Review for Ben-To Complete Series Collection
This was supposed to be Manga Entertainment’s big experiment. This and Good Luck Girl were to be the first anime titles from them to be released as Blu-ray only. That decision certainly riled a few committed DVD die-hards, but in an industry that is rapidly moving to high definition and streaming, and with fewer and fewer PAL masters coming from Australia, many fans thought that this was the right decision. And then in the middle of last year, the bottom fell out of Manga’s gravy train and a massive retrenchment occurred in their activities. To date, these are the last two new anime to have been announced by Manga Entertainment. Everything else has been continuations of ongoing long running shows, the odd Kazé licence, and bigging up their new partners Animatsu. Let me say this again, at the time of writing, there is no other new anime show scheduled from Manga Entertainment, fans are just waiting for the conclusion to Hellsing Ultimate, Ghost in the Shell: Arise, and the ever nebulous Evangelion 3.33.
On top of that, Manga Entertainment hit a new nadir in disc production quality when they recently released Fairy Tail Part 9 on DVD only, having ditched that series’ Blu-ray releases, just as they have done for Ben-to and Good Luck Girl. My heart sank when the check discs arrived for Ben-to and Good Luck Girl, and I hadn’t even watched them yet. These are the last new anime titles we’re going to see from Manga in the near future, and some pessimistic fans are already wondering if this is their swansong. If so, the question is whether they’ll leave us with a sour taste in the mouth, or if they will pull enough back to somewhat restore their reputation? I’m taking the least appetising (pun intended) of the shows first, Ben-to.
Bento is the Japanese equivalent of the packed-lunch, although the term ‘packed-lunch’ hardly does these culinary marvels justice. The creation of bento is an art form to itself. When you compare it to a ham sandwich and a packet of crisps, you’ll feel like weeping. It’s the kind of thing to get envious about, to lust after, to compete for... to beat someone half to death for?
It is in Ben-to the series, as protagonist Yo Sato finds out. When he starts high school, he’s on a budget just like everyone else, and to save his meagre allowance, he decides to wait for that time at the end of the day, when supermarkets put their fresh food on sale to clear out the day’s stock, to nab a half price bento. Next day he wakes up in hospital, hungry and battered, not understanding the battered bit, and then makes his way to school with a curious girl named Hana with an injury fetish dogging his steps. When he gets to school, a strange grey haired girl names Sen warns him away from the supermarket, a warning he ignores when he tries again that evening for a cheap bento. It’s getting battered again that triggers the memory of the previous night, as he walks into a full scale battle for cheap food, and once again, the finishing move is applied by the grey-haired girl, Sen.
It’s not just a free for all. Sen is the president, and sole member of the school’s Half-Pricer’s Club, at least until she headlocks Yo and Hana into joining, and there’s more than one rule to this particular Food Fight Club. There’s organisation, skill and etiquette involved, and Sen is so good that she’s got a wall full of half-price stickers to prove it, and a scrap book of laurel-leaf special stickers, as well as the nickname Ice Cold Witch. Soon, Yo Sato sees the allure of fighting for one’s meals, a meal earned certainly tastes better, and he would much rather be a Wolf than a Dog. But he has a long way to go before he understands all the rules, and can be assured of a regular cut price meal.
Twelve episodes of Ben-to are presented across two DVD discs, somewhat unevenly, plus extra features.
1. Stick With It, Natto Okra Rice Bowl With Cheesy Topping Bento 440 kcal
2. Mackerel Boiled in Miso Bento 674 kcal
3. Large Cheese Pork Cutlet Curry Rice 1080 kcal
4. Ginger Fried Pork Bento 852 kcal
5. Hokkaido Salmon Fish Soup 326 kcal
6. Special Hokkaido Style Fried Chicken Bento 795kcal
7. Bosomelet bento 752 kcal and Loco Moco Bulging Bento 1100kcal
8. Hamburg Steak Loaded With Garlic Chives Bento 765kcal
9. Deluxe Western and Japanese Food Assortment 2910kcal and Piping Hot Porridge Bento 340 kcal
10. A Warm Gentle Flavour I Remember From Long Ago at My Grandmother’s House. A Japanese Dish Ease on Both Mind and Body. Plum and Dried Sardines over Rice with Plenty of Stewed Seasonal Vegetables Bento 480kcal
11. Pocari Sweat 125kcal
12. Domestic Eel Bento 790kcal
Ben-to gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, in native PAL format, with the 4% speed-up that implies. The image is clear and sharp throughout, with strong colours, and with smooth animation. The character designs are fairly generic, but the world design is detailed enough to engage, with quite understandably a lot of effort gone into the Tupperware contained culinary creations. You do get issues of moiré on fine detail, compression around fast motion and at the limits of what the DVD format is capable of. It is pretty much normal for anime on DVD, and it’s a very welcome return to form in that regard after the Fairy Tail debacle.
