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Light Novels: Ben-to v01

ben to 01Full title: Ben-to – Saba no Misoni 290 yen
Author: Asaura
Illustrator: Shibano Kaito
Label: Super Dash Bunko
Year of publication: 2008
Pages: 291

Let’s be frank, my friends. I read the first chapter of Ben-to, and I didn’t like it. The setting is completely bizarre; the “hero” is an asshole; supporting characters are weird; and the story gets repetitive. But did I give up? No, for I am one of mankind’s great readers. I struggled on, never letting go of Hope. If you persevere, God will reward your efforts.

The perpetrator behind this title calls himself Asaura, and previously wrote two novels called Kiiroi Hana no Aka and Vanilla – A sweet partner, which I have no clue about. His illustrating partner for Ben-to is Shibano Kaito, who seems to dabble with doujin production in addition to handling character design for the Nintendo DS game series Luminous Arc. Again, I am ignorant of any of these things, but since the game has music by Mitsuda Yasunori, I suppose I’m on the losing side. For this title, the colour work is very nicely done, while the monochrome illustrations appearing within the text are unusually rough.

Here’s the deal: this series is all about people who fight (punching-kicking-biting) to be one of the last standing, in order to claim a half-priced box lunch at the local supermarket. I mean it, that’s really the setting for Ben-to (which is a bit of a pun on bento, the true depth of which still eludes me).

The main character is Satou You, a young man who’s just moved away from his parental home to attend high school, and now he’s ensconced in a student dorm. The problem for our hero is that he’s only given a meagre 30 000 yen (~$300) per month to cover expenses, which can get tricky if you want to buy that favourite manga and keep supporting the creator. Normally this wouldn’t be too difficult, but Satou’s dorm only serves breakfast, so he has to buy lunch and dinner with his own money, because how could you expect boys to cook for themselves? Satou’s solution to this economic dilemma is to seek out a supermarket in the evening, when the clerk starts tagging box lunches with half-price stickers. Ah, the savings to be made! thinks Satou, and reaches out to grab some food.

Alas, Satou’s attempt ends with unconsciousness, and while sharing a paltry rice ball with a girl who saw what happened, he’s informed that the moment the half-priced stickers went on, the box lunch corner was transformed into a battlefield, with several unknowing participants like Satou getting blown away to the other side of the store. Coincidentally, this girl is a first year student at Karasuda High School just like Satou, and her name is Oshiroi Hana. A combination of hunger and curiosity brings Satou back into the supermarket the next evening, where he again meets Oshiroi, and the two eventually form a strange partnership. Once more Satou is hit by someone and passes out, and this process is repeated over and over, as Satou can’t quite figure out what is going on in this peculiar store. They often run into a beautiful, mysterious fighter nicknamed “the Frozen Witch”, who is rumoured to dominate the area.

One night, this grandmaster seems to have had enough of seeing them get smashed into a pulp, and she tries to persuade Oshiroi and Satou to stop interfering. When Satou refuses, she gives them a brief smile and tells them to visit room #502 in the school club building. With Satou’s entrance into the Half-Pricer Society, the story finally gets moving. Guided by the club president Yarizui Sen (pictured on the cover), Satou and Oshiroi learn the rules of half-priced box lunch battle. They face hazards like Storms, old ladies with trolleys, and come across the mythical Wizard, a former club president whose battle prowess is legendary. Gradually – finally – the setting begins to make sense, and the reader’s patience is rewarded.

Having started as a blob of repetitious incomprehensibility, Ben-to now opened my eyes to the fact that deep within was hidden an actual message, something meaningful to ponder. Like the reader, Satou’s character begins from the outside, looking in at a phenomenon he cannot possibly understand as anything but absurd. But as he joins in, and we with him, the unspoken laws that rule this world are revealed, and from chaos a genuinely intriguing order is built. Remarkably, what once seemed so bizarre now became reasonable to me. Moreover, the fighting is written in a very vivid and exciting manner, so it’s easy to feel like you take part in the action, once Satou stops being a punching bag and hits back instead.

