Reviewby Theron Martin,
BD+DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
Yo Sato is living on his own for the first time while attending high school, so to conserve his meager funds he seeks out a discounted bento at a local supermarket. He quickly discovers, though, that he has unwittingly stumbled into the midst of a society of students who brawl daily at various stores over the right to claim the cherished half-price bentos. As Yo soon learns, the established fighters, who call themselves wolves, follow a few set rules:
1. No one can make a move on the bentos until after the store's God of Discounts (i.e., a store employee who puts the half-price stickers on the bentos at a designated time) has left the area. 2. Once a wolf has successfully claimed a bento, that bento cannot be taken from him/her. 3. Claiming more than one bento and/or disrespecting the God of Discounts are considered poor sportsmanship; such individuals are called “boars.” 4. The one who claims the bento marked with a laurel wreath (which is put on the one considered the best) is regarded as the overall winner for the day. 5. Anything goes in the actual fighting, including sneaking past the fighting to get to the bentos (although that is rarely done).
Although Yo's introduction to the scene is a brutal one, a strong female wolf with the title of Ice Witch, one Sen Yarizui, catches his attention. Enticed by her and the appeal of the scene, he and another girl he has fallen in with, the BL writer Hana Oshiroi (who enjoys using Yo and other male wolves she meets as the models for her writing), become members of her Half-Price Club and soon go forth to do proper battles. Yo eventually gets the hang of the scene and even becomes pretty good, earning himself the title Pervert due to some unfortunate incidents involving his clothing. Over time he, Hana, and Sen must face various challenges related to their activity, including a buxom cousin of Yo's whom he discovers is actually a titled wolf, a wolf overlord named Monarch who seeks vengeance on the Ice Witch, and a frighteningly strong pair of female twins who go by the title Orthros.
In an era when most non-kids' anime titles that air in Japan get licensed for simulcast streaming, this light novel-based fall 2011 series was an odd duck. That it was not picked up for simulcasting is quite surprising, given that its content should easily appeal to Western audiences, especially those familiar with iconic American movies like Fight Club; it suggests that some kind of behind-the-scenes licensing hassle was afoot. Whatever was going on apparently kept any American company from snapping it up for more than two years, before Funimation finally got the license in early 2014. Even their initial planned release was fraught with problems, though, as it was pulled shortly before hitting the streets in July of that year due to some snafu about getting the wrong content. Now its physical release is finally out, and it is worth the wait, as watching Ben-To is one hell of a fun ride.
The basic premise is, of course, patently ridiculous, as no sane family-friendly business would ever allow this kind of brawling in their establishment. Set that aside, though, and the concept rocks. There's something deeply visceral about having to battle for one's food, a point which the writing both fully appreciates and deeply emphasizes. Yo realizes this himself the first time he wins his own bento and again when a temporary team-up with an organized group of “dogs” (minor-leaguers on the wolf scene, essentially) makes things too easy. Other characters recognize, too, that the thrill of the fight is at least as much what motivates the participants as the food. For all of the violence involved in the fighting, the wolf scene is also generally more communal than antagonistic, with many of the wolves having a strong sense of camaraderie with each other when not engaged in bento brawls, a camaraderie that would not have existed otherwise. That point is reinforced by the antagonists of the two main story arcs – the Monarch for the first one and the Orthros twins for the second – being violators of that principle: the Monarch makes the fighting antagonistic by aiming for revenge, while the twins stand apart from the scene in their own exclusive world. In fact, the vilest act shown in the series is denying a wolf the ability to participate in the brawls.
The series is quite funny, too, with numerous entertaining characters feeding into one bizarre situation or another. The wicked glee with which Hana exploits Yo as the inspiration for her writing is sputter-worthy at times, but no less so are the actions of her creepily obsessive friend Ume, who kidnaps Hana out of the blue more than once and regularly beats the crap out of Yo for his entirely-innocent associations with her. (That Hana is so obsessed with aggressive, exploitive BL and yet resistant to the yuri analog to what she is writing is the series' greatest irony and perhaps an intended joke unto itself.) Asebi, a club mate of of Yo's cousin Ayame (aka Beauty by the Lake) who stands outside of the wolf scene, is amusing for how optimistically oblivious she is to being cursed with fantastically bad luck. One busty female wolf, called Hair Dye in the subtitles and Brunette in the dub, is a running joke because she appears in every episode and yet the only time we ever see her face is in a brief shot in the last episode. Yo is also integrally involved in the comedy antics through his own actions, such as one incident involving an incinerator and other involving his encounters with a school security guard obsessed with (implied) anal insertion of batteries. Even the twins get in on that action with the elder one's ditsy inability to properly complete idioms. The only major character who is consistently played straight is Sen, whose low-key personality provides a stabilizing influence, but even she gets in on the fully-animated Next Episode previews, which involve characters directly addressing the audience as if they were actors doing a promo bit.
