BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad/ dir. Osamu Kobayashi/ 2004-2005 (26 episodes)
I started the Art of the Cartoon blog this past January. When it first debuted, my marquee header was a little different, and my good friend and running partner, Angel, thought the anime character on my marquee was Koyuki, the main character from BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad (It was actually Naota from FLCL, but anyway).
After one of our runs, she played the opening song from the series on her car stereo and went off on what a good series BECK was. She mentioned it was about starting a rock band and how they got through struggles. This caught my attention and I was intrigued by what kind of series about a rock band would impress her.
A month later I saw BECK the complete series on sale at Fry’s Electronics. I was tempted, but I did not pick it up (money’s tight y’know). Over the next couple of weeks, I kept going back to Fry’s and staring at that set (there was only one left) wondering if I should pick it up before it was too late. It wasn’t until after my birthday, and a break from school that I finally decided to pick up BECK, and see what the fuss my homegirl was talking about.
So how was it?
Flawed. Actually, there were a LOT of flaws. HOWEVER, when a cartoon series is so powerful that it makes me do this:
You know that something went immensely right. In fact, watching BECK reinforced the reasons why I decided to get into the field of animation in the first place. Hit the jump for the rest of the review…
BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad centers around a boy named Yukio “Koyuki” Tanaka and his journey to break away from his dull/ boring life. One day he saves an odd-looking dog named Beck whose owner, Ryusuke Minami, happens to be an emerging guitarist. Ryusuke influences Koyuki to start playing guitar and eventually, along with others, start a band named BECK. The series follows not only Koyuki and his growing pains (trouble in school, love interests, etc…) but also the trials and tribulations of this up and coming band BECK.
No end of the world scenarios here. No good vs evil. No cutesy animal characters. No special powers. No huge fight scenes. Just straightforward real-life drama. A concept that most U.S. film animation studios stay away from like the plague. And it’s a shame because I would choose BECK over any dramatic “live-action” series in a heartbeat (BTW, Lost doesn’t count, I think of that more as sci-fi mystery as opposed to straight drama.)
But first let me quickly go over the many flaws that I saw when watching BECK. The character designs are very simplistic, maybe even too simplistic. The main cast of characters are good, especially Maho, but other supporting and ancillary characters were bland. It can be argued that this was done for dramatic purposes, but I’ve seen drama animes with better designs. On par with that, the animation for this series is very inconsistent. At times its okay to look at, its never really outstanding though, and there are times when the animation is way off. Also, due to the story being about real-life, the story moves along at really, REALLY slow pace (like real life). There are times when you know that Koyuki will eventually grow a backbone, but you get frustrated because the progression is so painstakingly slow. Lastly, the story’s climax and resolution happens very suddenly, and there are plenty of unanswered questions.
Like I stated before, there are a LOT of flaws. However the things they do get right, they nail exactly on the head. For starters, this is series about a rock band, so it better as hell have good music, and BECK delivers a great soundtrack. My homegirl also told me that watching this series made her want to play guitar and I can see why. Here’s the great thing though, yes, the soundtrack focuses on rock, but they also do a good job on incorporating how other genres impact the rock scene. The blues, R&B, jazz, and even a little hip-hop is thrown in for good measure (even though I have to note that the antagonist toward the end is a hip-hop type producer with a thug bodyguard, can we please get past the hip-hop thug stereotype… thank you!) I also think BECK does an outstanding job of conveying the struggles and trials of a musical act trying to break out.
From there, we get to the real meat of what made this a great series. The character depth was awesome. By seeing them struggle, triumph, then struggle again you get a sense of the drive that each character, especially Koyuki the main character, has gained through experiences in life and in the band. By the end of the series, I cared about what happens to each and every member of BECK. I rooted for them to make it because I knew them and I grew with them.
The most poignant moments, and the ones that moved me the most, were the ones that involved Koyuki and Maho’s on again off again romantic relationship. I don’t usually get all emotional about couples on screen, but its a testament to the power of the series when I went off into my past, and went all gaga over a lost love. Honestly, Koyuki and Maho had the best chemistry I have seen since Wall-E and Eve. In fact, in my opinion, even the characters from oscar nominated Benjamin Button, and the two main characters from the oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire don’t come close to matching the emotional attachment I had to Maho and Koyuki.
Which brings me to my final point. All this could’ve never been achieved as a “live” series. Why? Because you get a true essence of a character in animation, since all you see is the abstract. When using live actors, many times I’ll start thinking “hey (insert actor/ actresses’ name) is doing pretty well,” and then the essence of the character is lost because the grittiness of a real life person/ real life situation gets in the way. For a cartoon/ animation, since its abstract, you focus on the essence not the form, and you can more easily project your life, your emotions onto the screen and into the characters. That’s why Wall-E worked so well, and that’s what made BECK an unforgettable series… despite all its flaws.
PS: The final scenes of the series is in Seattle. The gig and scene that ends the series is at one of my favorite places, the Crocodile Cafe.
One last note: when BECK was aired in the Philippines, it was dubbed in Tagalog. If anyone can find me a copy of that I would be forever in your debt.