A really good, coming-of-age story and an in-depth look at the struggle to form a band and the pitfalls that comes with it. Add in the killer soundtrack, and this quickly becomes a great series.
What They Say
Koyuki Tanaka was feeling the rut, even though he's only a teenager. Between the sheltered and stifling grind of school and the girls that spend their time not noticing him, every day was just another day of being a total nobody. Enter Ryusuke: a local rock 'n' roller haunted by a shady reputation. Together they form Beck, a dynamic band that just might be the salvation of the stagnant music scene.
Sure, it's going to take hard work and obsession to make it, but there's something special in the sound. If the guys can stay true to their vision, the world awaits. Music can change your life, sometimes against your will. Just remember: when it's live, anything can happen.
Contains the entire series!
For this viewing, I listened to the English 5.1 dub, which is also offered in 2.0. In a few instances, I switched over to the Japanese 2.0 track, mostly to check out the music. Both tracks are really nice, but the English dub music sounds really good in 5.1. Since this series is based on music, this is a really good thing. Even on the Japanese track, the music is almost all in English, though the songs were redone by the English VAs to clean up some of the broken language. However, they basically sang the songs in the exact same way as their Japanese counterparts, and in many cases even sound similar, so you really cannot go wrong either way. Overall, the music is excellent, and the rest of the sound comes through just as well.
Presented in 4:3, Beck is a title that has a very distinctive look, one that I really like. The character design is realistic, and at times the backgrounds are so well done that they almost look like photographs. In fact, this led to my biggest problem with the art in the show: so many areas were so well done that it was very obvious when they did not put that effort/time in. It was a bit distracting. The artists also make good use of soft focusing for highlighting, especially in concert scenes, which helped add a sense of being in the moment.
Being a realistic show, there was a general lack of bright colors, which at times somewhat ruins the precision of the art. There were a number of instances where if I paid attention, I could see small details that otherwise tended to blend in the rest of the background. I think this is more a limitation of DVD technology, though, and might look nicer in BluRay. It certainly is not a show killer, though.
This set comes in three double sided thinpak cases, which are contained in a paper art box. The front of the box has pictures of each member of Beck in various poses, along with Izumi and Maho. The back has a picture of Koyuki and Maho sitting on a scooter with a tour bus in the background, with the summary and extras list, while the technical details appear on the bottom side of the box. In what is a nice touch, the back image actually appears to be a made up soundtrack cover, as there are series track listings both in English and Japanese.
Since the thinpaks contain two discs each, their covers are amalgamations of the individual covers for those volumes. The back of the thinpaks all have the same picture of the seven standing by the outdoor pool at Koyuki’s and Izumi’s middle school, while an episode and extras list in on the bottom. Each case is clear, so when you open it, there is an image on the backside of the cover showing through. I suppose they could be reversible, but at there are no identifying features on the backsides, they really are designed to be interior images.
In a bit of irony, the advertising insert promotes the Funimation Green project, which uses recycled materials in the packaging, and tells you to look for the Funimation Green logo so you know that it is part of the line. And this set does not have that logo. Either way, this is a nicely designed set, so I have no real complaints.
The menus on this release have a nice design. The main menu is designed to look like an amp, with the dials and outputs along the top acting as the buttons for the selections. The highlight is in red, so it stands out from the black of the rest of the amp. “Spice of Life” plays while on the main menu, and the submenus follow similar designs. They fit well with the theme of the series.
There are some nice extras spread throughout this release. For starters, each disc has textless versions of the openings and endings, with the final two discs having the second ending used over the last six episodes. There are also commentaries for episodes three, fourteen, and twenty-four. The last commentary is particularly notable because rather than just discuss the episode, they instead take a look at the music and talk about what went into cleaning up the English and re-performing the songs for the English dub. It is a nice change of pace from most commentaries. The meat of the extras, however, are the “A Life on the Road” Music videos. Each disc has a video of one of Beck’s songs set to new footage as well as footage from the show. Available are “Spice of Life,” “Like a Foojin,” “Face,” “Brainstorm (Big Muff),” “Slip Out (A Little More than Before),” and “By Her (Endless Travel Map).” These videos use the English dub versions of the songs. It should also be noted that these should probably be viewed after the disc they are on since there are a few potential spoilers in the footage used for the videos.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age series taking an in-depth look at the struggle small time musicians have at raising their status in the music world. In particular, this series tells the tale of an eclectic group of musicians and their band, Beck, looking to strike it big in music. As is the case with titles like this, the music is very important in telling the overall story, and Beck has great music in spades. I had expected to enjoy this title going into it, but I was surprised at how much I actually did.
