BECK

I can’t play a guitar if it’s not plastic with five buttons. I can’t sing at all. So, as a girl with zero musical talent, stories about rock bands, and musicals hold quite an appeal for me. It’s a medium I can never quite engage with the way some people can, so to watch that vicariously is fascinating to me.

|TV Tokyo|2004-2005|26 episodes|30 mins.|

 My first encounter with BECK took place years ago, before I even knew what it was. I caught brief bits of it in its initial Canadian airing on MuchMusic, our MTV equivalent.

Back then, I didn’t even know it was anime; to me, it was just that annoying cartoon show that came on in between my fixes of generic pop and rap-rock. I never paid it much heed, and had forgotten all about it until just now.

Also there was this for some reason.

I don’t know either, Internet.

BECK stars dorky, awkward 14-year-old Koyuki. He’s anything but a cool guy, and does in fact afraid of many things. One fine fucking day, he runs into a bunch of little hooligans being mean to a weird dog who resembles Frankenstein’s monster. Turns out this crime against nature belongs to one Ryuusuke Minami, a 16-year-old rock musician who inspires Koyuki to learn to play guitar.

Ryuusuke is an incredibly talented guitar player who’s just left a band and is looking to form one of his own. He lives with his grand(?)mother out at some dodgy fishing hole in a one room shack, being all talented and cool.

As the band comes together, more characters are added to the roster. Chiba is the lead vocalist, a scruffy lookin’, boisterous motherfucker with an afro and a giant boner for ramen. He raps for the majority of the songs, but thankfully it’s more Rage Against the Machine and less Limp Bizkit.

Taira plays bass, and is perhaps the least developed of BECK’s members. He’s blond, often plays shirtless. He’s apparently the oldest according to Wikipedia, and he’s been in the music scene for a while. Yep.

Saku’s on drums. He’s a very easygoing, cheerful guy and a transfer student at Koyuki’s school. He appears to suffer from Brock Syndrome.

Maho, Ryuusuke’s half-sister, isn’t in the band, but she’s quite a good singer in her own right and pals around with some famous young actors and musicians. She, like Ryuusuke, helps Koyuki come out of his shell.

Rounding out the main cast is Satou, a middle-aged fat guy who serves as Koyuki’s guitar instructor. And swimming instructor. And employer. He chews the fuck out of the scenery every chance he gets, but he’s such a loveable goofball his hamminess doesn’t get annoying.

The series charts Koyuki’s ascent from meek weirdo to rock-band-man-thing: learning to play, joining the eponymous band, named after the creepy dog, and their struggles to get noticed and make it big, while trying to escape the influence a big-shot music producer Ryuusuke somehow pissed off years ago. Sounds awesome, right?

RIGHT?

Well, the problem with that is it takes so fucking long for anything cool to happen to Koyuki. I understand that he’s a kid with no prior musical experience who only listened to pop idols before Ryuusuke kicked some rock n’ roll into him. However, a show about, in the immortal words of Harmonix, starting a band and rocking the world, it takes an inordinate amount of time for there to be any rocking.

Okay, Koyuki has to learn guitar before he can play, but it seems that there’s so many false starts where he’s almost ready but then something prevents it and then he was doing well in lessons but then something else happens so he can’t play for a while and blah blah blah blah. One fucking thing after another. It gets to be incredibly frustrating for the audience. We know Koyuki will be in BECK. It’s not a spoiler. It’s in the title sequence. Hell, it’s the goddamn title. Just join the fucking band already.

On the other hand, I’m not opposed to what happens in those early episodes, because it is pretty good stuff, but rather just to how long it takes. Sure, learning music can be difficult, but when you have only 26 episodes to tell the story of this band, it should not take 10 of them for the protagonist to actually join the fucking thing. I don’t mind a slow burn with a nice payoff, but in this case I think it’s just poor time management.

Another issue a lot of people seem to have with the show is Maho’s on-again, off-again flirtation/teasing/romance with Koyuki and its resolution, or lack thereof. In this case I’ll come to the show’s defense. This little subplot results in a lot of cute, sweet little moments and some nice comedy as well, such as one instance where Ryuusuke gives Koyuki a condom and pretty much implies, hey dude you should go fuck my sister. It’s cool. I hereby nominate Ryuusuke as the next Good Guy Greg.

You know you would.