You have the usual Funimation options of DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese, with optional translated subtitles and a songs and signs track. I went with and was happy with the original language track as always, the actors are well suited to their roles, and the stereo offers enough separation to give the action sequences impact. Taku Iwasaki provides the music for this show, and it’s a suitably eclectic soundtrack, light and frothy for the comic bits, and a whole lot of punk sensibility for the fights. I gave the dub a try, and ten minutes in, I realised that Funimation have created a decent comedy dub, as I certainly felt that I could have watched the whole show that way. Whoever voices Hana has got her spot on.
And now for the usual Manga authoring bugbear, the subtitles. By Jove I think they’ve cracked it... almost. They present the subtitles in a discrete, but legible white font with black outlines as opposed to the usual anime DVD yellow. Manga’s subtitles in the past have been all over the place, literally, but this time around, the dialogue and the song lyrics remain at the bottom of the screen, and the text translations remain at the top of the screen. Best of all, all of the text translations are included on the disc, and they appear alongside the dialogue captions, not consecutively, so you at least have all the time you need to read them and the subtitles. The one flaw remaining is flickering. The usual anime disc can have a subtitle caption on screen, and it will remain steady even if a text translation briefly appears elsewhere on screen. The reverse is also true, a text translation will remain steady on screen, no matter how many lines of dialogue subtitles go by. But in Ben-to, if there is a text caption on screen, then it will flicker every time a subtitle caption changes at the bottom of the screen and vice versa. It’s a small flaw, but a flaw nonetheless. (The signs don’t flicker for the English dub BTW).
Both discs get animated menus which are a little fiddly to navigate with small, almost illegible text (particularly for the episode titles). And yes, Manga have authored these discs in-house, necessitated by Madman releasing the series as NTSC in Australia, and once again we’re plagued by illogical and random chapter markers, made all the more useless here as Ben-to is a show that plugs in a little sting after every end credit sequence, just before the inventive next episode previews.
Disc 1 gets two audio commentaries, the first on episode 3, introduced by ADR director Joel McDonald, but carried all the way through by Austin Tindle (Yo Sato), and Felicia Angelle (Hana Oshiroi), and using the interjections of other cast members, the two play a supporting cast fight game for the duration. It makes a change from the normal Funimation commentary, and curiosity kept me listening all the way through for a change.
The second on episode 7 is another round of supporting cast fight club, and this time the two actors playing the game are Trina Nishimura (Sen), and Morgan Garrett (Shaga). Once was enough for me, and I just clicked on this extra to make sure that it exists, which it does.
On disc 2, you only get five episodes, which makes tons of space for the extra features on this disc, which begins with Bento Brawl with Justin Rojas and Joel McDonald, lasting 3 minutes, and offering a live action food punch up with the Funimation employees.
You get the textless credits with two openings and one closing, and you get the US trailer...
A six-six episode split would have worked just as well, but at least the image quality wasn’t noticeably compromised on disc 1.
After Manga’s handling of Fairy Tail Part 9 plummeted to a new nadir in disc authoring and quality control, I was expecting absolutely nothing from Ben-to and was prepared to sign off with a perfunctory ‘import it if you like it’. But I’ll be damned! Manga Entertainment have almost got it sussed for this release. That it’s not on Blu-ray is a pain. They still have to sort out the chaptering. But other than the annoying flicker, they’ve nailed the subtitling. Ben-to is good enough for a casual watch. Considering the budget price for the series, and the lack of UK streaming options, I can even recommend it as ‘buy to try before you buy’ option, as fans who will fall in love with the show will definitely go for Funimation’s Region B compatible Blu-ray. And for casual fans that will like the show but not hunger to own the best possible version, this is just about good enough to sit on your DVD shelf.
