Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad
Koyuki is fourteen years old and drifting through life without purpose. Until he saves the ugly, patchwork dog of bi-cultural guitarist Ryusuke. Later, during a nasty confrontation with a trio of extremely large and extremely disgruntled Americans, Ryusuke is impressed my Koyuki's moxy and helps him out. The two soon become friends, the friendship sparking in Koyuki a newfound interest in the kind of hard-edged Western rock that Ryusuke and his buddies prefer, even going so far as to hang out in the "live houses" where folks like Ryusuke jam and take guitar lessons from his freaky swim coach. When Ryusuke's band breaks up, he goes about patching together a new and better band; a quest that has nothing whatsoever to do with Koyuki until Ryusuke's younger sister Maho discovers that Koyuki may be just the vocalist her brother's band needs.
The male side of the coming-of-age coin that director Osamu Kobayashi flipped in Paradise Kiss, Beck has the same clear-eyed honesty about the process of growing up, even if it has yet to reach the same levels of intensity and introspection.
Tales of teenagers discovering themselves through music are a dime a dozen, so Beck's initial premise isn't going to raise any eyebrows. It has everything one might expect from such a premise: the unassuming every-boy lead, his bleak directionless existence, his latent talent and the charismatic musician mentor who unlocks it, and of course, the love interest. Beck, however, distinguishes itself on two very important fronts. The first is how well it evokes the sweaty allure of the underground rock scene, the second its between-the-eyes nailing of the birth of a personal passion—in this case, music. It's a forgone conclusion that Koyuki will end up joining Ryusuke in his musical venture, but the devil's in the details of his journey towards that end. The primal energy of the dancing audiences and thrashing stage shows in the rock clubs makes it easy to feel the magnetic draw that the scene has on Koyuki. Almost all of the music in the series is sung in-show, sharing its time with all the other incidental noises and sound effects, and that music—anchored in the dark-edged sound of American hard rock rather than the bubblegum fluff of the idol singers that Koyuki initially prefers—provides a convincing impetus for Koyuki's slow-growing fascination.
This opening round of episodes has a lot of very entertaining qualities—the music, a sharply observed sense of humor, an eye for everyday drama and the capricious changeability of puppy love, a Frankensteinian dog—but the growth of that fascination is probably Beck's greatest strength at this point. The series gets the confluence of latent talent, hard work, and blind luck that begins Koyuki's transformation from listless nobody to dedicated musician exactly right, as well as Koyuki's reactions to it all. Throughout the course of this volume Koyuki uses his interest in rock music as an idle distraction, an opportunistic method of keeping the interest of the girl he likes, and as a bandage for an ego wounded by years of mediocrity—stages that will be painfully familiar to anyone who has gone through a similar process. This realism, as well as the honesty with which the series presents the mundane minutiae of teen life, does sometimes come at the expense of intensity though.
Osamu Kobayashi's experience with this kind of thing is in full evidence. He regulates mood with consummate skill, evoking ennui or isolation with no more than an empty composition, a cut to some incidental detail, or some beautifully refined use of background noise. As with Paradise Kiss, he uses intricate background art to frame the action, though the focus is largely on urban clutter here, and emphasizes art and editing over action. He also makes good use of his simple yet attractive character designs—Maho's fierce personality and sleek sensuality are readily evident from her body language alone, Ryusuke is the epitome of laid-back stoner charm, and Koyuki fairly radiates patheticness when it's called for. On a purely technical level the animation is good without being showy, only really going all-out during the concert scenes and displays of musicianship.
Beck presents some extremely hairy problems for anyone looking to produce an English dub. First of all there's tons of singing, and then there's all of the switching between English and Japanese in the original. In the director's commentary, the English version's co-directors discuss at some length how they dealt with both. The simple version: hire people who can sing, and replace the language division with a cultural one. Both decisions work brilliantly. The cast does their own singing and they are very, very good (the lyrics are even tweaked a bit to smooth over some of iffy English in the originals); and the replacement of the language barrier with a cultural one preserves the intent of those scenes while protecting the flow of the dub. The acting, as is par for Funimation, is excellent, as is the casting. It's infinitely satisfying to see something as potentially disastrous as the moonlit poolside duet in episode five come together as beautifully as it does.
The usual clean opening and closing included on this disc allow viewers the chance to play "who's the musician in that drawing" during the grunge-flavored ending and to appreciate the photorealistic opener and its foot-tapping rock n roll accompaniment. Also included are a music video of one of "Beck's" songs and a very enlightening commentary by dub co-directors Christopher Bevins and Taliesin Jaffe. In it they refer to Beck as a 26 episode independent film that just happens to have been animated in Japan. Curse their insight, but there really is no better way to sum the series up.
You need not be a fan of hard rock to enjoy the honest realism of Koyuki's journey or to appreciate the understated drama and humor of it all. But it will be the deciding factor between those who like the show and those who love it. For my part...anything that references Black Label Society frontman ZAKK Wylde and pioneering punk band the Ramones in the same volume gets my vote of confidence. Rock on.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Exceptionally realistic look at a boy discovering and growing into his interests and talents.
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