One day, Satou Yo enters a grocery store to buy some food for dinner. When he tries to take a bento box, he loses consciousness. He comes around to find all the bento sold out. He notices there is a war game going on at grocery stores and players called "Wolves" compete for the half-priced bento. Yarizui Sen, the leader of the Half-Pricer Club, forces Yo to join the club and he enters the bento war.
Let's be clear: the plot for Ben-To is stupid. Now, you might think that is a criticism but stupid doesn't necessarily bad in my books. Animé has a history of dealing with really stupid premises and occasionally making a delicious cake out of a bag of crap, or at least sometimes a passable one. I had hope for Ben-To and initially I saw the cake rising with the show's eye for the ridiculous and, just occasionally enough, the awesome too being brought to life with well-choreographed action and smart design. A diamond in the rough you might say if you wanted to mix in another metaphor, but like so many series the proof is in the tasting and the show tastes crap. Funnily enough, it is not in the stupid premise this show fails - if it had stuck with being an ironically ridiculous take on the fighting animé genre then I would have so much more to recommend it. No, this show's problems are everything else.
There are a few aspects of this show that bring about the same response as when I see pineapple on a pizza: "What the heck were they thinking?" The cast is the main one. Initially I thought rather well of them. Satou was amusingly pitiful and easy to cheer on and Yarizui was an amusing mix of the stoic character type and the airhead with a delicious bit of kick-ass action girl appeal (the show's not going for depth, this is about people brawling for half-priced bentos after all) and even now I still really like the character of Yarizui. The sad thing is that it was downhill from there and there are two reasons.
The first reason is that multiple characters introduced as the series carries on are incredibly obnoxious - case and point, Ume. I'll be honest, my main problem with her is I hate female on male violence in animé. Slapstick comedy is one thing but cold, mean-hearted, sadistic violence is not funny whoever it is inflicted on or inflicted by and that is how I feel about the actions of Ume throughout the series. Accuse me of taking it too seriously, I'm fine with that, but understand my position. First, I actually like the victim, Satou, and so what pleasure should I get from watching a character which I like get beat upon by a character that I would struggle to like in the best of scenarios? Second, everything Ume does is selfish and stupid without exception. From beating on Satou (something for which she needs barely even the slightest provocation) to her psycho-lesbian possessiveness in respect to Hana, Ume doesn't consider anybody else's feelings for a second as if she were some sort of sociopathic woman-child. Leading on perfectly to point three, the series condones Ume's violent and selfish actions (it's not like she just hits him, she beats into him quite literally at points) by never once does she receive any sort of comeuppance - in fact she routinely bullies the vast majority of the cast and I suspect it was meant to make me laugh. Sorry, not a chance - if her appearances had been any more frequent then she would have rendered the show completely unwatchable. Don't worry though; Ume is a blight that would spoil even the best shows in the world but even when she's not on screen we have to put up with my second example: the Kyo sisters. Let me be clear, they are not even in the same league as Ume but they show enough of the same selfishness and stupidity that makes Ume repulsive, with a measure of brash arrogance on top too.
The second reason why the cast is terrible (if the first wasn't enough) is that at least half of the cast has no reason to exist. I will use Ume as an example again; she has absolutely no bearing on the main plot for the course of the show's twelve episodes and so I have to ask, why does she exist? The problem is less isolated than that though - Hana is another example. I don't dislike Hana, even though her personality vanished beneath the flood of her love of shounen-ai at some point during the series, but she too has no place in a show about shopping market brawls and plays as big a part in the plot as someone who sits and writes yaoi fiction all day could. Even characters such as Shaga, who are involved in the main narrative, are so flat, underused and underdeveloped that I can't help but feel that they are ultimately pointless. The makers show no ability or desire to integrate side-plots or side characters and thus they seem to float in limbo around the main story, adding nothing and taking a lot away.
Probably the show's biggest failing is that it's not funny and that would be fine if it did not spend so much time trying to be. From its monstrous failures (such as Ume) to its moderate successes (such as Asebi), the show never musters up the wit or the sense of timing required to really make me laugh more often than just on the odd occasion. I don't need (though I wouldn't have turned away) highbrow humour but Ben-To never really moves past "haw, haw, this guy is stupid and he fell down" for the most part and that doesn't satisfy me. The thing is it is not as if the show is devoid of charm. The flair by which it delivers its fight scenes and the tongue-in-cheek conviction that it approaches its premise are very charming and fun indeed but instead of running with those and using those things to their fullest (we don't even get to see the big fight with the Kyo sisters at the climax), it lets that charm run dry. If they make a second series then I won't be watching it.
Ultimately, my displeasure towards the show lies deeply in disappointment, not because it isn't great (I never expected that) but that it's not even good. Without the stupid characters and the stupid humour, I might have been really able to enjoy this silly little series for all it was worth. Sadly, I have to throw this cake in the bin and start again - this one isn't really fit for consumption.
Let me be blunt, two stars is generous and is solely for Satou, Yarizui and the great fight scenes that I got to enjoy in between being driven out of my mind by this show's stupidity. A recommendation this is not. Add one star if you find its utterly brainless humour amusing or if you somehow don't find Ume utterly repugnant. — Aiden Foote
Recommended Audience: There is some nudity, bathing scenes and the like though it was pretty tame, at least on the broadcast version, with nothing explicit. The fight scenes have some blood and are realistic enough to induce a wince now and then but they are not overly brutal. Should be okay for teenagers and up if there aren't any changes made for the video release.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Ben-To © 2011 SHUEISHA Inc.
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