The series does provide a fair amount of character development, as coming into the bento brawl scene helps Hana overcome one of her early foibles, Sen's passion for Ben-To brawling comes out in a very understated way, the twins show an appreciable dynamic between them which give them distinct identities, and the whole story is essentially Yo's journey of discovery and attitude evolution. The real heart of the series is in the fight scenes, though, and in that Ben-To has few equals. The bento brawls are masterpieces of dynamic staging, with a sense of energy and flow that is often aimed-for but rarely-achieved in anime, and it accomplishes that without use of any conventional weaponry (shopping baskets are used quite effectively by the twins) and mostly without flashy magical effects or powers. Some of the credit for that goes to the terrific way that the musical score uses jazzy, drum-powered, techno beat-flavored rock themes to juice up the action, and some of it goes to the highly impactful sound effects, but the storyboarding and animation are the true stars here. Bold camera angles, perfectly-times perspective shifts, and robust movements create a powerful sense of actually being in the midst of a street brawl. Even when using still shots, the scenes still give the sense of activity going on everywhere around, of bodies flying, kicks landing, and gut-punches throwing a combatant aside. It all gives the fights a violent, spirited feel hard to come by anywhere else in anime; no show that I have seen more convincingly conveys exactly why Yo and the other wolves find this lifestyle so enticing.
It is not just the fight scenes which make the artistic effort here noteworthy, either. The camera tends to follow Yo's gaze (which may be why we never see Brunette's face, as she is well-endowed) rather than just focus on the sexual appeal of female characters, which may not sound like it makes much of a difference in the fan service until you see it in execution; it not only feels less exploitative this way but also gives a clearer idea of who and what Yo is being attracted to. The artwork also features some 3D pass-throughs of supermarkets, although the one in the opener is the least technically accomplished of the lot. Exactly how sharp various scenes look vary considerably over the course of the series, and character designs are quite distinct beyond two male characters (Gabriel and The Wizard) looking a little too similar. Violence is, of course, considerable but not more than minimally bloody, and the fan service, while present, is not omnipresent; its strongest manifestations are limited to a water park episode between the two major arcs, a couple of scenes of the twins in the shower, and a couple of the Next Episode previews. Eyecatches also delight in featuring one or more characters posing inside of a Ben-To. The service is exactly the right balance for a series like this, though, as much more would be a distraction. For female audiences, Yo gets defrocked on a few occasions and the homosexual situations that Hana dreams up get pretty raunchy.
The soundtrack is not just strong during the battle segments; it works well throughout, including some amusingly creative character themes (one commonly used for Ume is a hoot). The rock-styled opener used for most episodes suits the series perfectly in both song and visuals, with the latter being updated once the twins join the cast, while an Ayame-specific alternate opener is featured in one episode. The lower-key closer, which features Sen, also fits well.
Funimation's English dub could be a little controversial because its script totally washes out a pervasive running joke about the tube-like snack chikuwa, but finding a suitable replacement for that which did not sound bizarre in the assorted contexts in which it is used would have been really difficult. The script otherwise makes only reasonable changes. Roles are generally pretty well-cast, with Felicia Angelle being a particularly good fit for Hana and Lindsay Seidel making the most of a smaller role as Asebi.
The much-delayed release comes in Funimation's standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, with each disk type getting its own case (complete with a reversible cover) and both housed inside an artbox. The main on-disk extras are English episode commentaries for episodes 3 and 7, which feature two main cast members engaged in a competition to determine whether or not the voice actors for various minor character win, lost, or drew a memorable fight in their lives. This does get some amusing results, although hearing the ADR director and voice actors actually talk about the series might have been more interesting in this case. Also included are various trailers, clean openers and closer, and a live-action reenactment of a Ben-To brawl staged by Funimation staff members. Yes, it is definitely pretty stupid and blatantly fake, but it is at least a little amusing.
Watching Ben-To definitely will not strain your brain, and doesn't delve into themes any more complicated than the value of integrity, or fostering a passion for life. Regardless, it's a pretty fun little show.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A
+ Dynamic brawl scenes, fantastic musical score, can be quite funny.
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