Yukio Tanaka is a typical teenager: he does not particularly enjoy school (though he does well enough in it), he is not popular, and his life has no direction. He has even managed to convince himself that nobody ever pays attention to him. He is convinced that his life is will be completely unremarkable. The only talent he has is as a singer, and he sees nothing special about that. Then a couple chance encounters change all that.
First he meets up with Izumi, an old childhood friend he had not seen in years. They took calligraphy lessons together until the school unexpectedly closed, and they went their separate ways. Izumi is a year older than Yukio, and is the epitome of what Yukio is not: she is smart, pretty, athletic, and popular. Yukio had a childhood infatuation with Izumi that has now blossomed into something more.
Izumi introduces Koyuki, Izumi’s nickname for Yukio that everybody picks up on, to the music of the Dying Breed, a popular American band. This awakens a love of music in Koyuki and gives him something to actually care about. Though at first this love is directed at listening to music, his next encounter would make him take the next step.
Walking home from school one day, Koyuki saves a weird, mongrel dog from the teasing of a few bratty children. The dog, named Beck, belongs to Ryusuke, a local musician and high school dropout. Though their first meeting is relatively short, they run into each other a few more times and ultimately strike up a friendship. When Ryusuke sees Koyuki’s love of music, he senses a kindred spirit and kindles it by giving Koyuki one of his old guitars.
At this same time, Ryusuke has broken up with his previous band over creative differences, and is currently looking to set up a new one. While teaching Koyuki everything he knows about the music scene, Ryusuke manages to sign up Taira, an excellent local bass player, Chiba, for vocals, and Togo, an average drummer. Ryusuke is not particularly happy with Togo, but has no alternative.
Yet, while Koyuki is enjoying his new lifestyle, new confusions crop up. For starters, Izumi shows an interest in Ryusuke that appears to be more than friendly, which has basis in the fact that Ryusuke used to play with, and is still friends with, the frontman for The Dying Breed. While Koyuki rationalizes that Ryusuke is a better person than he, Koyuki cannot help feeling a bit jealous over it. Then Koyuki meets Maho, Ryusuke’s younger sister. He falls for her almost immediately and has trouble reconciling them with how he feels for Izumi.
Koyuki even feels out of place with the band, as they are much better musicians than he feels he will ever be. But he is learning quickly, and when Togo unexpectedly has to drop out of the band, Ryusuke brings Koyuki and his classmate Saku (drums) in to complete the band. When Chiba suggests the name Beck after Ryusuke’s dog, it feels like everything is falling into place. Now they just need to find the right sound and catch the right break to find their dreams.
Beck is a series that excels in many areas. While extremely slow moving, the story is interesting, especially since they take their time to really explore the inner workings of the music scene. Unlike many music based stories, Beck does not tend to spend a lot of time with people having to find their love of music or their motivation for playing. Except for Koyuki, that is instilled already when it starts, and Koyuki follows pretty quickly. Instead, they look at all the unglamorous aspects of being an unknown musician: playing in seedy establishments to small crowds of uninterested people, the small payoffs and general lack of funds, the obsession needed to continue moving forward, the complications that can arise if you anger the wrong insider, and of course, all the infighting that comes along with all of this. What this does is give Beck a perspective that most other titles do not have.
The meat of the plot, though, deals with the coming-of-age for Koyuki. As stated above, when this series starts, Koyuki is a normal, introverted, angsty young teen. This series takes place over the course of roughly two years, and by the end, Koyuki is a confident, young man who is not afraid to take charge in situations that demand it. And it is not a change that happens suddenly; this is a character growth that the creators use all twenty-six episodes to full effect to build, and it comes off well. His reactions at every point along the way are very believable, and Beck is stronger for it.
Koyuki has two influences that cause this growth. The first, of course, is his friendship with Ryusuke and interaction with the band. The second, though, has just as much of an effect if not more: his relationship with Maho. While Koyuki has a childhood crush on Izumi, it is quickly established that Maho is the real love interest. Though she is a bit of a bitch initially, she opens up to Koyuki in a hurry when she figures out that he is not “just like every other guy.” His kindness makes her respond in the same way. And when she discovers his singing voice, she sets out to bring the rock star out of him.
