oshiroi writes about Satou in such situations, but there’s a big difference between a character indulging in that kind of fantasy and the assumption that the audience will feel the same.
Even leaving aside the sexually questionable material… Which I didn’t even scratch the surface of, believe me… Ben-to is at it’s best when it’s following it’s plot, and the material on the side is okay at best, cringeworthy at worst. Yeah, I don’t mind seeing Satou running through the school yard in his underwear to save his clothes from the incinerator… It’s not funny, but it’s a short enough sequence to not damage the story at all… But when an unfunny joke drags on, it REALLY drags on. There are two episodes in this series, episodes 8 and 9, which are ungodly terrible. They don’t have anything to do with the bento brawling plot, which is probably their first mistake, and the actual laughs they offer are few and far between. In the first one, Satou winds up in the hospital over an antic that should have offered a huge development in his relationship with Yarizui, but winds up getting quickly forgotten so two new characters can be introduced through some insultingly stupid interactions with him. Episode 9 spends a lot of it’s time on Oshiroi and Shiraume, which is just uncomfortable. Thankfully, both of these episodes are skippable, as the only question you’d really have if you skipped from episode 7 to 10 is “Why did Satou wind up in the hospital?” Unfortunately, as a reviewer, I don’t have that liberty.
Ben-to is available from Funimation. It’s not available cheap however, and it’s only available as a DVD/Bluray combo pack, so unless you’re able to snag it from a Rightstuf or from someone on Ebay who’s looking to recoup their money by getting rid of half the collection, you’ll have a hard time finding it for less than forty dollars. The original light novel by Kaito Shibano that ran for 15 volumes between 2008 and 2014 is not available stateside, and neither are the five… count them, FIVE… single volume spin-off manga, which is a shame, because the one called “Road to Witch” sounds like it might offer some backstory for the character of Yarizui, which I’m definitely interested in seeing. Here’s hoping they translate it and release it in the future!
Ben-To is a fun series that works on multiple levels, but unfortunately fails on a few equally important levels. I’ll admit that the search for purpose in one’s life isn’t that hard a theme to write, but it’s done so well here that it still feels admirable as a result. When it’s sticking to it’s plot, it offers an experience that’s pleasing to people looking for a fun action series as well as viewers who are looking for something deeper to enjoy. This dual appeal wears off whenever the story loses focus for an extended period of time, with it’s attempts at delivering fanservice coming off as a desperate, tone-deaf attempt to find some new identity outside of the premise and plot that drew people into it in the first place. Thankfully this doesn’t distract from what’s otherwise a smart, well written action/comedy full of interesting, memorable characters, and the worst of it is contained within two easily skippable episodes. I know I’m not the only one who would have liked to see more backstory involving the other bento brawlers, such as the nameless three and The Wizard, who we’re told has a history with Yarizui, and the two wasted episodes could have easily delivered on both. It’s still a pretty awesome show, but I can’t help feeling that it could have been, and deserves to have been, so much better. All in all, this is one action series that should have had the pulp beaten out of it. I give Ben-To a 7/10.