Ben-To (2011)

The ultimate battle for half-priced Bento supremacy begins!

Geez! Grabbing take-out for dinner has never before looked this exhausting. Welcome to the world of Ben-To, a riotously untamed action-comedy in which ‘ordinary’ citizens engage in excessively stylized fights over the ‘holy grail’ of budget livelihood, where chopsticks become deadly weapons, supermarkets transform into fierce combat arenas, and there’s nothing more appetizing than a deep-fried win. Directed by Shin Itagaki — of Black Cat (2005) fame — and adapted from a Japanese light novel collection written by Asaura, with illustrations by Kaito Shibano, Ben-To is a 12-episode anime television series which focuses on male protagonist Yō Satō, a high school freshman who unexpectedly finds himself dragged into an outrageous nightly all-out brawl for clearance cuisines as an epic struggle rages in grocery stores across Japan.

Friendship is food for the soul!
Friendship is food for the soul!

Our story begins when a young, and very ‘broke,’ Yō Satō — a retro video game enthusiast, with a fondness for Sega titles — a new resident at Karasuda Private High-school, living in the dormitory, is out seeking some cheap eats at the local supermarket, seeing as students staying on campus are taught to ‘fend for themselves,’ and are not supplied with lunch or dinner; they are only offered breakfast. On this particular night, however, while at the store — the Hokey Mart — Satō, without warning, finds himself beat-up and semi-conscious with a fleeting glimpse of a scarlet-eyed, silver-haired bombshell during the moments of his collapse. As his memories recover the following day, Satō quickly learns that trying to purchase bargain lunchboxes can be hazardous to his health, as free-for-all fights with local students for discounted food is the nightly routine; once the meals are ‘marked down,’ ravenous brawlers start throwing punches in a last-man-standing, drag-out war over who gets to take home the half-price bento boxes.

All the while, it doesn’t take long for Satō to notice that the mysterious girl from the previous night is in fact an upper classmate, second-year student Sen Yarizui, who happens to be one of the strongest Wolves in the West, dominating the local area and earning herself the ‘nom de guerre’ of The Ice Witch. Yarizui befriends Satō and promptly educates him on the rules of the ‘bento tussle’ game, where Wolves feast on nutritional meals whereas Dogs wallow in the bitter defeat of reconstituted noodles and salty broth in a Styrofoam bowl. Together with disciple Yō Satō and underclassmen female student Hana Oshiroi — a dirty-minded germaphobe with a filthy fascination for writing ‘Boy’s Love’ erotica novels, having its characters inspired by (and based on) people around her, which she pours out in fervent voice-over — Yarizui forms the Half-Priced Food Lovers Club, in which an eager Satō sets out to discover if he too, like Yarizui, has the talent, skill and dexterity to be a Wolf and taste the sweet victory of half-price boxed banquet glory.

Half baked and ready to serve ...
Half baked and ready to serve …

Let’s just come out and be honest about it: the entire concept of Ben-To is plain ridiculous, but surprisingly there’s plenty to admire amidst the punching-and-kicking, and farcical samurai-style declarations of honor, all set against the background of colorfully mundane supermarket shelves; there are sexy schoolgirl fighters in tiny skirts for one, and there’s no shortage of wayward humor with a naughty same-sex tendency either, as a handful of scenes are bound to excite and titillate certain viewers, particularly when our hero Satō is served sizable spoonfuls of male humiliation.

Story wise, Ben-To does offer up a fresh premise for the most part, with its own set of rules and guidelines, steeped in ‘bento brawl’ lore, legend and tradition, all overlaid with video game logic — it comes as no surprise that the characters are often seen playing a Sega console. Some of the more noteworthy ‘unspoken rules’ of bento brawling include; each fighter must stand away from the bento area until the God of Discounts — the person who puts the half-price stickers on the boxes — has reduced the items and exited to the break room, only then can the struggle initiate; a brawler who ‘comes out on top’ can only claim a single bento pack upon their timely triumph; brawlers should never do anything to cause a bento to spill or be dropped; and, once a brawler manages to nab a box for themselves, they can no longer be attacked. Nevertheless, despite its ingenuity, the show still somehow manages to dollop into the recipe of cliché, reverting to overdone anime norms such as the obligatory swimsuit affair and other generic episodic elements — teenage lasses posing as nurses and girl-on-girl lesbian passions; who hasn’t seen these scenarios before? — And while mildly entertaining, the abovementioned distracting appetizer deviations don’t do Ben-To any favors, taking away from the overarching fight-or-starve plot line, which stands to be the most flavorsome feast in the storyline smorgasbord.

