You Satou is a poor high school freshman. Although he lives in a dorm, the school only provides students one meal per day and Satou is forced to fend for himself on the small allowance provided by his father. In an effort to eat well on the cheap, he stumbles into the subculture of bento brawling. Every night when stores across the city mark down their bento boxes to half price, those who are looking for a good meal and a challenge gather to fight over the discounted bento. The brawlers have their own nomenclature, legends, rules, and ethics. Ben-To follows Satou as he finds his place within this community, upholding its mandate to “always have respect and never lose your pride.”
I have mixed feelings about this anime, although it has all the elements of a good story: a unique plot, distinctive characters, quality voice acting and animation, and a satisfying message. The plot is offbeat, but it’s managed so well that it doesn’t feel ludicrous. To imagine a world in which people show their depths of character by fighting tooth and nail over bento, the creator must have been a chronically hungry student descended of samurai. It’s crazy, it’s ridiculous, and it’s fun. The animation, too, is excellent; there are no telltale signs of artistic inexperience and on second viewing, one sees that the artists have incorporated foreshadowing tidbits from the very beginning of the series.
Although little background is provided for most of the characters, the writers expertly create original people with whom one easily connects. Yarizui, the upperclassmen who initiates Sato into bento brawling, is tough and reserved. One would expect her to be a loner and stock tsundere character—a person with a harsh exterior persona, who dislikes expressing feelings—especially since she initially warns Sato to stay away. However, she turns out to be frank about her feelings and readily works as part of a team. Likewise, background characters could have been underdeveloped, such as the hated rivals of the main characters; instead, they become familiar faces (well, except for the one whose face you can’t see) and they provide frequent support for Satou.
The characters are further strengthened by solid performances from all the voice actors. Satou’s feelings on life, girls, and bento are hysterically brought to life by Austin Tindle in a performance so natural it’s difficult to believe he’s actually in a recording booth. Morgan Garrett has a phenomenal talent for vocal nuances that makes the character of Satou’s cousin Shaga more endearing. Trina Nishimura expertly maintains the balance of Yarizui’s bold, competitive spirit with her reserved amiability, while Tia Ballard—who played kind Nanami in Kamisama Kiss—is delightfully chilling as the violent Shiraume.
On top of all this, Ben-To‘s “moral of the story” is encouraging: the best brawlers seek to respect others as well as themselves, and Satou’s greatest strength is his adherence to this creed. Furthermore, while the combatants hold nothing back during each brawl, they are always on good terms outside the ring. In fact, their fierceness in the brawls indicates their respect for one another: by fighting to the best of their abilities, they acknowledge the worthiness of their opponents.
With all this in Ben-To‘s favor, what could possibly give me reservations about it? I believe that other librarians need to be aware that there are issues with the sexual humor in this series. Although sexual humor is common in anime, there is quite a lot in this one, and it repeatedly crosses the line. More than once, non-consensual sexual contact is intended to be a source of humor. The writers seem to think that girls being molested is okay and even funny, as long as it occurs at the hands of other girls. After watching Ben-To, I thought it must have a mature rating, but it does not; the show is rated TV-14. I would question whether to put something of this sexual nature into the hands of a fourteen-year-old, especially as it makes light of sexual harassment.
Some may not be as sensitive to the series’ non-consensual contact as I am, but even so, I would not recommend Ben-To to younger teenagers. If you are willing to look past the drawbacks, it is a really good story, but it is best treated as if it has a TV-MA rating.
Ben-To: Complete Series
Directed by Shin Itagaki
300 minutes, Number of Discs: 4, DVD/Blu-ray Combo Set
Company Age Rating: TV-14
Related to: Ben-To Zero, Ben-To Another, and Ben-To A La Carte by Kaito Shibano