BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad
by Polly


Because we hate becoming frumpy ol' moos, we're attracted to the things that remind us of our youth. To escape the doldrums of normal everyday boring adult life that can seem far too laden with "responsibility," we can sometimes seek refuge in the stories, music, movies, games, and all that other good stuff from our younger and less frumpy days. This also includes movies, books, and what have you that are specifically centered around our passions of yesteryear. Escapism is a great thing, and is a huge part of entertainment. Not that one can't genuinely enjoy something without the pretext of trying to recapture their youth in a bottle or something. I just know that I can't be the only one who clings to certain things only because of the long-gone heydays associated with them.

Those lazy-ass summers of youth, for example. No school, not a care for anything in the world, playin' dem videroogames, dabbling in illicit substances the law says one shouldn't be, and being in a shitty band, playing nigh-empty thirty-minute gigs in even shittier clubs thinking, "OH MAN, SOME DAY I'MMA BE A FUCKIN' ROCK STAR!" I'm sure someone out there's with me at this point, anyway.

My days as an active musician have long since past, and I now work in an environment that sees plenty of snot-nosed punks just like I used to be picking up instruments and expressing whatever the hell it is you dumb kids express these days. I hate a majority of them and can't stand their crappy music, but I wouldn't take that away from them. Life will probably do that soon enough, just as it did me, and it's still a very fulfilling thing to see and hear, even if most of it is tripe. Fuck it, you get what I'm trying to say!


And that's been our LiveJournal entry for the day! Thanks for stopping by!

Mood: Pensive
Listening To: Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit

And now we can make a not-so-subtle transition, and actually review some Japanese Cartoons! A Japanese Cartoon I only started watching because it's ABOUT MUSIC!

Yeah, we'll just leave the girly stuff nobody should be watching to Rhete...

Yep, that's right. BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is an honest to goodness Japanese Cartoon about music, and not a Japanese Cartoon that's really about bobble-headed [REDACTED]s getting fat in a music room. The premise is fairly straightforward and follows our main character, Koyuki Tanaka, known to everyone as Koyuki, on a path starting at "listless loser letting the world walk all over him" to "inspired youth who is well on his way to finding his true voice and place in the world."

BECK is a coming of age story through and through, and Koyuki's up front and center role in it all is a damn solid one and the main reason I kept with the series. He's what may initially seem to be that pathetic main character who just can't catch a break trope we've seen all too often in these kinds of shows. A bit of a sad sack with not much in the way of friends, no assertiveness whatsoever, and prone to being easily bullied into doing what other people tell him to do. A situation he's obviously none too happy with, but doesn't quite have the guts to try and break out of. That is until his fateful meeting with super whiz-bang guitarist Ryusuke Minami, whose onstage performance sparks a flame inside of him he never knew existed. The desire to be a rock star!

Koyuki's newfound drive to become a worthy musician begins to open up new paths toward finding his way out of a mundane existence. Through music he makes new friends, begins finding confidence in himself as well as other people, and even flirts with the possibility of romance. He's the perfect example of a character that develops, and throughout the entire 26-episode run, feels more honest and genuine than most characters in these silly cartoons ever end up being most of the time. Koyuki's enthusiasm is also representative of the of the writers' own love and passion for music, and it shines through brightly as characters talk about music and artists they love, often name dropping greats such as Hendrix and Morrison, as well as the imagery of several band logos (though obviously changed up a bit to avoid the lawyers) appearing in background and on characters' apparel. BECK wants you to love music as much as it does, and it gets this message across as clear as day thanks largely in part to its central character's own musical journey.

What separates Koyuki from so many other protagonists that have appeared in this same kind of set up is that though he's a naturally gifted singer, he opts to challenge himself to learn an instrument he knows nothing about. Also unlike other characters that appear in this role, he doesn't just magically learn how to play like Hendrix overnight, nor is he some kind of idiot savant hitting the perfect pitch just because lol that's funny! He busts his ass day in and day out, losing sleep and sacrificing his own education at points striving for something he wants so much. He sucks at it for quite a long time, and everyone around never lets an opportunity slip by in letting him know it, but instead of getting all mopey and quitting over it, he gets back up and tries again, somehow always finding the drive to better himself. Koyuki's own determination and how music changes his life is one of the most inspiring and uplifting stories in modern Japanese Cartoons. While making viewers feel good, his story also delivers the right message that if you want something bad enough, you can have it, you just gotta work your ass off for it. He's an easy character to get behind. You'll cheer on his victories every single time, and cringe as he walks face first into defeat, genuinely feeling bad for the guy because he's giving his all. He's a simple and honest guy, making him easily relatable because the very basis of his character and what he embodies are grounded in a reality that we can all grasp.

