BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is one of those rare feats of fiction that gets music. It’s not just about music or musicians, it doesn’t just feature great music; it gets music. The power it has; the power to move people, the power to bring them together, and inspire you to take over the world (not literally). It’s like an anime Almost Famous.
The anime (and Manga but I’ll get to that) follows 14 year old Koyuki over the years, as he learns to play guitar, makes real friends, starts a band, and discovers who he really is…(it’s a coming of age anime, what do you expect). And unlike most shows/films about bands, this isn’t about them making it; for the majority of the show all they play in are dive bars and night clubs. The shows about the struggle, the struggle to learn, and to keep going against the odds, and about the bond Koyuki forms with the people he plays music with. It’s about the expression music can give you, as a global translator to reach everyone and anyone from any walk of life.
Beyond Koyuki and his life, the show also follows Ryusuke, the lead guitarist and leader of the titular band BECK, who is the other heart of the show. He’s Koyuki’s main inspiration to grow and become more comfortable with himself, to mature to a teenager with a clear goal in his life. While Ryusuke tries to go beyond that, developing from a teenager with a goal to an adult with an outcome, and dealing with those good or bad. The bad mainly resolving around a mafia subplot…go figure.
Outside of them, and with the exception of Koyuki’s love interest and Ryusuke’s sister, the passive aggressive badass Maho, the rest of the band don’t get much development. They’re presented to us as whole beings and they stay that way for the remainder of the anime (the mange is a different story, but I’ll get to that), hell the prototypical bully characters (it’s high school, they have to be there) gets some of the best development in the series. I wouldn’t call this so much a fault as just an occurrence, theres only so much time, so the focus needs to be where it needs to be. Nothing gained but nothing lost.
BECK is also one of those rare cases in anime that is….What’s the old saying? 40% of anime is better subbed, 30% it doesn’t matter either way, and only 10% of anime is better dubbed. BECK joins the ranks of Cowboy Bebop, Baccano, and Black Lagoon, which are just better dubbed, way better. This is thanks to a dubbing team who really gave a damn, and it clearly wasn’t a, ‘this is popular let’s put it in English’, it was a passion project for all involved, and it shows.
It shows most clearly in the amazing music and genuinely awesome songs. Most English dubs of anime about music, dub everything but the music, like K-on and NANA (another pretty good music anime), as its hard work to get new singers in, and translate the songs beyond awkward engrish, but BECK did. And it needed to really, as the songs aren’t just window dressing between the melodrama. Like real music the songs are character driven, and reflect a lot of the later themes and messages of the series. And the music’s just plane awesome. I own the soundtrack.
The band sound like the love child of Rage Against the Machine and Oasis, with Flea on bass. This is because they have two vocalists, the awesome and funny Chiba as the rapper, and our protagonist Koyuki as the singer. His singing voice being one of the main pushes of the series. It’s not just that the songs sound good, they work perfectly in the plot too, representing what they need, be it the progression of the character, a relationship, or the band itself. The climactic song ‘Slip Out’ not only works beautifully as a representation of Koyuki’s development from hapless teenager to musician, but it also sounds like a classic song, like a Smells Like Teen Spirit or Wonderwall, a song that could define a generation.
Another way the Dub is smart is in its copyright, as unlike in a the Japanese production, the English couldn’t name drop all the bands and use all of the music it once did, so the Sex Pistols become Love Gun, Anarchy in the UK becoming Anarchy Britannia. And a kinda random but awesome I’ve Got a feeling cover becomes an original song by the anime’s Nirvana- esque stand in The Dying Breed, the band that inspired Koyuki to pick up the guitar. It’s a smart, character driven dub.
If I have to speak of some weakness for BECK, it’s slow to start. It takes its time introducing the characters, setting up the band, following Koyuki’s development as a guitar player, ect. All good stuff, but when I re-watch the series (and of course I don’t recommend this for new viewers) I skip the first 5ish episodes, just to jump into the build-up to Koyuki joining the band and the main plot getting underway. The animation is also pretty cheap a lot of the time but it was a cheap show, it’s rarely scene breaking, but for Anime fans used to their Madhouses, Studio Ghiblis, and what not, it may be a bit jarring.
Now the manga is slightly different. As I said the Anime isn’t about the band making it, it’s more about them doing it. And the manga is about that too, but it’s just a hell of a lot longer and follows all the ups and downs as the band…make it…and they do by no easy means. If you can find it I highly recommend the manga, it lacks the audio aspect obviously (which to a music based story is important) but it keeps going with the great characters, ideas and story much further than in the anime.
Leading to a lot more character development all around, Chiba (the rapper) especially gets focus as Koyuki writes more and more songs for his own voice, causing Chiba to have an existential crises about his place in the band, prompting an 8 Mile like arc of becoming an underground rapper.
There is also a whole host of fun new characters, mainly in the form of other bands they meet along their way to the big leagues, who help redefine how BECK see themselves, and expands the size and reach of the BECK world.
AND there’s even a live action film, and it’s a Japanese one luckily, so their history of anime to live action adaption is a lot cleaner than most. But even so the prospect of condensing a 26 episode anime into a two and a half hour film is daunting. But I’m pleased to say they did it pretty well, far from my favorite telling of the BECK story, but they make some smart choices to condense it and its worth a watch if you’re a fan and want to see a different take on it.
BECK isn’t just my favorite anime; it’s one of my favorite shows of any kind. And it could be yours too. So in the immortal words of Chiba… turn up that fucking guitar and keep on rocking!