First Look Fair—Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad

It’s perhaps a measure of how caught up in the Now that I’ve gotten as a blogger when I say that Beck (2004-2005) is the oldest anime I’ve watched in a while. It’s also one of the most fascinating and frustrating too, at least so far; it’s one of those shows that is at once low-key and ambitious, quietly doing something different than everyone else without drawing attention to itself.

Half the reason why many complain about Beck‘s slowness, I’m convinced, is that it has not one iota of background soundtrack music. The only music is that being played or sung by the characters themselves. It is, in other words, scored much more like real life, lending the show a much more naturalistic feel and pace that is very rare in contemporary anime. (Or contemporary popular entertainment, period.) It also calls attention to the actual music the bands and singers are singing, of course, which is fitting for a show that is genuinely centered around the process and the difficulties of making music. If K-ON is more centered around the girls themselves, the characters who just happen to play in a band—Beck is about musicianship itself.

The slowness of Koyuki’s learning of guitar, of a whole year passing since his meeting of Ryusuke and ups and downs therein, is all too believable. The show is not in a rush to get to the rock star glory, of playing live concerts in front of huge cheering audiences instantly smitten by their genius abilities. They are talented, but not brilliant; they have to practice hard like everyone else. Yet, the joy of playing in a band is conveyed so well; it reminded me of the state that I fell in when I played in church bands in my younger years, that almost trance-like state of mind that is both concentrated and free, especially when things simply ‘click’ and everyone plays in time and in tune. That it doesn’t happen all the time makes it all that more believable.

In the first seven episodes, the songs themselves are not particularly special. Save for one surprisingly emotional duet of “Moon on the Water,” which even more surprisingly was as good in the English dub as in the original Japanese recording—more on that in a moment—the songs are not particularly catchy to my ears. This too, for some reason, seems OK, even though the show is perhaps the most explicitly music-focused of anime. Not every band is the Beatles or the Stones or even Oasis, which plays in the trailer of the upcoming live-action movie of Beck. There was always a disjoint between the quality of a lot of the songs and performances in K-ON and the way the girls often behaved and the time they seemed to spend practicing. That’s OK, given the goal and the point of that production. The good-but-not-great-yet quality of the music fits this production because development and growth are the point of the story.

A discussion of Beck can’t ignore the Engrish dialogue. There are copious amounts of it, in every episode, mainly because Ryusuke and his sister Maho speak English constantly, having been raised in the United States. Here an original Japanese audio + subtitles fan faces a problem: the point of preferring the original audio is to preserve the integrity and original acting as intended by the creators. (In this case, too, that includes the recorded songs.) However, in this case, the characters are supposed to be fluent in English; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be speaking it to each other as a matter of daily routine. The actors’ lack of fluency thus grates, and the same goes for English language songs (though “Moon on the Water” is performed well). Because of its constancy the Engrish began to become a distraction, to the point where I would occasionally switch to the dub on the DVD to hear more natural English being spoken. Not all episodes have a lot of it, and in those cases, I left it on the Japanese audio; I suppose this is primarily a problem for those whom English is their first language and are thus more sensitive to it. It may also be a marker that even in Japan, the world of rock is still one deeply associated with America and Britain and that the measure of coolness is still one with an American/British yardstick. (See the groupies fawn over Ryusuke’s New York roots; hear the OP song “Hit in the USA,” with the chorus singing: “I was made to hit in America…”)

Some may feel that the Engrish adds to the charm, which might be the case if the scenes and the songs weren’t meant to be taken so seriously. It may just be a personal prejudice at work, I confess; in my perfect production, however, I’d keep the Japanese audio for Japanese dialogue and perhaps use accented-but-fluent English speakers for the rest.

I understand that the rest of Beck will tell the story of the rise of the band, which has just gotten started by the end of disc 1, and the ups and downs that learning to be a working group of musicians will entail. (I look forward to the record company shenanigans.) Given how honest the show is trying to be, it’s interesting how no instrument companies thought to put product placement in the show, in the manner done in K-ON!: we get the pastiche names instead. I realize this show came out a while ago, before Fender and Gibson perhaps thought of anime product placement as a profitable venture (has Pizza Hut paved the way?), but that is a shame. This show, more than either K-ON! or Nodame Cantabile, manages to capture the spirit of real musicianship in a forthright, even raw, way. It really helps to show just what leads people to pick up a guitar or a bass or a drumstick and starting rocking and rolling, screaming and swaying and singing a song.

I wonder what, of course, this Beck thinks of this show? Someone should ask him.

8 thoughts on “First Look Fair—Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad”

  1. Coincidentally, I’ve just started Beck myself. I love Engrish (and especially Engrish swearing), so the original Japanese entertained me for a while, but I switched to the English dub starting with ep9 and haven’t looked back since. The English dub is undoubtedly superior.

