Anime set in a virtual reality world aren’t new: take series like .hack//SIGN, Sword Art Online, and Accel World, for example. The characters are taken from the comfort of the “real world” and placed into the game space itself. A death of a character, once a meaningless hurdle, is now a consequence. If your character dies, you die. This kind of premise reflects a futuristic fear: how far are players willing to go in terms of immersion, game interaction, and realism? Will MMO (massive multiplayer online) games ever escalate to this level of danger? Even if many of us would be unwilling to participate in such a high-stakes situation, who would? Are we even allowed to make that decision?
These questions are prevalent to the anime Btooom!, which is a fairly recent series, having just aired and completed this past fall. It’s a twelve-episode exploration in survival, reminiscent of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. While it isn’t exactly set in the virtual world of its game, the characters are forced to play with the rules of the game.
The plot is quite straightforward: 22-year-old Ryouta Sakamoto, a NEET (a young person not in employment, education, or training), is obsessed with the popular first-person shooter, Btooom! Instead of guns or other firearms, players must kill each other using bombs. They are also equipped with radar to seek out their enemies, but these are the two items they are allowed to use when competing against each other. Ryouta has performed so well in the game, he is ranked #10 in the world. One day, however, he mysteriously wakes up on an isolated island, armed with only a strange jewel embedded in his hand a pouch of undetonated bombs strapped to his waist. Someone comes across him—only to try and kill him! Ryouta quickly understands that he must play Btooom! for real: to get off the island, you have to kill seven other people or get killed yourself!
Admittedly, the premise is a bit stale. How many times has the “survival” theme and “getting off the island” plot been used for various media? Thankfully, however, Btooom! is saved mostly from its cast, introducing a wide range of characters and their reasons for winding up on the island. The reason, of course, is more sinister than just random selection—though that concept in itself would have fared better than the actual explanation.
The individuals are sent to the island because someone in their lives requested them to be killed off; for example, Ryouta’s mother entered him for the game’s participation because she became intolerant of his lifestyle of staying at home and playing video games. Because of this system, you can imagine that a lot of the other victims are criminals or deviants, although among the wide selection of participants are students, bosses, and otherwise ordinary people, which really hammers in the notion that people can form grudges quite easily and seek revenge because of it.
Besides Ryouta, the other main character is Himiko, a blonde-haired fifteen-year-old exchange student who creepily serves as his love interest—but wait! The romantic subplot actually gets better and, if this isn’t cringingly weird, sweeter. Ryouta and Himiko are actually married in-game, but because they have different avatars in the world of Btooom!, they actually don’t know their real world appearances. Thus, it is throughout the course of the anime that they find clues to each other’s identities, making their discovery all the more satisfying.
As the male lead, Ryouta’s character is similar to all the other heroes of the survive-in-the-virtual-reality world. He’s strong, talented, and quick to adapt; after all, the #10 Btooom! player in the world should be able to outsmart every other stranded individual on the island. He’s remorseful and very reluctant to kill his opponents, even though his life in endangered by the other competitors. Ryouta tries to keep calm, tries to be the level-headed leader of the pack, amassing allies and figuring out ways to beat the system. Himiko, similarly, is no wilting flower, though she does wind up in situations that force Ryouta to save her. She can be a tad naïve, but she’s fifteen, so it’s a bit understandable that she plays the damsel in distress role at various times during the anime.
The pacing is never too slow or too quick; there’s a very fluid speed that takes you from one episode to the next. There’s a lot of action, and the great animation compliments the tone of the story quite well. Explosions run aplenty and while there’s no great big twist, much of the anime depends on the torment of human psychology. The music is fitting, with ambient environmental sounds and moody tracks appropriate for certain scenes.
How Btooom! ends is actually quite bizarre, but it concludes in such a way that if there were to be a second season, the transition would be seamless. Because the manga is still ongoing (with the most recent installation a direct continuation from where the anime left off), the chances of an aforementioned second season are quite likely. This is an optimistic note, because you’ll definitely want more of Btooom! as you keep watching the series. It’s not quite life-changing nor is it a masterpiece, but it’s a fulfilling, satisfying, and action-filled anime that will provide entertainment for a day or two.