There is something that I like to call “Death by 7-11”. This happens when people nourish themselves exclusively on supermarket/convenience store fare until they get sick and even die. I’ve got some experience of this phenomenon, though I’m not an expert (if I were I’d be dead by now). In Japan there are two ways to go about killing yourself on this sort of food: cheap mode and luxury mode. Cheap mode, often show in anime, is based around instant noodles. Luxury mode is based around bento.
Ben-to the anime strikes a third path: the half-price bento. So whatever, right? No, this isn’t whatever at all. This is revolutionary.
True, although store bento in Japan are absolutely amazing looking, smelling, and tasting, they’re as lethally charged with preservatives, MSG and god knows what as instant noodles. Even the rice is toxic. So all of these modes of eating shorten your lifespan and lead to death, there’s no doubt about it. But consider this: if you’ve got the money and you’re lazy you get your bento every night; if you don’t have the money and you’re lazy you get your cup ramen every night; but in Ben-To whether you have money or not, if you’ve got the balls you go for the half-price bento…because there’s so few of them, because as Sen tells Sato early on, this is a “hunt” and you want to fight dogs and wolves, you want to be dogs and wolves.
The Hagakure says that the way of the samurai is dying. But common sense tells us we’re all dying since the day we were born. Half-price spoils-of-war bento tastes so good because it celebrates the truth that only by facing death does one ever truly live. The best little scenes in Ben-to happen when the warriors get defeated and they have to make do with other food. They don’t go home and ask Mom or the Mrs to cook for them. They don’t buy groceries and make stuff for themselves. They don’t even go to a fast food joint. They buy themselves some instant noodles, drag their little plastic bags all the way to a dark alley, and eat. That is, they don’t stop confronting death just because they have been defeated. They don’t wake up from a dream, slap on a suit and go to work. They don’t go to sleep and pretend death isn’t out there. Instead, they get their lethal doses of MSG and plan for the next encounter.
Death lies at the bottom of a ramen cup. Your hikikomori is so weak he takes it because he has no strength left for anything else. Your sociable everyman is so clueless he figures if he avoids eating this shit he’ll never get sick and he’ll never die [Americans are prone to this sort of thinking]. Your dog just takes it. And your wolf takes it after licking the dog.
These past few months I’ve been studying Classical Japanese, and it’s dawned on me just how often anime and manga use it. Ben-To is no exception. In episode 2, when the Ice Witch (named Sen, which kanji character means this) is explaining the rules of the Ben-To “Fight Club” she delivers the following line:
その夜に己が食す以上に狩るなかれ。 = Sono yoru ni onore ga shokusu ijou ni karunakare.
This isn’t modern Japanese, it’s strictly classical. An antique-sounding translation could be: “Thou shalt not hunt on a given night more than thou canst gulp down.” She then lays down the one cardinal rule:
礼儀を持ちて、誇りをかけよ。 = Reigi o mochite, hokori o kakeyo.
That is: “Mind thy manners and wage thy pride.” The grammar is pre-modern, though the words are chosen from among those which are still used today so that most viewers will be able to understand the phrases with ease. The implication, BTW, is that battles for half-price bento have been going on for centuries.
The scenes at the Half-Pricers’ Club remind me of the S.O.S.-dan, but this is Haruhi with a capital H (for ecchi, hentai). If you watch this with Haruhi in mind, the contrast is severe. Everything that Haruhi implied, insinuated and role-played with regards to Mikuru over 2 seasons of that anime is actually done and overdone by Shaga on Oshiroi in episode 4. And then Shaga suffers an equally intense experience at the hands of Ume (who reveals to her that Oshiroi has suffered it all before). Doesn’t this make Haruhi and Mikuru look like fools? I think the question is fair.
P.S. Episode 5 was priceless. The soundtrack alone was mind-blowing.