Though interested in playing the guitar, he is at first insecure about his abilities. Maho gets him through his first public performance at a local festival by offering to be a last second singing replacement for a band Koyuki was playing with when the first singer gets too drunk to play. Her presence on stage relaxes Koyuki, and once the performance starts, he is able to get through with no issues. She continues to be his muse by showing to each gig for Beck, and making sure Koyuki knows how well he did during it.
All this help brings them closer together, and the potential for their relationship is solidified during a really beautiful scene of the two taking a late night swim and singing Moon on the Water together. While nothing may ‘happen’ then between them, the singing does more than any physicality could. Maho is the first girl to pay any real attention to Koyuki, and while he is inexperienced in the area, that attention brings him farther out of his shell than the band would have by itself.
This, of course, is not to say that everything is roses for them. Being young teens, there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and any petty jealousy that could crop up. Maho is continually insecure about Koyuki’s friendship with Izumi, and later Hiromi Masuoka, a new classmate at his high school; for his part, Koyuki worries about her classmate, Yoshito Morozumi, a budding actor and teen idol who is openly plying for Maho’s affections.
Though at times, I wanted to reach into the screen to smack the two of them for being idiots, these hiccups in their budding relationship offer more chances for Koyuki to learn that life is not always perfect, and the important lesson of ‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger.’ Considering that Maho has the same issues with Koyuki’s friends just shows that under her tough shell, she has the same insecurities. She is just able to hide them better. All in all, the coming-of-age aspect in this title was really well done and adds a level of depth that is missing from many titles.
Of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning the actual music. The success of any music related title really rests on the quality of the music, and this is where Beck really excels. There is some truly fantastic music in this series. The band itself, along with many bands they go see, tends towards hard rock and punk, but there are plenty of other types of music sprinkled throughout. In fact, one of the best pieces is when Ryusuke jams with an old, blues guitarist. And Beck’s final performance at the Grateful Sound festival just rocks from beginning to end.
Most of the music is in English, even on the Japanese track. For the dub, Funimation rerecorded the vocals with the English VAs to clean up the language a little bit. However, both versions still sound roughly the same, as the English vocalists kept the same mannerisms of their Japanese counterparts, and even in some cases sound almost identical. Unfortunately, due to copyright issues, Funimation was unable to release a soundtrack with the dub versions of the music, which is a shame since they did a really good job with them. Overall, I prefer the dub versions, but the sub versions are just as good if you don’t mind some parts with broken English.
Despite all of this, there were still some areas where Beck tended to drag for me. For the most part, I was uninterested in the various subplots, and there was one part that went unexplained that really stood out to me. For starters, it is hinted early on that Ryusuke has a dark past, and that past is intimately tied up with his dog, Beck, and the excellent, bullet-ridden guitar he calls Prudence. This past rears its ugly head late in the series and is the final obstacle to the band’s potential success, but I really found it unnecessary. I also did not care for the bullying subplot that Koyuki goes through, even though the ultimate outcome was to rally the band around him and give him a greater sense of belonging.
The part that stands out to me, though, actually concerns Maho. When Koyuki first meets her, she is singing in her own gig, and it is something she does regularly. On top of that it is intimated that besides having a beautiful voice, she is also an excellent songwriter. Yet, when Koyuki suggests that she try to push for her own musical career, she shoots him down. While there is a suggestion that she would rather to go to film school, it just felt that there was a deeper issue at work, especially the way that she reacts the second time he mentions it. She almost seems more depressed than angry that he keeps bringing it up. However, then it is dropped, and we never find out what that reason might be. While I imagine this might get explored in the manga, it was a bit perturbing for it to be brought up in the anime if nothing was going to come of it. Then again, maybe I am reading too much into it.
Despite having these problems, though, none of it ruins the series in anyway. While they did not add anything for me, they also did not actively take anything away from it either. Even my issues with Maho’s reluctance to sing ultimately became a minor issue. The rest of the plot more than makes up for it.
Blessed with a really good story and an excellent soundtrack, Beck is one of the better series I have seen this year. Though some of the subplot elements do not work that well, they do not do anything to take away from the overall product either. The very slow pacing and the focus on hard rock may turn off some viewers, but those not bothered by these facts would do well to check this one out. Highly recommended.
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,"A Life on the Road" Music Video, "A Day in the Life" Director Commentary, "With a Little Help From My Friends" Cast and Director Commentary, "We Can Work It Out" Music Commentary.
Magnavox 37MF337B 37” LCD HDTV, Memorex MVD2042 Progressive Scan w/ DD/DTS (Component Connection), Durabrand HT3916 5.1 Surround Sound System