The bandmates, classmates, mentors, and love interests that make up Koyuki's newly-budding social and musical life are just as integral to BECK's fabric as the main character himself. They're a colorful bunch of musicians, insensitive bitches, and pervy old mentors that help keep the show entertaining and engaging. Their only real fault is that their personalities are perhaps a bit too over the top at times, which feels done to compensate for their individual stories never being given time to flourish. Chiba, BECK's lead singer, is just that good-time guy that likes to yell a lot and be a tad over-emotional. Maho, Koyuki's love interest through much of the series, is an off-putting bitch that really seems to only need him around when her cool friends aren't there. Saitou, Koyuki's swimming instructor and guitar mentor, is just a fat guy that loves himself a lot of porn. Minor snapshots of these characters' lives are given from time to time, but they never really get the kind of elaboration or development that Ryusuke and the story of his bullet hole-laden guitar ever get. It's understandable that there are a lot of characters here to play with, and 26 episodes wouldn't be ideal for trying to tell everyone's story and move the plot along, but that's how fascinating the characters can be. You wanna know how they work, because the main character was written so well that you know there's a lot of potential there. The medium is most likely to blame here, and with the manga version spanning over 30 volumes, it's obvious some fat needed to be trimmed in order to give the series some focus.

And starting off, BECK does a great job of getting in there, drawing a bead on the important events, and firing off episode after episode of well-executed and perfectly-paced progression. Nothing really feels unnatural as Ryusuke's new band, obviously named "Beck," slowly forms, goes through a whole load of growing pains and bad gigs, and ultimately starts finding a sliver of success. During this time, Koyuki is growing at a steady and believable rate as well, both as a musician and a teenager coming out of his shell and finding some meaning to life. It's easy to get behind the underdog band and find oneself emotionally invested in their successes and failures. Again, it's very refreshing, honest, and inspiring to watch it all come together as the band develops into a bit of a makeshift family looking out for one another as well as the well-being of their music.

When BECK hits its half-way point, a new conflict arises for the band in the form of a successful overseas music mogul and finally expands on the history of Ryusuke's shot-up guitar, Lucille (or Prudence, depending on which version you're watching.) These new developments push both Koyuki and the band to the background a bit and gradually become the fuel that keeps the show going. The added element of danger and a gun-toting thug that proves that this new antagonist isn't fucking around helps spice things up a bit, but may prove a bit too hokey and possibly even unbelievable for some. Those that don't immediately find this portion of the show hokey will more than likely find its climax and rushed resolution in the show's final few moments to be a bit cheeseball or unsatisfying. Depending on what you came into this show for, and if you're okay with changing those preferences a bit, you may find yourself a bit alienated by it or see it as a welcome change of pace from the usual teenager drama, band practices, live shows, and inner-band squabbles.

The back end of the series, comprising the final six episodes or so, doesn't quite nail it as well, and to be honest, the pacing and execution begin to start showing signs of decay as early as halfway through the series. This is all done to help make room for the main antagonist and Ryusuke sub-plot. Pacing suddenly shifts into high gear with a lot of exposition and still imagery telling the viewer what just happened over a decent chunk of a few months' time. It gets to the point of feeling like you're listening to some spastic child (with a cereal bowl on their head, obviously!) who can't keep their details straight trying to tell you a story, bouncing from one event to another so fast that things almost start to feel unimportant, despite what all the build up says. Again, I understand that it's likely a problem with only having 26 episodes to tell a story, but it starts to sap a lot of the emotional impact out of things. The show becomes shockingly disjointed, making light of situations that had a huge build up only to have their climax summed up in a few sentences with some nice looking pictures or a simple pan up and fade out.

Things that should really mean something, like the band playing some really high profile club for the first time, end up feeling simply slapped together due to how fast things start happening. They could have really shown how Beck had grown over the course of time and overcame their struggles to pull off something huge, but it culminates in sill images, some recycled animation, and a "and that was that!" As the series rolls on, some progression doesn't even make much sense. For instance, at the beginning of the show, Maho is shown to be a great live performer, seemingly in her own band and everything, and suddenly she's some kinda swimsuit model.