ben to 01 p53Another strong point of this title is the humour, which is quite dark and may not fit everyone. As if to explain to us just how much of a bastard Satou can be, there’s a short sequence relating how he moved his best friend’s clock back an hour in a feeble attempt to feel like he has some control over cruel, uncaring Time, which resulted in his friend coming an hour late for next morning’s final exams and as a consequence he failed to get into his preferred high school, which Satou doesn’t seem to feel the least guilty about. To counter this, the extremely abusive female classmate Shiraume Ume appears, who doesn’t like Satou messing with “her” Oshiroi, and to discourage it she frequently slaps the utter crap out of him (see illustration), all the while rigging the upcoming school president election in her favour. In addition to this control freak, poor Oshiroi has some additional quirks: she loves writing homoerotic fiction, and her reason for approaching the half-priced box lunch battles was to gather material for her stories, in which Satou happens to become a prominent character.

The joy of good food plays quite a big part in Ben-to, and every time the main character puts something in his mouth, a lengthy description of the taste follows. The veracity of the author’s claims that these meals are extraordinarily delicious is a bit doubtful, but it does add an amusing edge to the writing, and grows into an important plot point later on, as Satou struggles to understand why the same type of food can taste so differently depending on how it was acquired.

“Do you think of half-priced box lunches as nothing but old left-over food that didn’t sell?” asks Yarizui.
“Not anymore,” is the answer I can give after finishing the first volume of this very original series. More than just being an action comedy, Ben-to explores the urge in humanity to find a meaning beyond peaceful existence, and tries to find the sense of achievement that comes from hunting and farming your own food, a process that’s been lost in modern society. To do so within the confines of a supermarket is, I think, very impressive. Despite the slow start, I was in love with this book when I finished the last page, and rushed off to buy the latest volume. Only 3 parts are out so far, but hopefully there’s more to come. With a concept this weird, I suppose it’s unlikely that it will get animated, but then I remember Akikan, so who knows. I just pray the action would get a proper animation budget.

Amazon links: Japanese

May 22, 2009 at 2:54 pm
27 comments »
  • May 22, 2009 at 3:10 pmrawrshark

    Now this is something new (well, as far as a concept of something that I’ve never heard of).

    Though people would most likely miss out on this (more so on people like who understand only a little bit of Japanese, like me), I do hope this gets at least a manga adaptation.

  • May 22, 2009 at 3:40 pmbaka~

    i somehow got caught by the moral of the initial story. it’s very much interesting, the way you narrate this novel made me feel that this acts as a mirror on how society takes things for granted, laughing over the common stuff and assuming that everyday things are boring. i kinda liked how the author portrayed excitement over these boring things by having people experience an unexplained phenomena. this changes the importance of your everyday necessity into something special.

    im getting envious now since they rarely sell these kinds of material in my country. looking forward for more.

  • May 22, 2009 at 4:06 pmjohn

    where can i get this in english? i live in the uk i kinda wanna read this

  • May 22, 2009 at 4:51 pmMeery

    Great review, thanks! It really piqued my curiosity as I read how your opinion changed as you kept on reading. The storyline does seem pretty shallow at first glance. Looking forward to more glimpses into this series, and how this peculiar plot can be fleshed out.

  • May 22, 2009 at 5:51 pmalyu

    @john: no english. and very few guys online translate light novels, which is a shame.

    I personally wouldn’t want to read this, I don’t really want to read a gag light novel (that’s how this book sounds to me). I read 4koma if I want lols. I read light novels for interesting plot.

  • May 22, 2009 at 7:10 pmPutang

    :3 hrm… I really want to read this… too bad baka tsuki don’t got it o_o

  • May 22, 2009 at 7:34 pmAnna

    …Sounds very intriguing…

  • May 22, 2009 at 8:04 pmxcswmboy

    sounds weird, probably wouldnt follow it even if it was translated. crappy or mean-spirited male leads in harem settings are just plain stupid. the whole premise is too unbelievable also. i can barely swallow the setting of “Saki” with all that championship mahjong stuff, so this is quite a bit out there. that said, if it becomes an anime, ill probly watch it since the cover art has cute girls. =P

  • May 22, 2009 at 8:51 pmn3wgrass

    Hey Patrik,

    I looked at some of the light novel/mangas that you posted in one of your earlier entries. I looked at the first few chapters of Bungaku Shoujo at mangafox, and I’m really intrigued by the concept. Would you please write your thoughts on that light novel? I’d really appreciate it.

