50 Favorite TV Shows: #3 BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad
Originally Aired on: TV Tokyo
To reiterate a previous point, my lists are rarely final when I first make them. I delve and I think and I tinker until I’m happy with both the items on it and the order in which they have been placed. BECK had what I guess I would describe as the strangest trip on the list. I had first questioned whether to include anime at all, as I hadn’t seen any in their country of origin and once I decided on this, I didn’t know how may I actually wanted on here. But the biggest problem of them all came from how I had originally had them situated. Trigun had been my favorite anime for years. It’s a thematic masterpiece that also manages to be a lot of fun and BECK is in the grand scheme, pretty new to my life. But when I thought really hard about it, BECK was just something I emotionally connect to. I think this is the time where I need to get a little bit gushy and a little bit intimate regarding the details of my life, so bear with me. Obviously if you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m very much into music and nary a second goes by when the lilt of a melody isn’t drifting through my conscious mind. I can feel that road through all my years to a point in my life where I didn’t like music. I hadn’t heard anything that made me want to listen to music more often. But right as I was getting to high school, I heard the Offspring’s Americana, a CD that isn’t really indicative of my tastes these days, but for some reason exploded into my consciousness. Coupled with the purchase of a portable CD player, I began to listen to it over and over and over again, wearing the CD out but always finding new things in the songs. I was soon finding new music everywhere, trying to assimilate as much as possible into the space between my ears because I had wasted so long not listening to it. And of course, as a consequence, I wanted to make music of my own. I started a band in high school and admittedly, we were terrible. But it always stuck with me. Always wanting to repay the music I heard with the music I made. And that’s what the story of BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is, it’s a story that reminds me of my own adolescence. The protagonist, Yukio “Koyuki” Tanaka is a youth without purpose, having few friends, no real hobbies and no direction outside of those given to him by his bullies. As he puts it, “Fourteen years old and I already felt as if my life is at a dead end.” But then his encounters with a young musician, Ryusuke Minami change his life. Slowly but surely, Yukio steps into the world of music, absorbing the music of Dying Breed and getting to know Ryusuke and his band mates as he learns to play the guitar himself. My life was never so stilted as Koyuki’s was, but I see a lot of my own growth in the way he grows throughout the series. His connection to music isn’t one of instantaneous joy, but a kind of understanding of the world around him. He slowly sheds his trappings of shyness and instead embraces a passion that carries him through the bad times and allows him to become a moe fully realized version of himself. To the show’s credit, it never makes the journey easy on Koyuki, as misunderstandings and problems with bullies don’t simply disappear for him, but instead they become less magnified in his life, as he throws more and more of his time into the steel strings he’s been handed. When he’s finally asked to join BECK by Ryusuke it’s a transcendent moment, the realization that he’s found people who are passionate like him and can understand the world as he sees it. BECK becomes Koyuki’s ability to express himself to the world and see a way to push past all the potential misery as he endeavors to paint himself across it. This is why it’s so personal to me, because as a young musician I was much the same way. Music becomes this easy to understand symbol of what’s good in the world and it allowed me to connect to others more readily, even if I wasn’t nearly as driven as Koyuki was.
