Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions > Ben-To Episodes 1 and 2 – You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Discounts

Ben-To Episodes 1 and 2 – You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Discounts

At antiotaku we’ve spent a great deal of time complaining about the encroachment of harem tropes into action, comedy, and even drama series, making every loser protagonist the anime world can come up with a chick magnet despite all the odds against it. We’ve warned about the constant temptation to use female characters as sex bait. And we’ve noted in despair how often plot lines or characters lack even the appearance of common sense, much less internal consistency.

Ben-To, objectively, should qualify for condemnation under each of those categories. It’s clearly taken a page from the harem genre, as its protagonist is surrounded by lovely women, and the only main male character aside from him looks to be an antagonist (at least if the opening is any indication). It’s willing to be sexually suggestive with its cast, from their basic character designs to the choice of camera angles in documenting them. And the basic concept is so ridiculous that, even without the science-fiction or fantasy elements of many of the other series airing this fall, the series is still in the running for being most unrealistic.

Ben-To is, on paper, a show I should hate. So why I am enjoying it so much?

The supermarket jingle that plays over the intercom as the winners leave a field of beaten fighters in their wake is a nice touch

Perhaps it’s best to start with the basic premise. You Satou has entered a boarding school, where only breakfast is served in the dorms. Thus, he has to go out at night to buy dinner, only to discover that the local supermarkets are battlefields. Every night, the store workers put out half price signs on Bento (packed lunch) boxes. And every night, the customers enter righteous battle, where only the strongest walk away with a discount.

Satou quickly finds himself embroiled in this world, mostly at first by having the crap kicked out of him. But he comes to the attention of fellow student Sen Yarizui, a.k.a. the Ice Witch, one of the top fighters in the field, who takes him under her wing as a trainee. Over the course of the first two episodes, Satou rises from a speedbump for other warriors to run over before making it to the prize, to one who has learned both how to fight and how to appreciate the honor of glorious battle.

Aside from the main cast, we've seen three major hunters, each only known only by nicknames: "Brunette," "Beardy," and "Monk." They start calling Saitou "Barky" almost immediately

At this point, I’m sure you’re asking: “Wait, what? Why are the police not getting involved? Why not just buy the ramen sets or other groceries like the normal families do? What does beating people over cheap box lunches have to do with honor or pride?” If you’re asking these questions, you are a) sane and b) completely missing the point. The show is utterly insane, but it’s supposed to be.

Ben-To, in effect, is a parody of long-running battle manga/anime, from Dragon Ball to Naruto to any series which has people babbling on about their pride as [insert type of fighter they are here]. When Satou is encouraged to be a man and fight for his next meal, the words of the pep talk could be lifted verbatim from a much more “serious” show. It’s applied here to a much less serious subject matter to heighten the disparity and poke fun at the entire genre. It’s obviously nonsense here, the show suggests, but hasn’t it always been a bit stupid, and overused in spite of that?

Satou's pep talk from the wizard convinces him that settling for ramen is beneath his dignity as a "wolf." It's a silly thing to have place one's dignity on the line for in the first place, which is why its funny

Ben-To wouldn’t be nearly as amusing, though, if that absurdity were the only source of humor. The rest of the cast is suitably deranged to provide some decent interplay. Sen Yarizui’s sudden and unexplainable interest in Satou still feels like the one place where the show is following convention rather than poking fun at it. Aside from that, Hana Oshiroi becomes the requisite side-kick girl with, it seems, a fetish for watching people get beat up, Ume Shiraume is the resident crazy stalker girl (only with a crush on Oshiroi, and not Satou), and Yuu Kaneshiro, a.k.a. the Wizard, is both a support for and likely eventual antagonist of our hero. All seem fully at home in the world.

The real star, however, is Satou himself, who defies the expectation that he’ll be a colorless protagonist even as the show’s parody status gives him every excuse to be one. Although he’s obviously the show’s designated whipping boy and is continually subjected to over-the-top violence as a way to gin up laughs, he’s genuinely funny even when not being brutalized. From his constant snarky imitations of other people to his choice of important life events to flash before his eyes, he feels like someone who, on some level, is aware of how crazy his world has become, but has chosen to roll with it anyway.

Shiraume isn't involved in bento battles, but that doesn't keep her from beating the crap out of Satou at least once per episode. Come the think of it, that's about how often she kidnaps Oshiroi, too

The main risk for Ben-To is that it will somehow try to become serious. That was what derailed Kore wa Zombie desu ka, which started off as a parody of magical girl shows (and of shows where the protagonist suffers grievous bodily violence) before it tried to add a hint of tragedy to to the concept and everything fell apart. Granted, that show also seemed to have used up its reserve of fresh gags by the the second episode anyway, so maybe it would have fallen apart regardless.

Ben-To is only two episodes in itself, so there’s still a possibility that it will run out of steam. I don’t think it will ever make the mistake of pretending to be a drama, though. The dialogue, pacing, and general flow of the narrative all indicate that the producers know exactly what sort of material they have on their hands, and intent to milk it for all it is worth. Given the last major work by David Production was Level E, I’m inclined to trust these guys to do comedy well even in the long haul.

Also, despite being a small studio, there's a lot to be impressed with about their animation chops. Level E was a fine looking show too

Pulling off a parody anime is surprisingly hard to do: Precisely because the material being mocked is often bizarre even on its own terms, finding ways to humorously deflate that requires a level of overkill that is difficult to reach without being too heavy-handed. For the moment, at least, Ben-To has found that balance. I only hope it can keep it up for a full series run.

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