When I was lucky enough to review the first volume of the BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad television anime last summer, I wrote about how the series was the best kind of coming-of-age storytelling in that it served as a sort of wish fulfillment for a very specific segment of the audience: the music nerd with dreams of being a part of what he or she loves. Now that I have had the chance to peruse all twenty-six episodes on the six DVDs of BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad - The Complete Series, I can confirm that my initial assessment of the series was right...and then some.
BECK is essentially the story of Koyuki, a shy Japanese 9th-grader who loves the American band Dying Breed and finds solace in their music. One day, he happens to save a strange-looking patchwork dog from a bunch of mean kids, and by happy coincidence, it turns out that the canine's owner is Ryusuke, a guitarist and childhood friend of the Dying Breed axeman Eddy Lee. Though a moody artist type, Ryusuke befriends the boy and encourages him to take his love of music to the next level, giving him a guitar and the incentive to learn to play it. Koyuki enlists the help of the pervy old man Mr. Saitou and starts taking both guitar and swimming lessons from him, and excelling in one discipline leads to improvement in the other. Koyuki gets gutsier and more proficient, and pretty soon, the spark Ryusuke saw in him starts to reveal itself to other people. As Ryusuke's new band, BECK (named for the patchwork dog) begins to take shape, Koyuki eventually joins as a second guitarist and vocalist, as does his school chum, Saku, a drum prodigy. Success is sure to follow.
Not that it's an easy climb to the top for Koyuki. Though wish-fulfillment, BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is still a drama, and ostensibly a high-school drama at that. Koyuki still has to contend with bullies, bad jobs, and a crush or two. At the start of the series, he's got feelings for his classmate Izumi, but his head is quickly turned by Ryusuke's outgoing younger sister, Maho. For the first half of the series, Koyuki is torn between his feelings for the two, and also unsure how either feels about him. Later, he also has the temptation of groupies, including the very nice fan, Hiromi, who goes to his school and learns to be more confident in her chosen sport of gymnastics by watching Koyuki tackle his fear and whatever obstacle comes his way in his pursuit of music. Naturally, Koyuki is better at chasing that dream than he is at affairs of the heart, and for most of the series, it's up to the ladies to make the mature decisions he cannot. Both Izumi and Maho have other boys interested in them, and in Maho's case, he's a popular TV heartthrob, so he poses quite a challenge to Koyuki's ego. As with all the hurdles Koyuki must overcome, from dealing with the bullies to having success with BECK, the only real resolution is going to come when he at last takes charge.
Of course, all of the stuff with Koyuki and the ladies is your fairly run-of-the-mill adolescent drama, and the real draw of BECK is the musical element. Based on a manga by Harold Sakushi, the story for this anime comes with a built-in musical geekiness that fanatics like myself will truly appreciate. From Koyuki's amusingly altered T-shirts for bands like Frans (or is that Fran2, and meaning Franz Ferdinand?) and the Pixis (Pixies!) to the stories about the Beatles and the Stones to the prophetic dreams the guys have about a rock 'n' roll wasteland where they meet dead heroes like John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, and Kurt Cobain, musical trainspotters will have a blast picking out the references. Later in the series, when BECK performs at a huge outdoor festival, montages of the other acts play like a who's who of modern alternative music, and a slideshow of a trip to America includes quick glimpses of Joey Ramone, Iggy Pop, and more. Most surprising is BECK's triumphant cover of the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling" at their big concert. And, yes, that band name is dealt with. Though the name of a certain Mr. Hansen is never invoked outright, there is some problem with the BECK moniker in America, and the kids' U.S. label are the ones that dub them the Mongolian Chop Squad.
Deeper music industry machinations come along as Ryusuke must navigate his band through old rivalries and business-suit screw jobs. The guitarist from Ryusuke's previous band, Serial Mama, has formed a new foppish, Britpop-wannabe outfit that is in direct competition with BECK, and when Dying Breed publicly disses them in favor of giving Koyuki a guest-slot on their Japanese tour, their manager decides to make BECK persona non grata in Japan. Even worse, though, is Ryusuke's troubled past. Both his goofy dog and his bullet-riddled guitar came into his possession illegally when he was in New York, and when an R&B singer he used to know dies in an apparent suicide, the rumors that she was really murdered start to dredge up the old days. Though his weird dog is never really explained, the story of his guitar invokes old blues legends, and there is a nod to B.B. King and his infamous axe, Lucille. The show smartly draws a direct line between the boastful legends of early blues and the current gangsta mythology of rap, and both spell trouble for BECK.
