Late in the evening, supermarkets across Japan reluctantly mark unsold bento down to half price. The moment that discount sticker goes on, an army of hungry, penniless students descends, battling fiercely for the glory of a cheap meal.
As the ludicrous premise suggests, Ben Tou is primarily a comedy, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it neatly avoided a lot of light novel comedy traps. The author's note suggested he'd never tried his hand at comedy writing before, so the more dramatic scenes have a nicely understated naturalism to them, a more effective yang to the comedy yin than the usual overwrought melodrama (see Kore wa Zombie desu ka, which shits itself to hell the moment they stop with the jokes.)
This is a book where the male lead is neither a sarcastic Kyon clone or a personality free stand in for the reader to project his fantasies on. He's certainly a wise ass, but always motivated by an excess of enthusiasm. He describes the onigiri he's eating as "A classic Yamato Nadesico, her black seaweed underwear peeping out from under her sexy cellophane clothing." He makes a reference another character misses, and comments, "Oh -- she'd never read Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. She was missing out on 30% of the joy in life." Every attempt at thinking hard results in lengthy tangents about his father's retro gaming hobby, horrible things he did to a classmate in junior high, or completely non sequitors like his impromptu desire to become a true jazzman.
The three other major characters are all girls, of course; and each of them initially seems like a standard light novel type. First impressions tend to be misleading here. I'm not sure the violent (possibly lesbian) student council president ever developed into anything believable, but the narrators inability to resist gleefully pushing her buttons was much more relatable than the standard "accidental" misunderstandings. The cover girl is introduced as a tsundere, but quickly sidesteps either half of the term and becomes an altogether more likable mentor figure. The third girl ended up being the most entertaining of the three; she initially seems like a standard doormat, shy, totally insecure, and stammering a lot. Then she approaches the bento battles by role playing as a macho cop. Then they find "Muscle Cop", the hard core yaoi rape novels she's writing based on each battle. And the reactions to that are just different enough from what I've come to expect that I wound up impressed despite myself.
Ben Tou stumbles a little in the final act -- in search of an ending, he winds up setting up a choice so obvious the main character's hesitation just makes him seem embarrassingly dense -- but I came away feeling like this is the next big thing. Hopefully it'll get an anime that understands the material.