Ryōta Sakamoto is 22 years old and unemployed, a gaming otaku estranged from his former friends, who resents both the father who neglected him and the mother who rushed into a rebound second marriage. Himiko is a high school senior who is blamed when her friends are savagely raped by the members of a popular rock band for whom she had provided the introductions. Ostracised in the real world, both turn to the popular online game BTOOM!, in which players combat one another using personalised miniature bombs called BIMs. Ryōta proves so good at the game that he rises to the position of #1 ranked player in Japan; Himiko, though less skilled, nonetheless attracts Ryōta’s attention, eventually becoming his online “wife” – even though she resists his request to meet in the real world. One day, Ryōta is confronted by sinister-looking men; his next waking thought is the realisation that he is on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. But it is only after he encounters some of the other people on the island that the full horror of his situation makes itself apparent: he is in a “live” version of BTOOM! and the bombs being hurled at him are all too real. Ryōta barely manages to survive, and eventually encounters two other game participants: Kiyoshi Taira, a middle-aged businessman from Kyoto who becomes emotionally dependent on Ryōta; and an attractive – though initially hostile – girl Ryōta comes to suspect is the Himiko he “married” online. Somehow, despite an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, the three must not only work out how to survive, but who is responsible for their predicament and why; and, what is more, do so while coming to terms with the fact that they are stuck in this savage game of life-and-death precisely because they were nominated for disappearance by the very people they thought were the closest to them…     

Based on the long-running and popular manga by Junya Inoue, and produced by studio Madhouse, “BTOOM!” first appeared in a run of 12 episodes on Japanese television in 2012. Critically well-regarded and internationally successful, “BTOOM!” was, however, a commercial failure in Japan, which doomed its first season to also being its last. Far grittier in its visual aesthetics, storytelling, and characterisations than such iconic series as Sword Art Online, “BTOOM!” offers a trenchant critique of both the voyeuristic culture of “reality” TV that degrades and humiliates its participants for the sake of “entertainment”, as well as the depersonalising impact of conflict and its corrosive effect on human character as relationships are reduced to the purely transactional. The fact that only one series of “BTOOM!” was ever produced means the story is ultimately left hanging: unlike readers of the manga, we never learn the fate of the various participants, nor the reason why the game is so brutally transferred from the online to the real world. Nonetheless, the story with which we are presented is an immersive and intense study of human nature under pressure, and of the psychological and emotional cost of trying to remain human when the temptation to follow the line of least resistance and collapse into savagery is so strong. Violent, dark and confronting, “BTOOM!” is surely a prime candidate for re-booting, while remaining a fascinating study of what might have been if only the series’ luck had run a different course.

Text ©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2020. All rights reserved.