The animation team approaches the actual music with the same attention to detail as the writers. The on-stage performances of the many bands look spectacular, employing rotoscoping to ensure that the musicians look like they are actually playing instead of just going through the motions of empty banging and strumming. The style and brands of the guitars are meticulously rendered, and there are even nods given to infamous rock venues of the past in the clubs where BECK works its way up. Not content with being merely pretty, however, real Japanese musicians were recruited to craft the tunes for the show, and so contributions from the Pillows, Meister, and, most prominently, the Beat Crusaders give the show a credible sounding music track. BECK itself is like a mash-up of mid-'90s rap-rock and more sensitive radio ballads like one would have expected from overly earnest American bands like Live. Personally, I wouldn't play the soundtrack album for the hell of it, but if you were happy to hear Lollapalooza was coming back, then you may feel otherwise.
Regardless of your opinion on the final musical product, getting the sound right was crucial. Fake studio bands wouldn't have cut it, they would have killed the series dead. Canned music would have completely destroyed the realistic tone of the anime. Sure, there are moments where Koyuki's luck is maybe too good to be true, and scenes like his triumphant performance with his heroes, Dying Breed, which just happens to be captured for a documentary film by a Jim Jarmusch-esque director, are fairly cliche rock movie story points, but the struggles of BECK in both business and as a conglomerate of personalities has a lot of true-to-life drama. I was particularly pleased with the bittersweet dip the show takes in the final handful of episodes, where the group's biggest victory starts to feel like their most crushing defeat. This isn't a story about lazy dreamers hitting the lottery, but a full-on narrative about the passion and drive it takes to create art.
The animation in BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is of a consistently excellent quality. Like most TV shows, some episodes look better than others, with the director saving the best stuff for the most important entries. As far as fully realized characters and a true sense of place are concerned, the show hits it every time. From a narrative standpoint, the show is also well structured and only occasionally falters. I would say the biggest storytelling flaw is an often bizarre sense of pacing within individual episodes. Certain scenes are played way too slow, with long pauses and an agonizing inability to just get on with it. That said, by disc 4, I was fully addicted, and I ended up watching the last sixteen episodes all in one go. The final six, in particular, with BECK trying to prove they can truly rock at the Greatful Music Festival, not only pushes the viewer from one installment to the next with well-handled cliffhangers, but the break between DVD 5 and 6 will most assuredly have you scrambling to the box to get out the next disc.
From basic slice-of-life and the identity struggles of adolescence to the bigger issues of art, integrity, and how both are practically anathema to big business, BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad - The Complete Series covers a lot of ground for an animated television show. Yet, the Japanese series manages to balance them all and even make them work in concert with one another, funneling into the overall narrative to make a single complete story. The transformation of one boy from child to man, from wannabe to artist, is part and parcel to the story of a band coming together to find their way in the shark-infested waters of the music industry. Maintaining one's love of a good melody or guitar riff is no different and no less important than maintaining a sense of self, and Koyuki's happiness comes from never forgetting that.
The biggest plus in favor of the dub, however, is the finesse with which the English script writers adapted the script. Comparing the English vocal script to the English subtitles is like night and day. The subtitles are flat and basic, whereas the American adaptation has a lot of character and is far more conversational, including a liberal use of four-letter words that rings entirely true to the situation. Chiba would, indeed, be a foul-mouthed character, whereas Koyuki would be much more reserved. Even better, though, is how the kids talk about music. Their way of speaking will be familiar to rock fans everywhere. It's obsessive, hyperbolic, and wholly authentic.
The 5.1 mix is, of course, the best of all, and even the English 2.0 sounds slightly fresher than the Japanese 2.0. My one complaint would be the way the music ends up so much louder than the dialogue. I expect the volume to go up some when the bands kick into gear, but I felt the jump was too much and often ended up blasting me out.
An alternate subtitle track translates Japanese signs and writing for the viewer watching the American voiceover.