Reviewby Theron Martin,
episodes 1-7 streaming
22-year-old Ryota Sakamoto is, effectively, a NEET. He's interviewed for a few positions but has had no luck, so he escapes a dim reality that includes a nagging mother by heavily playing the mega-popular Btooom!, a near-future MMO combat game where participants go on missions and duel using only a variety of small bombs for weaponry. There he is everything that he isn't in real life: an elite who stands as Japan's top-ranked player and the #10-ranked player in the world. He even has a sweet in-game wife. But all of that is just a game. . . That is, until he wakes up one day hanging by a parachute from the canopy of a jungle island, a radar crystal suspiciously like the ones used in his game imbedded in his hand and a collection of familiar-looking bombs at his disposal. Though he cannot remember how he ended up that way, he soon discovers the hard way that he is caught in the midst of a live-action version of Btooom!, one where freedom can only be earned by killing other participants and collecting their radar crystals. Suspecting that Tyrannis Corporation, the company who runs Btooom!, is behind it all, Ryota tries to build a coalition of players who will cooperate to find a way off the island which doesn't involve killing. Not everyone is as peaceably-minded as he is, though, and even those who work with him (including, ironically, his in-game wife, though neither realizes it at first) have their own deep-seeded issues.
One can easily look at the premise of this manga-based series and groan while saying, “what, another survival-game-for-real?” The fact that none of the characters introduced early on – including, conspicuously, the main protagonist – are all that likeable would also seem to be a strong strike against the series. As the first few episodes play out, though, a surprising thing happens: the story not only begins to work, but actually proves to be quite thrilling. The series may be crass, lurid, pessimistic, and at least a bit exploitive in exploring the dark side of human nature, but it still entertains, and ultimately that's plenty enough.
Depending on one's point of view, Btooom! is either blessed or cursed to have come out concurrently with Sword Art Online, the other major “stuck in a deadly game” series this year. The massive popularity of SAO, and the fact that it started first, threatens to make Btooom! merely a footnote for the year, but this series also benefits from being a dramatic stylistic contrast to SAO. Whereas SAO focuses more on a spirit of adventure and the way people trapped within an online game adapt to their circumstances, this one takes a darker, grittier, and entirely more visceral approach to struggling desperately to stay alive which may appeal to those put off by SAO's bloodless approach. Its battles rely more on ingenuity than the powermongering approach of SAO and its characterizations focus much more on the rancid cores of many of its cast members (to excess in some cases), which does make them much less agreeable than SAO's but also, in some cases, more interesting. The two series do share a commonality in that their male leads form (or have formed) a virtual marriage with the most prominent female cast members, but the approach is handled quite differently; whereas SAO played it like a real marriage developing from a distinct romance, in this case it feels more like a showy game mechanic to allow players to engage in “make-believe.” (And why does a game like this one even have such an option, anyway?)
Even without the SAO contrast, the series has its own draws. Though much of its structure is fairly typical, the weaponry almost entirely consisting of a variety of bombs (a hunting knife and stun gun also come into play) is a novel twist which dramatically shapes the strategic moves of the players in interesting ways. Action scenes never disappoint for intensity or dramatic style and watching Ryota gradually grow from being unlikable to a heroic figure, and some of the tough choices that he must make along the way, can be quite satisfying. The premise also features a major twist which sets it apart from other titles of its type: rather than coincidentally being trapped in a villainous design (SAO, the classic short story The Most Dangerous Game), forced to participate as a punishment for a supposed crime (the movie The Running Man), or chosen to participate by cruel chance (The Hunger Games), the participants here eventually come to realize that they are here because people that they knew back in the regular world wanted them to “disappear” and so referred them. (In this sense it probably most lines up with the live-action movie Battle Royale.) Through its first seven episodes the series has delved into why its three main players – Ryota, the busty blonde Himiko, and the pudgy, middle-aged Kiyoshi – probably got referred, and the varied motivations for it (desperation, misplaced blame, and petty payback) are telling about the less pleasant sides of human nature. Most other participants shown so far are twisted enough that they need no such explanation.
The series has an ugly side, too, which can be a draw or a turn-off depending on one's tastes. Himiko is, essentially, a “rape bait” character, and close calls with it almost entirely define her: she once ran away from a scene where her friends were getting/had gotten raped and has to fight off a rape attempt by a fellow player while in the game, which leads her to judge every encounter with men on whether or not she is in danger of being raped or molested. The series has not gone on long enough yet to see if she will be allowed to gradually work through that and learn to trust Ryota (though that seems to be the direction that it's headed), but her powerful aversion does motivate her to action and show that she is resourceful enough to at least contribute effectively to fighting back. Another player is a 14-year-old psychotic who has been convicted of murdering and then raping three women, another is a mercenary who's more interested in engaging in gruesome torture than rape, one background character attempts suicide, the Game Master seems to be conducting the game for a depraved audience (Deadman Wonderland-style) . . . you get the idea. The series lays this kind of content on thick and almost unrelentingly, which can make more worthwhile points like a look at the troubled relationship between a NEET and his mother get lost in all of the unsightliness.
Whatever one's take on the content may be, the series looks good executing it. Kotono Watanabe, in her lead directorial debut and with the backing of a Madhouse Studio team, delivers a spirited, well-drawn production which takes full advantage of skillful shot selections, quality CG and lighting effects, and good animation to develop a distinctive visual style which is just as effective at being appealing as it is at being deliberately repulsive. Character designs are generally distinctive and effective, too; Ryota does bear more than a passing resemblance to Death Note's Light Yagami and Himiko's breasts tend to be overemphasized in her design, but Ryota's mother is effectively portrayed as a woman worn down by life. Graphic content is pretty high and one attempted rape scene had to be censored for some apparent nudity, though in general the fan service content is hardly heavy or pervasive.
The musical score has also done its job quite well, delivering a variety of heavy, ominous sounds to enhance the tension of dramatic and action developments. Though it flirts with being overbearing at times, it never fully crosses that line. Bookending each episode are a good pair of themes, the rock-flavored “No Pain, No Game” by Nano on the front end and the more mellow “Aozora” by May'n on the back.
Almost every season one or two series defy initial negative expectations, and this one is on track to be such a series for the Fall 2012 season. As the first half progresses, the series rises above being just another forgettable death game by consistently delivering thrilling action and providing at least some development for its lead protagonist. Its effectiveness at being intense and dramatic without going too far overboard, combined with its good technical merits, should assure that this won't be the last time that we will see Watanabe heading a project.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Effectively intense and dramatic, looks good, some conceptual innovations.
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