So where do I fall when it comes to Ben-to? I’m not quite there as a committed Ben-to fan yet, but I definitely grew to appreciate its charms over the twelve episodes, and found it to be one of the rare anime comedies that had me laughing out loud. That’s actual belly-laughing, not just a knowing smirk, an appreciative loud exhale, or even a mild chuckle. This is having to pause the disc to let the laugh die down lest I miss the next gag.
What’s special about Ben-to is that it takes an existing anime trope, or genre, and gives it an unrealistic twist, and then milks it for all the humour it’s worth. The genre is high school combat, which we have seen in loads of shows like Ikki Tousen or Tenjho Tenge, or even shows like Freezing and Sekirei. They’re basically historical warfare and clan rivalries transplanted to a modern era, but beneath the comedy and fan service, the fights are usually treated with a po-faced seriousness that borders, for me at any rate, on the tedious.
Ben-to takes this idea of high school combat, and gives it the twist of making it all fights over food, and bargain food at that. And with that, any semblance of seriousness vanishes. It becomes pure comedy. You can’t take testosterone fuelled posturing, high octane kung-fu, and videogame finishing moves at all seriously when it’s over a bowl of half price pasta salad. The more seriously the characters take it, the funnier it becomes, especially when you hear about the etiquette of bento-battling, the nomenclature and minutiae of how the fights work, the way the more successful fighters earn their aliases, and the nostalgic regard with which captured bento price labels are kept and treasured.
Into this set-up, Ben-to throws as wacky a cast of characters as you can imagine, which only adds to the humour. The main lead Sato is the typical milksop male, but one who finds his inner wolf when introduced to the world of the half price bento battle. Through no fault of his own he always finds himself in compromised situations, which earns him the worst possible alias. His mentor in this new world is Sen Yarizui, the understated, soft spoken girl who can kick arse harder than any other wolf, and is considered to be top of the heap. In a reverse of the usual dynamic, it’s Sato who develops an affection for Sen, and it’s Sen who remains oblivious to his intentions. Also in their club is Hana, who may not be much of a battler, but somehow manages to snag a bento anyway, but is really there to use Sato as inspiration for her homoerotic fan-fic and blog, starring ‘Saito’. That she’s hanging around Sato has been noticed by student body president Shiraume Ume, who’s infatuated with Hana, develops an immediate jealous hatred of Sato, and proceeds to beat him up at every opportunity, trying to win ‘back’ Hana’s heart. Incidentally, one of Sato’s friends in class is a masochist who takes a vicarious pleasure in seeing Sato beaten by Shiraume.
From a rival school there’s Sato’s cousin Shaga, who loves to tease him with inappropriate displays of affection, before beating him at Virtua Fighter. When she’s revealed to be a bento battling wolf as well, that complicates the situation further and introduces a new school of rivals into the dynamic. Shaga’s friend Asebi is the unluckiest human on Earth, one who transfers her luck to all around her. Shaga gets through a regular supply of defensive charms as a result, but Sato isn’t ready for the ill-fortune that ensues. And it continues from there. Ben-to has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to supporting characters that other shows would dream of, even the minor no name characters make a memorable impact in the episodes. Some of the wolves are only known by their aliases. The school security guard who insists on dealing with Sato by shoving a D sized battery up his fundament is hilarious enough by himself.
There is a whole lot of silliness that occurs in the show, a whole lot that is entertaining, and the episodes are varied and imaginative, including the requisite swimsuit episode. But it always boils down to the cut price pack-lunches, as evidenced by the episode titles. Ben-to isn’t a classic anime, it isn’t going to go down in the annals of history as a landmark achievement in storytelling, but it is downright hilarious, and offers 12 episodes of peerless (when it comes to high school battles) entertainment. Devoted fans of the show will no doubt have already ordered the Funimation Blu-ray, but for casual viewers like me, you know this time Manga’s efforts are just about good enough.