[Excerpted from the December 2007 Issue of Otaku USA magazine.]
Do you know what they call people who own hundreds of anime DVDs and can talk in obsessive details about them?
Do you know what they call people who own hundreds of music CDs and can talk in obsessive detail about those?
In that sense, Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is a show about relatively normal people doing normal things that normal, non-otaku viewers—that is to say “people with lives”—can empathize with and enjoy. At first glance, the setup seems awfully familiar. Yukio, whose nickname is “Koyuki” so everyone knows he’s not going to commit seppuku following a failed coup on the government a la Chushingura, is a run-of-the-mill 14-year-old male underachiever—let’s not take the easy way out and say “he’s a loser, baby”—who’s in love with his childhood friend Izumi, the smartest and prettiest girl in school. Koyuki’s chance encounter with a dog named Beck (who looks like he’s been stitched together from the parts of several other dogs by the greatest unlicensed dog surgeon of them all) leads him to the dog’s owner: Ryusuke, your typical 16-year-old bad boy whose long hair, “whatever” attitude, and ability to play guitar prove just as irresistible to women in Japan as they do here. Ryusuke’s love for American rock and roll music inspires Koyuki to learn to play guitar himself so that he, too, can score with schoolgirls … and it works, sort of. Ryusuke’s younger sister Maho, when combined with Izumi, provides all the necessary vertices for the obligatory love triangle that is required by law to exist in all teen angst shonen romances.
The series is directed by veteran anime director Osamu Kobayashi, who in addition to helming the recent anime adaptation of Paradise Kiss (another show for normal people), brought us Kimagure Orange Road, a super-duper-hyper-mega-ultra favorite of anime fans from decades past that is now forgotten just like all those other lame shonen romance shows are or will be. Thankfully, the romantic element to Beck‘s story isn’t plagued by contrivances to keep progression at a stalemate, and the love story is just a supporting element to the core of the series: the struggle by the characters to get the big break they’ve been hoping for. That means making it big in the USA, and to accomplish this goal Ryusuke is aspiring to put together the ultimate band. Never mind the fact that he doesn’t yet have a name for the band, he needs a drummer, guitarists, exceptional vocalists (alas, Heino was unavailable), and a bass player: “the mother, the father, the serpent, the priest / The foreman, the woman, the widow, the beast.” It’s not exactly any sort of mystery how this will play out given the name of the series and the opening credits sequence, but you don’t just put a band together overnight. The development of the characters drives the plot developments in Beck, and after the first five episodes of Volume 1, Koyuki’s not quite ready to take center stage just yet.
For a series so centrally focused on aspiring rock musicians, everyone’s a bunch of posers since they don’t pay proper respect to the daddy of rock and roll himself, the late Wesley Willis. Despite defeating Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man (but not Birdman), he isn’t present during the end credits, which feature a bunch of nobodies like Freddy Mercury and Kurt Cobain instead. The music is what makes or breaks a show like this, and the soundtrack covers a wide range of all sorts of rock, including classic—”classic rock” is a euphemism for “oldies”—British, Swedish, and yes, Japanese. The songs may be varied, but you’d better get used to liking them now since you’ll be hearing them again and again, though with 26 episodes in all, it doesn’t reach the same levels of irritation as hearing “Planet Dance” for 50 episodes of Macross 7.
Normally, being able to hear the songs and the voices in a series so centered on sound would make the anime the definitive experience, but I am not a normal person. Other than what I happen to hear while watching anime, television, or movies, I don’t listen to music at all. What’s more, I know squat about all this lovey-dovey “ANGST!” junk. Does this stuff really happen to people? Do people actually feel like these characters do in real life? Otaku know not of such things. Why then, would someone like me be a fan of Beck at all? In addition to the slew of musical references to American bands from the 90s and before, the original Beck manga by Harold Sakuishi was chock full of references to professional wrestling. “”Look in the background, it’s Bob Sapp! Keep your energy high with his Beast Power Rap!” The anime thus far removes nearly all of these references save a school history lesson about Karl Gotch. Karl is not to be confused with Frank A. Gotch, who does NOT have a Memorial Collar named after him on account of that dastardly ICW-ICWA Texarkana Television Champion, “Sweet ‘n’ Sour” Larry Sweeney. As such, I greatly prefer the Beck manga over the anime adaptation, and even if you don’t care about wrestling yourself, the Beck anime only covers about 13 volumes of the manga, which is at 30 volumes and counting.
One thing that the anime has over even the manga is the unintentionally hilarious use of incredibly broken English. Having lived in America for some time, Ryusuke, Maho, and a few others are all supposed to speak fluent English, but in the Japanese audio track “Engrish” is a more fitting term. Profanity-laced outbursts from people who sound like they have marbles in their mouth aren’t threatening, they’re just plain goofy. A dejected Koyuki sums it up: “They don’t teach English properly in Japan, is what I feel.” The English dub doesn’t suffer from these diction problems, but the script differs quite a bit from the original since most of the Japanese cultural references were removed, which is unfortunate but inevitable.
For Volume 1, Funimation has released both a regular edition as well as a limited edition box shaped like an amp. In case you decide that you too wish to have girls swooning over your brooding pathos but don’t feel like bloodying up your fingertips, both come with a special Beck guitar pick. If you’re an anime otaku you might not connect emotionally with what’s going on, but even though hard rock doesn’t “save the space” in this series, Beck is worth your time. True, American anime fandom in the 1980s grew up right alongside the punks, skaters, and other social misfits, but that was in decades past. How interesting it is to see that after all this time, a show with “mainstream appeal” such as Beck is one where the main character is wearing a Johnny Ramone shirt in the credits.
Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is available now from Funimation.