I could go into the story a bit, as its adaptation is a perfect arc of what one might expect as high stakes problems for a rock band, but I think the presentation of the show is what’s most interesting. I often tell people I didn’t really care for the manga version of the story and the big reason for this comes from the fact that it’s a story about music. Lacking any accompanying sound makes the presentation of the comic feel stilted as we’re left to fill in the blanks for ourselves, but this lacks the more fluid connection one can have with accompanying sound. Aside from FLCL, I’m really hesitant to imagine an anime with a better soundtrack than BECK, as the Beat Crusaders provide an incredibly powerful set of rock numbers in varying styles to match the different musicians we see in the show. BECK themselves are an interesting band to listen to, as they essentially become two different bands depending on whether Koyuki or Chiba is singing. Chiba brings a raw intensity to the music he presents, that adamant control of the crowd where he stands on that border of being excited and maddened by what he’s delivering. Koyuki on the other hand, has the voice of an angel and is suited to sensitive ballads, resulting in a highlight moment for the series when he sings “Moon on the Water” with Dying Breed on stage. I might as well also say I prefer the dub for the better overall singing, since the full English soundtrack feels more natural in delivery. Each song becomes a different tapestry of ideas, a different way people on the show see the world, telling us a lot immediately about characters only by hearing their accompanying music. The more passionate the sound, the more in tune we begin to feel to the band on screen, knowing they have the same fire as BECK and therefore, believe in the same transformative power of music. What really impresses me is how well the animation matches this, as I didn’t think I’d ever see a cartoon that could so perfectly fill the gap of actually playing instruments. When you see Ryusuke or Koyuki play guitar, you really get to see their fingers dance up and down the fretboard, that hesitant yet snappy dalliance upon each note as they launch into the different melodies they present.. Crowd animations feel diverse to match this, making the same song being played again feel like a whole new performance, as they bounce in different times to the music and feel different things from it. But this is sort of a trick, as the moments where they’re not playing music are animated with a washed out and gorgeous stillness, really conveying the quietness of existence. Koyuki and Ryusuke both have a recurring theme of being left alone outdoors in shots, making the gentleness of the movement they present there really feel as if they’re disconnected from the element they’re meant to be a part of. The best way I can convey this is that it looks like an indie film and a rock concert smashed together at times, making a rather fluid presentation of the way life is when the music ends.
The further I go down this list, the less I’ll be able to do anything justice. BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is such a personal show to me, as all the things I see and hear in it remind me of fragments of memory I hold. That the show sounds and looks fantastic ices the experience, making for an artful presentation of a personal experience.
Key Episode: “Beck” Though rather early in the series, this episode really sets a larger tone for plot lines that occur later on and feels very natural in how it’s presented. Koyuki’s guitar teacher, Mr. Saitou, enters him in a contest with his band at a neighborhood festival to incentivize his practicing. When other members get drunk, Maho, Ryusuke’s sister, is asked to step in to sing. She and Koyuki end up doing it in duet, but the band ends up losing doing to judge bias and must fulfill a bet of skinny dipping in the school pool. The pair then sing a duet of “Moon on the Water.” The relationship of Maho and Koyuki is one of the major elements of the show as a whole, as neither really seems to know what to do about the other. Like Koyuki, Maho is passionate about music, but lacks his outlet and is obviously somewhat sick from not being in America any longer. But her and Koyuki connect so tentatively, like they’re scared to really be themselves with one another. A lot of romance in anime revolves around the will they or won’t they idea, as if they’re too nice to simply be with one another, but this romance is different. It’s not that they’re too nice, it’s that they’re not sure. They’re experiencing youthful feelings and feel pressured to let down their guard and end up doubling it as a response. This is one of the first moments in the show we see exactly why they connect it and why their romance works, even if it takes forever to go anywhere.
Favorite Character: Even though I’m more like Koyuki, I prefer Chiba as a character. Chiba is… well… an excitable boy. A karate trained hot head, Chiba comes off as a brash asshole at first, but a lot of this seems to be an act, covering for his lack of close friendships with people. Like Koyuki and Tairo, joining BECK gives him a place to belong where the people understand him. But this is the problem: Chiba is the odd man out in the band. Koyuki is undoubtedly the better singer in the group and Chiba’s stage presence is largely what keeps him in the group. When all members of the group but Chiba share a prophetic dream, it greatly disturbs him and Ryusuke’s constant bristling of him makes matters worse. I think this is the perfect kind of hurt that this show can convey, that Chiba feels that he’s somehow not connected to the same passion as his bandmates and that a person he thought he was close to could be so hurtful of him for no reason. Chiba doesn’t have the most defined arc of the show, but he always has something interesting going on.