Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, vol. 1 is like a fantasy I had in junior high, but instead of just sitting around and wishing, the main character here gets to go out and live it. Fourteen-year-old pop music fan Koyuki is at that crucial stage of adolescence where he becomes aware that his life is changing. His childhood is over, and he doesn't know what kind of man he is going to be. He's decided that where he is at is boring, and that he wants to live the kind of life worth writing an autobiography about.
On the way home from school, he rescues a goofy, patchwork dog from a bunch of mean kids. The dog's name is Beck, and metaphorically, he's probably a living, breathing example of where Koyuki is at in life. One animal, multiple pieces, multiple options for where he can go. It's also a little dangerous. Koyuki might have saved Beck, but the dog bites him as reward.
More important, though, is Beck's owner, a laconic rock guitarist named Ryusuke. He's a bit of a legend in the neighborhood, having spent so much time in America he speaks better English than Japanese. It's also rumored that he knew the lead guitarist of a hot American band called Dying Breed. The two boys become friends, and Ryusuke starts acting as a kind of mentor to Koyuki, introducing him to new tunes and giving him a guitar.
Rock 'n' roll? Adolescence? Sign me up.
Pretty soon, Koyuki is going to clubs, checking out music, and getting closer to his old friend Izumi, whom he has a crush on. She is a huge Dying Breed fan and she's right there with Koyuki when this is all happening. It's hard to tell if she's aware of her pal's crush or not, and she definitely has a bit of a fascination with Ryusuke. As music fans, they have a connection that Koyuki can only try to catch up with. He's got a lot of work to do, too. When Izumi notes that a temporary swimming coach at her school likes British music, she actually has to explain to Koyuki who and what that means. The boy is way, way behind.
This whole thing obviously starts Koyuki on his path of self-discovery. The club they go to when they first see Ryusuke play is appropriately called Remedy (we're in a world of symbols!), and in his early forays into this new peer group, the owner tells him that no one around there is judged, they all get to do their thing and be left alone. Redefining oneself isn't easy, so there will be bumps in that road. These will be both social--Koyuki not being able to hang with the crowd, losing his guitar, etc.--and interpersonal. Beyond the possible connection between Izumi and Ryusuke, something is also developing between Koyuki and Ryusuke's little sister, Moha. Given that he's our hero, I would assume at some point Koyuki is going to have to choose between them.
And you know, I'm hooked enough into the story now to want to find out. My plot summary is a little serious, but Beck is actually fun and, when it comes down to it, pretty cool. The animation is quite good (though episode 3 dips in quality), and the designs are phenomenal. All of the environments--the neighborhoods, the schools, the clubs--are detailed and believable looking. The T-shirts the characters wear are clever riffs on standard rock gear, like the Velvet Underground banana being connected to a different band name or logos evocative of real groups, like Koyuki's "Pixis" and "Echo Bunnyman" shirts. Also, all of the bands in the story have meticulously researched equipment. I would guess more than one music/tech geek has worked on this show.
There are actually a lot of bands in Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, and the biggest surprise is that they are all really good. Let's be honest, who expected that? Fake rock groups in movies and TV usually suck. Thankfully, the soundtrack is full of numbers by real Japanese bands, and the actual animation in the performance sequences is excellent. I particularly like a repeated scene that Koyuki sees in his head where he stands behind Ryusuke and watches him shred, the audience out in front, rendered in shifting colors and loose lines. I would guess that a lot of the performance footage is actually rotoscoped to make it look authentic.
Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, vol. 1 has the first five episodes of the series. You can watch them all at once or pick and choose, up to you. If I had one complaint, it's that maybe the pacing is a wee bit slow, and I'd like to have been deeper in the series by now. Ryusuke is building his perfect band, and they aren't together yet at the close of this DVD (nor has Koyuki joined them, something we'd know was going to happen even if the extra features didn't spoil it). Apparently there will be 26 episodes in all (Funimation will probably drop down to four episodes for some volumes), so we should be getting a fairly complicated story here, but I want to get right to it right now!
All five episodes on Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, vol. 1 are presented at 4:3, full frame. The animation looks great, the colors pop, and I saw no problems with the transfer to speak of.
Funimation gives us three mixes to choose from. The original Japanese is in 2.0 (with English subtitles), and the new English dub is in 5.1 and 2.0. I watched about half the episodes in Japanese and half of them in English, and I prefer the Japanese. It's basically for all the same reasons I normally tend to gravitate to the original language track. The casting is better, tonally the voices sound more right on. Particularly in this, an anime about young people, the English voices sound more like adults trying to sound young. The Japanese is more natural.
One thing that's interesting is that the songs in the anime were originally recorded in English, so the music is the same on either soundtrack. The subtitles transcribe the lyrics accurately, keeping all of the grammatical inconsistencies one can expect from singers performing in something other than their native tongue, and this can be kind of funny.
My favorite extra included in the Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, vol. 1 DVD package is a guitar pick with the Beck logo on it. It's mounted inside the case with a little bit of rubber cement. Ingenious!
The standard anime bonus of being able to watch the opening and closing songs without any credits or other text is included, and when you watch the episodes, you can change the credits around with your angle button. Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, vol. 1 is one of the few shows where I would actually do this, because for once I like the songs and the designs for both credits sequences are great, done like music videos. The opening number features the Chop Squad singing along to one of their future hits, and the closing is a montage of images of rock icons.
There is an additional video in the bonus section featuring a Chop Squad song. I would assume it's from later in the series, as the whole band is together (the semi-spoiler mentioned in the body of the review). It's a punky number, and a cool video.
Episode 3 has an audio commentary by the American directors of the English version. It's jokey and light, though interesting when they discuss the special challenges of dealing with dubbing a show full of not just English music, but multiple instances of American tourists and English spoken dialogue.
Funimation rounds the disc out with trailers for other anime. You also get a paper insert advertising the manga series of the same name Beck was adapted from, published in the U.S. by Tokyopop.
Highly Recommended. I wasn't entirely sure what I was getting into with Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, vol. 1, but I was glad I had gone for it by the time it was done. Essentially a coming-of-age story set amongst the underground world of nightclubs and struggling bands, it's an excellently designed anime series that lets us peek in on a specific scene, portraying it in such a way that it feels both special and authentic. The depth of research the animators must have put into getting the music stuff just right is all on the screen, and the music itself is actually quite good. Rather than just being filler between rock numbers, though, the main story is also compelling, as a boy struggles to find himself and deal with the emotional pull of young love. Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is a good-looking, well-crafted serial. Can you dig it? Are you down? You'd better hope so!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.