This year, anime that focus on games and game-related culture have been quite numerous. One of these, Btooom! (the onomatopoeic sound effect for a bomb exploding) ended its television run last week in Japan. Like Hunger Games and Battle Royale, Btooom! follows a group of people stranded away from civilisation and forced to fight in a death game.
And in a twist straight out of the The Last Star Fighter, the death game they are playing is based on the world's most popular game -- in this case "Btooom!"a first-person bomber." But is this just another story of video game skills being used to save the day, or is there something deeper being done within this framework? [*Note: Minor spoilers ahead.]
Good -- Realistic Use Of Game Skills In The Real World
Ryota Sakamoto, the main character, is an unemployed, university-aged slacker who lives with his parents and does nothing but play games all day in his room. His game of choice is "Btooom!" and he is one of the top players in the world. So, of course, when he is suddenly kidnapped and stranded on an island and forced to play Btooom! for real, this turns out to be an amazing advantage -- but only in the mental sense.
While he is a master of Btooom! in game, on the island he is limited by his physical skills. His aim is not as perfect nor is he as strong as his in-game avatar. His advantage is his knowledge of the tactics of the game -- as well as his knowledge of the types of bombs and their strengths and weaknesses. Of course, his greatest weakness is that bombs are far from the only way to kill another person on the island.
Good -- A Deeper Look And The Dark Side Of Being Human
One of the key points of Btooom! is why these people are on the island in the first place. Players of the game are chosen by someone -- usually a close friend or family member -- writing the player's name on a form that promises to make the chosen person "disappear." This in turn means that everyone on the island has a dark secret that has sent them to the death game -- and they may not even be aware of what it is. This not only makes for interesting characters and great drama but also causes one to ask, "Have I ever done something that would make someone hate me enough to want to send me to my almost certain death?"
Of course, this is not the only dark question the anime explores. It also looks at the themes of murder and betrayal -- and asks, "How long could you stick to your normal morals and values in a situation like the death game?"
Mixed -- Has Been Done Before
Of course, as pointed out in the headline, Btooom! is far from the most original of stories. "Boy becomes hero due to game skills" and "kids enter a death game" are far from novel ideas in this day and age. And in a year where Hunger Games swept the world, it seems even less so in comparison.
But while the setting and most basic narrative have been done before (and better), the way Btooom! uses these well-known framing devices to explore our darker emotions is really where the show succeeds -- well, for the most part anyway.
Bad -- Man's First Instinct Is To Rape
Rape is a constant theme in Btooom! -- to an insulting degree. The other main character, Himiko, seems unable to escape it. Nearly every single man she encounters on the island tries to rape her at some point (or at least implies that such a rape is coming). Even Ryota is no exception.
After their first (explosion-filled) encounter leaves her unconscious, he actually has to stop and convince himself not to rape her right then and there. I found the implication that "all men want to rape women/will rape women if given the chance" to be insulting, to say the least. It takes an otherwise complex cast of characters, and makes the entire male gender completely one dimensional when it comes to their interactions with the opposite sex.
Btooom! is an odd anime. On one level it can just be looked at as a derivative knock off of other works of "death game" fiction. On the other, it does an adequate job of exploring how the darker side in all of us can come to the forefront in crisis situations. This means that in a lot of ways Btooom! is not really an "enjoyable" anime to watch -- because after all, how easy is it to enjoy something that constantly bludgeons you with the dark side of human nature -- but it is, nonetheless, an interesting one. So in the end, if you are interested in the themes it explores, or are just a fan of "death game" stories in general, this one is certainly worth a watch.
Btooom! aired every Thursday night on Tokyo MX.