Andrew Osmond on an anime supermarket sweep
Scott Pilgrim vs the World, in a supermarket. Well, that’s one way of summing up Ben-To, a wild anime comedy in which ‘ordinary’ citizens engage in Matrix-sized brawls over the holy grail of living on a budget; the bargain half-price meal. There’s lots of punching and biffing and samurai-style declarations of honour, all set against backgrounds of supermarket shelves. There are attractive schoolgirl fighters in short skirts, large dollops of male humiliation, and naughty humour with a same-sex tendency.
Supermarkets epitomise the mundane; in anime, they’re often used to show that we’re engaging with the real world. Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service almost audibly changes to a down-to-earth key when its young witch climbs off her magic broomstick and does some everyday shopping. Perfect Blue begins with an intercut sequence of an idol singer prancing round like a living cartoon, while the real woman buys milk and fish food. Ben-To is a joyful embrace of silliness, though it opens with a cheeky wink at the serious stuff it’s abandoning. Its opening moments dare to spoof Grave of the Fireflies with the “death” of the hero.
Student Yo, though, recovers with bruises and amnesia. He, and us, have to learn what’s happening the hard way; the supermarkets of Tokyo become battlegrounds when the ‘gods’ of the shop staff stick a half-price label on their food. There are various battle teams and warrior legends, such as the beautiful snowy-haired “Ice-Cold Witch” Sen, who’s another student at Yo’s school. To the boy’s surprise, Sen takes Yo under her wing as a warrior, training him to be a ravenous “wolf” of the shelves. Sen also adopts Hana, who superficially looks like a girly girl, but (a) harbours filthy fantasies of Boys’ Love, which she pours out in voice-over, and (b) is herself the object of passionate desire by another schoolgirl, who gets lethally angry when she sees Yo with her. Fans of Project A-Ko will know the situation.
Anime News Network notes that the original Ben-To books, written by an author known as “Asaura,” were already among the top-selling light novels in Japan before the anime was made. Their rivals included the book versions of Durarara!!, Sword Art Online and Baka and Test. The latter series makes a fair comparison to Ben-To in its blend of action, silliness, and bonkers yet perversely stable relationships.
Two of Ben-To’s main voice-actors were also in Baka and Test. The hero Yo is voiced by Hiro Shimono, who was the title ‘baka’ Yoshii in the earlier show. Ben-To’s cast also includes Emiro Kato as Shaga, Yo’s videogame-loving cousin; in Baka and Test, Kato voiced both the gender-defying androgyne Hideyoshi and his sister Yuko. Of Ben-To’s more central characters, Sen is voiced by Mariya Ise; the same year (2011), she also voiced Dragon Kid in Tiger & Bunny. The dirty-minded Hana is voiced by Aoi Yuki, who played the title part in Puella Magi Madoka Magica and the villainess (Jin Valel) in the new Blade and Soul.
The Ben-To series consists of fifteen books. At twelve episodes, the TV series is naturally just a dip in that world, though long enough to give screen time to numerous characters, sketching in their relationships and backstories, sometimes in straight-faced ways – there’s lots of romanticised loyalty – but often laced with lewdness. Yes, there’s a swimming pool episode, and schoolgirl stories heaving with lesbian passions. Like Scott Pilgrim, it’s all overlaid with videogame logic, so it’s small wonder the characters are often seen playing a Sega console.
Like many anime, the series has an “ordinary” boy surrounded by an increasing number of beautiful girls. Most of them, though, see him as just a comrade or combatant, or (in Hana’s case) the subject of eye-watering slash-fiction with lines like “That dirty fist made a tragic mess of his rectum.” While Yu doesn’t get quite so mangled in the supermarket, he still regularly ends up in situations which are hugely painful, horribly embarrassing, or both together.
Ben-To is out on Monday from Manga Entertainment. No rectums were harmed in the writing of this article.