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Solid Shōnen: "Beck" Sustains Its High Note

by on January 28, 2008

Since the mid twentieth century, rock and roll has been the obsession of youth. But the musical road is a tough one to follow—I know, having followed it myself during my vibrant years—and it leads to more failures than successes. As far as realism—or even a vague association to realism—goes, I’ve seen few stories that catalog the problems of band life quite as well as Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad. This anime series, adapted from a popular Japanese Shōnen Magazine story, is a faithful and enjoyable one.

Enter Comic Book Guy’s uglier cousin: Guitar Store Bloke

It’s the tale of a young band (“Beck” in Japan and later “Mongolian Chop Squad” in the States) with the narrative centering on the guitarist and singer Koyuki as he makes his journey from shy schoolboy to guitarist in a cutting-edge rock band. Chapter fifteen, which opens Volume 4, has a distinct Shōnen ambiance: Yes, it’s “Back to School” as Koyuki continues his education at a new establishment, and exams are on his mind. It’s an enjoyable and gently paced opener most notable for a great little section at the end set in a guitar shop. Comic and cartoon fans who find The Simpsons‘ “Comic Book Guy” an accurate avatar will understand when I call the owner of the music store an avatar for virtually all music store owners I’ve met: intimidating, smug and practically brilliant at their chosen instrument. Especially priceless is a scene where he has to suffer a clueless small kid trying to make a purchase.

“Indie,” the next chapter, starts putting a more dramatic story arc into place, and carries far more intensity than anything Beck has played out yet. Ryusuke’s past is catching up with him thanks to a run of errors and bad luck. It is a little out of place in such a down-to-earth drama, but it does help the series gain a little momentum for its final quarter.

Episode 17, “Three Days,” takes the band up a gear by giving them a contact who wants to sell their music in the US. This is not very realistic, except for the twist that has Beck giving up on royalties in order to get this big international move. (Music is a saturated industry, so big breaks are rarely perfect: there’s nearly always a catch to whatever deal helps a band transition from the small time to the big.) That and the episode’s role in further positioning Ryusuke’s story are its only saving notes.

The final episode on the volume, “Leo Sykes”, starts bringing these storylines together: Beck’s success in the States brings the attention of Leo Sykes, a man Ryusuke really didn’t want coming to Japan. Again there are some nice musical touches, in particular the onstage guitar string breakages. Having suffered this frustration and humiliation myself, I’ll say it adds another nice touch of realism to an increasingly dramatic story.

Volume 4 differs a bit from the preceding volumes, precisely because of the band’s increasing success. Naturally, for the story to grow in any way, the band has to get a taste of something larger, though in giving them that success the show does lose some of the realism it had initially captured. But it is a natural sacrifice, and there are enough tiny tidbits of unsigned band truths to keep the show grounded.

Beck’s simple yet well presented DVD menu

The DVD interface is the same as on previous volumes and carries the amp-like design which is both unique yet functional. Unfortunately, you’ll find no commentaries, and the bonus features are minimal: include textless songs, a music video montage, trailers, and the by-now-expected free guitar pick. Given that I’ve already lost the picks from the previous volumes, I can highly recommend this bonus.

Beck is a solid series, but it is the type of tale you’ll either enjoy or be bored silly by. There is very little action, and the drama is mainly of the teen-orientated angst variety. But the characters are fun and (by this point in the series) abundant. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to experience or re-experience a pretty honest take on youth and the music industry. It remains close to its original source and makes for a simple yet entertaining watch. Could be the (guitar) pick of the month. And with that terrible pun, I exit the stage right and await volume 5 with a fair amount of anticipation.

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