iSugio

Btooom! – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Sakamoto Ryota is an unemployed twenty-two year old who lives with his mother. In the real world, there may be nothing special about him, but online, he’s one of the world’s top players of the combat game called Btooom!. One day, he awakes in what appears to be a tropical island, though he has no memory of how or why he has come to be there. While wandering around, Ryota sees someone and calls out for help. The stranger responds by throwing a bomb at him, now Ryota realizes both that his life is in danger, and that he has somehow been trapped in a real-life version of his favorite game. Ryota must now survive through the nightmare to figure out the reason why he ended up in the game in the first place.

The world of online gaming is a theme that has been explored within other anime series, but not many have tackled it in a way such as Btooom! has. Based on manga artist Jun’ya Inoue’s manga of the same name, Btooom! is a series that looks at the influential nature and escapism that video games can offer to individuals facing immense personal hardships within their lives, further looking at the destructive ramifications that can stem from seeking such a detachment from reality. This is not to say that Btooom! is a series completely enveloped by a need to suggest that playing video games excessively is a negative thing, but it establishes a premise that looks at how video games may influence the individual through both negative and positive ways.

And for a series that essentially revolves around the real-world interpretation of a video game, it is also one that explores the societal problems that affect contemporary Japan. The main protagonist of the series, Ryota, is what one would describe as a “NEET,” which is an acronym for one not in employment, education, or training. He is one that views life as too difficult to confront, finding himself in a position of complacency and dominance within the virtual world of Btooom!. We slowly learn that this contentment comes at a heavy price though, as we view his family earnestly attempting to help remove him from his addiction to video gaming. Ryota’s rejection of society is an interesting take on video gaming itself in this regard—or any medium or action viewed as an outlet for complete escapism—in which we see Ryota completely avoiding actions such as finding work or interacting with family or friends. In many ways, his story in Btooom! is one of redemption in which he tries to better realize the pain and misery he brought about on his family, friends, and even himself given his ironic predicament as one trapped within a real-world version of the game he plays.

Unfortunately, this can’t be said about many of the other characters within the series. Btooom!, while interesting in its social commentary on escapism through technology, gives us plenty of characters that are generic as they are predictable in the way they approach the real-world version of Btooom!. We have the crazy ex-mercenary who holds no qualms in killing those who stand in his way. There is the psychotic young adult who simply enjoys murdering people. There is even the salary man who is too scared to even ponder actually having to kill others in order to survive. The list goes on and on in this regard, with practically every stereotypical caricature in the book thrown into the storyline. There is no complexity towards any of the villainous characters as well, which make them appear as one-dimensional, devoid of reason, and without any sense of morality. One can argue that there would be people like this considering the circumstances—where surviving by any means is the focus—but it just seems like we’ve seen characters likes these handled better in other series.

The only minor exception to this array of conventional characters is Himiko, a female teenager who has developed an utter distrust of men due to some very miserable circumstances that occurred in her life prior to having to forcefully participate in the real-world Btooom!. Considering her position as an emotionally distraught young woman, one will easily notice that she quickly becomes sexually exploited due to her being one of the few female characters on the island. But going even further though, the series relies on her physical attributes to define her character more often than one may expect. This approach makes it appear as though her exploitation is directed to us as viewers as well, which suggests that we are akin to the voyeuristic and overly masculine men that dominate the series. Given the seriousness of her background and need to overcome adversity, this approach doesn’t help in presenting her as a genuine character looking for resolve. Even though we can sympathize with her plight as someone who has experienced tragedy within their life, it is somewhat confusing to see her get exploited in order to appease a certain segment of the viewer demographic.

Overall, Btooom! is a series that has many good elements coupled with some very perplexing ones. While the premise of the series is very intriguing—the aspect of placing players of a video game within a real-world interpretation of that same video game—which is a fascinating concept to say the least, the execution of it is rather problematic. The series is very much like Mirai Nikki (2011), in which we find characters vying to win a deadly game at all costs. But while Btooom! may share similar traits to that of Mirai Nikki, it lacks the distinctive characters that made that series so noteworthy. Also, the pacing towards the middle to latter half of the series is what slows things down considerably as well, filling its time with expository dialogue that does little in actually moving the story along. And while Btooom! may have offered a compelling premise coupled with a healthy dose of social commentary, it does very little to surpass other series that have handled similar subject matter with superior poise and execution.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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