The most egregious offense wrought by this method of storytelling is that the show's entire ending is just two characters talking back and forth over some snapshots of events that took place while we weren't watching. They pay-off I was supposed to get from the things that happened was completely lost on me due to the way it was presented, and the entire final batch of episodes really ended up deflating my opinion of the series as a whole because I was no longer allowed to connect with the things that were happening. It's really a shame, because the show has such a great start. It's probably one of those times the writers should have gone with a more self-contained and entirely different finale for the Japanese Cartoon instead of trying to cram volumes of the manga into the final few episodes.

To match its refreshing approach toward the standard coming of age story, BECK's visuals are unique in their own right, specifically the character designs, which mostly favor more realistic proportions and a loose animation style, giving the show its own fluid and sometimes gritty look befitting of its setting. There's a lot of personality in each character, with each expressing a wide range of emotions via facial animations and each band member having their own style of playing, most of which pay homage to other musicians that those keen on music will notice rather quickly. Obvious love and care also went into the characters' musical instruments. Each one is recognizable and almost always features a lavish amount of detail that makes them almost pop out of a scene. In select scenes, careful attention is paid to just how instruments are being played, with proper finger placement and strumming rhythms being noted, however this isn't always the case. A few problems do crop up in the presentation with a wonky shot here and there, and concert sequences are almost always cut together with the same animations looped over a new background. The backgrounds themselves are full of muted colors and gritted up a bit to help sell the dirty underground rock scene the show wants to portray, but nothing ever really jumps out or calls attention to itself. They're adequate enough to not look bad, and that's okay for what the show is.

Given it's a show about how music changes lives, a show that's this bold and knowledgeable about it had better have some serious chops when it comes to its own audio department, and to a point, I guess it does, but mileage will vary depending on your own musical preferences. The real danger of producing a show about a specific band and their music is that almost immediately you'll know whether you like this band or not. By the original manga creator, Harold Sakuichi's own admission, Beck's music is chiefly influenced by acts such Rage Against The Machine, Sex Pistols, and most notably Red Hot Chili Peppers. NOT Beck Hansen, strangely enough... All the influences mix together creating a punk/rap-rock/pop style that can seem a bit all over the place, but one I found quite charming after a few episodes of it being drilled into my noggin. Most of their songs, such as "Spice of Life" and "Brainstorm," which you'll hear more than any other track, employ a loud and boisterous punk rock style, while the songs "Face" and "Slip Out," which feature Koyuki on vocals, are more radio friendly pop affairs that show the softer side of the band while still maintaining a pretty rugged rock edge. Again, if it's not your cup of tea, you're really not going to like much of what Beck or other bands in the area are putting out, and that could easily affect one's judgment of the series.

There's another really big fat problem here though, and it's that there's not nearly enough original material by the titular band. You'll probably hear both "Spice of Life" and "Brainstorm" no less than twice per episode. It almost seems like they're the only songs the band ever plays, and even if you like them or don't mind them that much, it gets very grating after a while. I'd imagine it's even worse if you don't like the songs at all. There really needed to be more variety here than is shown in order to show the viewer that the band is growing together. I know that when I was in a band, we were constantly trying to write new material, and the fact that you'll hear about five songs over the course of the band's history that this show covers (coming close to two years) really seems strange given that they're supposedly putting on huge shows at famous venues with the same set list of five songs. The lack of variety and new material in the band's music is really a pretty damaging blow to the show when you consider that it's trying to depict an up-and-coming band growing into a local and even national sensation.

Beyond the band's own music, the show features a nice OP/ED set with "Hit In USA" by Beat Crusaders setting each episode up and getting the viewer ready with its upbeat and delightfully Engrish refrain of "I was made to hit in America," and the closer "My World Down" by Meister closes things out with a mid-tempo ride that reeks of a heavier Oasis. It also features a slideshow of drawings ran through various video filters of famous musicians from the 60's to the 90's and is really quite a striking piece to look at and listen to. Any fan of great music should totally check it out. The second closer, "Moon On The Water" also doubles as a theme that reappears many times throughout course of the show, and though the Japanese version is a little grating with the Engrish, the English version cleans all that up a bit, with Brina Palencia knocking it of the park on vocals.

BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad ended up being a fairly mixed bag for me. The final set of episodes' "throw everything at the wall and pray to god something sticks" production and pacing added on top of the rushed ending left an incredibly sour taste in my mouth that I just can't get out, despite all the things the show does right. If you want a truly inspiring coming of age story with a strong focus on and love of music, you'll certainly get that, but investing yourself beyond that and wanting some resolution to certain character arcs and a better understanding of certain events will no doubt prove frustrating.

But hey, at least it ain't fucking K-ON garbage passing itself off as a show about music.

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