On top of that, I think it’s rather true-to-life that there may not be a definite answer to will they or won’t they. Sometimes flirting is just that, sometimes is goes farther. Romance doesn’t always play by TV rules. It’s a nice touch.

Most of the rest of the series is excellent, and the pacing problem is fixed. It’s quite a fun ride for the most part, at times threatening to make my eyes rain. Certainly one of the better non-musical musical shows out there.

NOTE: For those of you who are of low intelligence, a TV series or film can have music in it without being a musical. A musical is where the characters burst into song in daily life, to tell the audience about their feelings or to move the story along, like Sweeny Todd. Something like Jack Black’s School of Rock is not a musical. There is music in it, but they only sing in context, like being in a band and/or performing. Not just because.

I got very invested in the show. I grew quite fond of all of these characters. I was really, really liking the way things were going, and I thought BECK had gone above and beyond in its last few episodes, so I was rather excited indeed for the finale.

WELL.

Not to give too much away, but I am disappoint. I had a pretty basic idea of what the last episode would entail, but to my surprise, everything I thought would comprise the finale happened rather quickly, with a few minutes to spare. I remember glancing at the clock in confusion. They’d arrived at a logical conclusion, and yet here we were. What else could possibly happen?

Turns out a whole lot of stuff, glossed over under the guise of Koyuki talking Maho through a slide show after the fact. Wat. Okay… And then as the credits start to roll for the last time, we go into the final BECK performance the audience will ever get to see. Only we don’t get to see it. We hear it, but they just cut back and forth between a still shot of the exterior of the venue and a few crowd reaction shots. Not one single solitary band member is seen playing one single solitary note. Fuck. YOU. That is so fucking cheap. It feels like not only did they run out of time, they’d realized they’d spent most of their animation budget on the used panties vending machine.

The manga, I’m told, follows BECK’s journey much farther than the anime does, though I would have been satisfied had they just cut the last five minutes or so. The slide show scene should have either been cut, either that or that material could have constituted a full second season.I can’t imagine reading BECK, though. For a story with music so integral to the plot, the characters, and the everything, I don’t think I could quite deal with there being just a printed page with no sound at all.

And the music for BECK is indeed excellent stuff. The openings, endings, the songs played by BECK themselves range from good to spectacular, for fans of J-Rock so long as you don’t mind some nonsensical English lyrics. The music comes in two flavors, the rap-rock stuff, like “Spice of Life”:

And the better, in my opinion, stuff with sung vocals:

“Face” (above) was the first time I felt BECK‘s  transcended the rap-rock stuff of Chiba’s songs, and then the really quite wonderful cover of The Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling”, which was regrettably cut from the North American broadcast and DVD releases due to rights issues.

BECK is absolutely chock full of references to rock music past and present. Jimi Hendrix, Queen, The Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the list goes on. One that made me particularly happy was the occasional cameo appearance by Japanese group The Pillows (best known for FLCL‘s theme song), playing essentially themselves.

That said, BECK’s Engrish is pretty atrocious. Ryuusuke and Maho have both apparently spent most of their lives living in New York City, but it sure as hell doesn’t sound that way. The Engrish isn’t bad in the songs, because you have music to back it up and the vocalists are usually rather good. In dialogue, not so much. Some majors American characters are indeed voiced by native English speakers, but many are Japanese actors stumbling through the lines. It does make sense for characters like Koyuki who have never left Japan or paid much attention to English in school, but don’t tell me Maho spent years living in America as a kid when her English sounds like this:

I mean, goddamn. Girl’s got a nice voice, the song sounds pretty, but fuck. The Engrish was so bad and often just plain hilariously wrong and there is so much of it, for a while there I considered switching to the dub. That’s like sacrilege to me, but I did get used to the broken English eventually.

Last thing to touch on, just briefly, is the animation. I’ve heard it being accused of being choppy, and while it’s certainly not the most pretty or fluid, it gets the job done. In fact, in the live performance scenes, it’s done so stylishly I can’t imagine it’s not done on purpose. So stop complaining.

So, if you like the music and you don’t mind a bit of a slow start and a disappointing final five minutes, BECK will not disappoint you. It’s hard to tell you all to go rush out and buy it right now, but for those of you who are the patient sort, go rush out and buy it right now. Funimation has discontinued the series on DVD for the foreseeable future, so if you would like a physical disc, now’s the time.

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