  • May 22, 2009 at 9:44 pmEspada

    @Patrik can you have a review with FATE/ZERO xD

  • May 22, 2009 at 9:48 pmPatrik

    n3wgrass, I’ll be reviewing Bungaku Shoujo next week or so.

    Espada, no, I don’t have that book, and I’m not going to waste money on it.

  • May 22, 2009 at 11:00 pmRyougaZell

    Cover girl makes me think of BlackRose from dot hack

  • May 23, 2009 at 12:56 amFayt

    ehhh ;; Don’t know what to say … It doesnt sound like anything I’ll like atm… But if its ever translated and i see it~ Im sure i’ll get it and try it for myself =)

    Looking forward to the next review =3 Thanks =3

  • May 23, 2009 at 1:09 amPANDAemic

    i really wish the us would translate more light novels cause some of these books look really good :(

    i would learn japanese but i sorta gave up after barely learning kanji…

  • May 23, 2009 at 1:42 amEspada

    @Patrik wa wa wa why? O_O

  • May 23, 2009 at 2:13 amnapen

    altho Patrick’s reviews tend to make him sound like his highness. his reviews are great. I like it. But man, you sound like a lawyer.. lol

  • May 23, 2009 at 2:20 amkiseki

    now thats some fine plot i never heard of. to fight for ones food, nice idea. still have to wait years before i can read something in japanese~~

  • May 23, 2009 at 9:45 amsuiton

    There’s no entry for this on Baka-Manga/Manga-Updates.

    o_O

  • May 23, 2009 at 9:46 amsuiton

  • May 23, 2009 at 12:47 pmAlice

    Thanks alot for doing the novel reviews! They will surely help me decide what to read — and what not to read — after finishing all the Moribito novels. :3

  • May 23, 2009 at 1:15 pmjohn

    @alyu
    tnx for answering yea i looked around cant find much about the manga its self either. >_< i wish i could read japanese

  • May 23, 2009 at 4:24 pmewok

    hehehe i am working at discount market, I can clearly see where this idea comes from… epic fights for re-priced goods ensue regularly :P

  • May 23, 2009 at 6:44 pmBigJerk

    Hey, I did a tiny bit of messing around on amazon and found shipping rates to the US are somewhere around 2700 yen plus 300 yen handling for every item… seems kind of absurd to me but maybe I was looking in the wrong place.

    Anyway, I found this site http://www.bk1.jp/ to be MUCH better for shipping prices but as I’ve not used it myself I can’t vouch for anything else. From what little research I did, it seems to be a reliable site for books. Check it out if you’re interested and have a minute.

  • May 23, 2009 at 8:08 pmMaverick

    Sounds good but, i cant read japanese. Is there somewhere that i can read it in english?

  • May 23, 2009 at 8:38 pmPatrik

    Maverick, if no one’s translated it yet, there’s no way to read it in English.

    BigJerk, if you’re ordering a small number of items, bk1 does appear to be cheaper, since you can choose the shipping method yourself. However, this also increases the delivery time up to 3 months (for the cheapest method). The most economical choice takes up to 2 weeks, but even then it ends up more expensive than Amazon for packs of ~20 items and above. With Amazon it’s also possible to track the package. If you want to order just a few things, then bk1 seems the way to go.

  • May 24, 2009 at 11:40 pmNegativeZero

    Just a quick suggestion, since I’m assuming that the bulk of the novels you’re going to be looking at are in Japanese, perhaps you could give some indication on them as to how complex the language is in them? There can be quite a substantial amount of variation and it would be nice to know since I’d wager that the bulk of readers are going to be English-speakers with a fairly wide range of Japanese language skill.

  • May 26, 2009 at 10:37 amewok

    BTW is it not an idea rip-off from “Fight club”?