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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.

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