    I’m on ep12, and the show is pretty solid so far, though it’s starting to go in a direction I am not sure I’ll like all too much. We’ll see what happens.

  2. The Engrish never turned me off but it did ruin what ever mood the show was trying to set by being laughably bad.
    I will forever remember Beck as the first manga I started to purchase volume by volume, them my house was flooded and it was lost.

  3. I’m around halfway through the series and liking it a lot (my viewing is on hiatus somewhat until I get the rest of the discs…hell, I might start again next month). The realism is I think what sets it apart from the more recent K-On – superficially they’re similar, but Beck resonates more in that I can relate more directly to it, and provides more than just laughs. Speaking from direct experience here, learning a musical instrument take A LOT of time and weariness-inducing effort, and this captures that very effectively.

    The Engrish is a bit distracting for me though, since it’s my first language and as a result the inaccuracies are blindingly obvious to me. Apart from that minor issue (it’s minor of course to the intended audience of Japanese speakers, for whom the Engrish is good enough for the situation) I think this is one of the great underrated anime dramas.

    Well spotted on the complete lack of BGM – I never noticed it at the time, but it certainly explains the extra element of realism that I couldn’t put my finger on.

    Have you read the one-shot manga ‘Under The Bridge’ BTW? It’s written by Beck’s manga-ka while he was working on the original story, and tells the story of how he got to meet the RHCPs and how their music influenced his work. It adds a bit of background that’s kinda interesting.

  4. Actually, there’s no “R” sound in Japanese either. So “Engrish” is wrong. It’s more like between “L” and “R”. So, Japanese doesn’t have L and R, and English doesn’t have this Japanese consonant、ら. The problem of beginners of Japanese language student, especially Anglophones, pronounce ら in “R” accent. But as they advance their language skill, this will fade way.

    Beck’s seiyuus are more realistic. Seiyuu usually inflates their acting for anime. But Beck’s seiyuus speak closer to ordinary people. Not as bad as recent Miyazaki’s films, but I didn’t feel it’s completely 2-D. I got a same feel from Genshiken too, so I bailed out.

    What about American actors? Are actors in Hollywood film talking differently from ordinary Americans? I can’t really tell since I’m not a native-speaker of American. To me, they all talk the same. While I can tell a huge gap between seiyuu and ordinary folks, for example, Morita Masakazu talks very different from ordinary Japanese folks even for the interviews.

  5. Aerojohn: that’s right! I think with live action it’s easier though—you get to see the instruments themselves in action after all.

    Shinmaru: it’s really interesting what this sub/dub controversy has done to my usual prejudices and opinions, hasn’t it? Well, I hope the change in direction doesn’t bother me when I get to it.

    Bonehimer: that’s the thing. Engrish is fine in comedy situations, but not so much when we are supposed to take a scene seriously. I will have to check out the manga at some point, too. It seems the manga-ka is very well versed in music overall.

    Martin: as a fellow occasional musician I can also report the pain and the slowness depicted is real. I only just heard about the one shot, and well, that would certainly explain quite a bit about why the story seems so knowledgeable and believable about musicianship. It was written by a real music fan!

    M La Moe: you do raise a good point there with the pronunciation. “Engrish” has become just the way people refer to poorly pronounced English by Asians and I guess it is based on a bit of a stereotype in the end. The seiyuus are trying their best, so I don’t blame them; I’m coming from the perspective of a gaijin and a native speaker so it’s inevitably going to be different.

    American acting was once much more distinct from the way ordinary people talked (see films from before the 1970s), but has gotten much more “naturalistic” since then, especially in dramas. In comedies of course people are allowed to be exaggerated, but in a lot of movies where the acting is particularly praised, the goal is to be as believable as possible.

    1. Thank you for the answer. A bit by bit, I’m educating myself about American through AnimeDiet. For instance, I had no idea of the definition of “loser” of American youth until I read Wintermuted’s article. So, AD is good to learn American culture.

      I went to the website. Very funny! A lot of typo miss! English is hard, while Spanish pronounces as it’s written. But I think it will be simplified since Latinos will be having more influence on America. Japanese in turn was simplified by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. So, it’s hard for me to read and listen to pre-war Japanese. But the good side is anybody can communicate, even the Emperor speaks the same way now. I see, the Hollywood actors are more “naturalistic” now. Yeah, when I watched Audrey Hepburn films, I felt it was more like stage-acting rather than screen-acting.

      I knew you’re a novelist, but didn’t know you’re a musician as well. Then, we have more in common. Let’s talk about music if you have time. Email me, skype me, text me or call me.

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