Pour Some Shaga on Me!
Pour Some Shaga on Me!

When surveying the main players, the primary cast, and their respective designs, fall into fairly basic anime archetypes, but thankfully each individual does possess their own peculiarity, eccentricity and savvy to keep things cooking, both visually and narratively; and as a side note, some of the saucy schoolgirl uniforms do stick out. Proving to be a rising talent in the world of insane food fights, Yō Satō is a reasonably amiable protagonist, though his misguided fascination with the female anatomy and a cross-dressing incident, featuring a wardrobe malfunction, earn him the unfortunate ‘war name’ of The Pervert. The real standout in the mix, however, is the yummy East-End bento brawler Ayame Shaga, Satō’s playfully flirty half-Italian cousin, who also goes by the title Beauty by the Lake; with her wild blond hair, seductive glasses, busty figure and racy little school skirt, this babe is sure to notch up a perfect-ten on any hot-blooded male’s sex-appeal scorecard.

Joining our energetic leads is a curious bunch of second tier characters. With their alluring silver locks and gentle grey eyes, the unstoppable twin-sister combo known as Orthros — named after the two-headed dog of Greek mythology — made up of Kyō Sawagi, who oddly shares the exact same name as her sister, Kyō Sawagi, stand to be worthy opponents for the members of the Half-Priced Food Lovers Club, while happy-go-lucky Asebi Inoue, a schoolmate of Shaga’s — both girls being members of the gaming club — interleaves a supernatural twist to proceedings, as Inoue is supposedly cursed with extreme bad luck which spreads to anyone she touches; though Inoue herself is totally oblivious to this ‘apparent’ hex and goes about her daily routine as cheerful and optimistic as ever. Strictly from a visual perspective, Inoue is one of the more unique personalities, as she appears to be somewhat ‘burtonesque’ in design, usually seen wearing a bizarre animal-eared hat, wrapped in a striped purple scarf and clad with black-and-white lined stockings, all on top of her regular school outfit. Local West-End Wolf Yū Kaneshiro, the third-year veteran male brawler known as The Wizard — identified by his long fur-collared coat and dirty flaxen hair — who shares a history with the now president of the Half-Priced Food Lovers Club, Yarizui, makes an interesting rival, walking a tight line between friend and foe, whereas faceless female brawler, known simply by her title, Brunette — which refers to the color of her hair — is a fascinating affiliate, predominantly from an imagined viewpoint.

Bento never looked so good!
Bento never looked so good!

Vibrant, sleek and wonderfully animated, there’s no shortage of eye candy on Ben-To’s menu. Though admittedly, the show’s principal draw-card are its high-powered combat sequences — where shopping baskets are used to overwhelm opponents with ‘darkness’ and other commonplace convenience store items become lethal artillery — as the camera wildly zigzags in-and-out of the frenzied action — often conveniently slipping into some very cheeky positions — capturing the kinetic energy and chaotic gusto of each individual dinner-time duel encounter; funnily, these ferocious rough-and-tumbles are hinted to be similar to the clashes in the Sega game Virtua Fighter, which Satō is an avid fan of. Garnished with a lively soundtrack, complete with a dreary sounding shop-store backtrack, a boppy opening title, ‘Live for Life: Ōkamitachi no Yoru’ — which translates to ‘Live for Life: Night of the Wolves’ — performed by Aimi, and Shinya Ogura’s catchy electro-sounding ‘in-fight’ riot theme, ‘M20 I Gotta Turn It On,’ the music in Ben-To supplies it with that always gratifying ‘cherry on top,’ sweetening the more ‘stale’ parts of our heroes’ in-store shenanigans.

While the Ben-To manga series consists of fifteen books, the 12-episode television shows is naturally just a quick dip into the nutty world of ‘bento brawls,’ though it’s long enough to give screen time to numerous characters, sketching in their relationships and backstories. Like many anime before it, the series is essentially a ‘battle royal’ style harem, focusing on a seemingly regular boy surrounded by an increasing number of gorgeous girls — unconventionally, most of the heroines see Satō as a mere comrade or combatant, rather than an object of desire — in a narrative that is often laced with lewdness and romanticized war-fare loyalty. Ultimately, Ben-To’s top-notch aesthetic flair, savage eat-or-starve rumbles, and sheer originality — with its mouth-watering blend of action, silliness and loopy, yet stable relationships — elevate it above mediocrity, and if one approaches the anime with an ‘anything-is-possible’ open mind, its utter madness will no doubt satisfy even the largest of appetites.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

Ben-To is released through Madman Entertainment Australia