Anime Reviews: BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad
Rockin' tunes and one of the best dubs in anime set BECK apart from the common fare, though its inconsistent visuals and story keep it from achieving greatness.
Title: BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad a.k.a. BECK
Production: Studio Madhouse
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 10/6/2004 to 3/30/2005
Age Rating: 17+ (frequent strong language, some suggestive content)
Summary: Yukio Tanaka, called "Koyuki" by his friends, is a timid and unassuming teenage boy who finds himself at a loss to fill the void of his life with some kind of meaning. Though he reunites with childhood friend and crush Izumi, and finds momentary happiness in being with her, it's not until Koyuki chases off a bunch of kids tormenting a strange dog that his life begins to change--enter Ryuusuke Minami, a burgeoning young guitarist with incredible talent, competing with a former bandmate to see who can put together the ultimate band. Ryuusuke reveals that he used to know Eddie Lee, a member of the famous American alternative rock/grunge band, The Dying Breed, and becomes fast friends with Izumi (given that she's fan of The Dying Breed), who then introduces Koyuki to their music. From that moment on, the winds of change set Koyuki on the path to becoming a musician himself...
The Good: Energetic, fun songs; outstanding English dub; the characters and their interactions
The Bad: Infuriatingly inconsistent art and animation; story lacks focus and moves slowly
The Ugly: Trying to ever go back to the original Japanese version after hearing the dub
In a way, BECK is kinda like the companion series to NANA: both series revolve around young musicians dealing with life as it comes, struggling to climb the heights of glory, and enduring the hardships that go with it. While NANA can be seen as the more realistic take on this story, BECK is definitely the more romanticized and escapist version. Granted, both are pretty firmly rooted in realism, but the former is a roller coaster of human folly and misery, while the latter is an uplifting underdog story that knows not to go over the top. But I have to make one thing very clear: BECK has problems. It has some pretty major problems. But are they enough to weigh it down below the point of recommendation? Well, you know the drill by now, I hope, so let's answer that question in the most roundabout way possible!
First, it should be said and be obvious that BECK revolves around music. Thus, the most important question in a series like this is: "How's the music?" To which I answer: "Awesome." A project like this lives or dies on the quality of its tunes, and if they suck, the whole thing is brought down. Luckily, as mentioned, BECK's tunes are rock-solid and definitely earn their keep 'round here. To start, we have the opener "Hit in the U.S.A." by Beat Crusaders, which is an incredibly fun and down-to-earth rock tune that immediately gives a good impression of the series. The first ending theme, "My World Down" by Meister (presented in-universe as being by The Dying Breed) has the dark, buzzing sound of your typical 90s grunge band, and that's awesome. The other ending theme is "Moon on the Water" by Beat Crusaders feat. Sowelu (also presented in-universe as the work of The Dying Breed), which is a touching ballad that plays a pretty important role in the show as a whole, but that's for you to see what I mean when you catch it yourself.
We haven't even covered the songs played by our heroes as BECK (Spoiler Alert! The main characters end up being in a band!). Through the series, we get four songs prominently featured--two with Chiba doing rap vocals, and two with Koyuki doing more conventional vocals. Chiba's tunes are "Spice of Life" and "Brainstorm," which are both incredibly fun rap-rock tunes in the vein of Rage Against the Machine with punchy riffs and eccentric lyrics that make the early concert scenes a lot of fun to watch. Then Koyuki performs a few of his own: "Face" and "Slip Out," which are more alt-rock than rap-rock of course, and both are intensely earnest and down-to-earth songs that know that baring your soul via a ballad doesn't mean it's gotta sound weak. But y'know, the vocals in these tracks never sat well with me, what with the Engrish and whatnot. They're still great songs, but those vocals...
Enter FUNimation, the now-illustrious dubbing company based out of Texas. As much as I would love to gush about the extremely excellent voice acting on display (including top-tier work from Greg Ayres, Brina Palencia, Eric Vale, Jerry Jewell, Johnny Yong Bosch, Justin Cook, and Laura Bailey, among a mountain of others), the true star of the English dub is the rerecordings of the various songs. You heard right--FUNimation actually went out of their way to recreate the songs from scratch, and the results are glorious. (Actual Spoiler Warning: The following videos might give away major events!) For example, here's the dub versions of "Spice of Life" and "Brainstorm" with vocals from Justin Cook as Chiba. Talk about a massive improvement! Now there's Greg Ayres' work as Koyuki in "Face" and "Slip Out," which, if the Chiba tracks were a massive improvement, these are a cataclysmic improvement! I don't even know what that means! Combine these reworked songs with the brilliant voice acting all throughout the series (even bit characters!), and you have one of the greatest English dubs ever in anime. It's actually so good that trying to go back to the original Japanese version just feels wrong, and that's damned good. And because I like ya, here's the dubbed version of the second ending version of "Moon on the Water" by Brina Palencia. The video's quality isn't the best, but it still brought a tear to my eye. Make of that what you will.
In fact, to sum up, I can confidently say that the English dub is so good, it actually improves the show it's reversioning. This never, ever happens. Until BECK.
Now, with all that said, how about the meat of the show? Let's start with the characters because, well, I liked them. Koyuki is a realistically timid yet determined young man that serves as the perfect protagonist for this kind of story, Ryuusuke is the cool rocker guy we all wish we knew, Maho is the brash and honest girl we all wish we knew, Chiba is a loud and rambunctious party animal, Taira's basically the responsible "adult" of the band, Saku is the ultimate bro we all wish we knew...and so on and so forth. I love these guys. When just a handful of 'em are in a room together, you know for a fact it's still gonna be a great scene. Even very minor characters like Hiromi (brought to us in the dub by the lovely Laura Bailey) feel like a big part of the cast. And as with everything else in the series, the English dub does a hell of a lot to make these characters even better than before. A little part of me wishes we could've spent some more time with these guys, and that's the sign of a job well done.
As for the story, it's not technically bad or anything (it gives us a reason for all these wonderful characters to be together, after all!), but I feel like the directing lets it down. Seemingly at a moment's notice, the show will just drop everything it's doing and focus on something completely unrelated for an episode or two. Koyuki's learning how to play the guitar, and all of a sudden, he's spending the next episode taking swimming lessons from Saito! I mean, these scenes are great and all, but there's no cohesion--he's just there! And then we'll go back to Koyuki's guitar practice, but now we've really, really gotta focus on his run-ins with Hyoudo, you guys! It also doesn't help that the show employs a slower pace, making many scenes feel like they're just dragging, sometimes staying uncomfortably on a single shot for 5-10 seconds after the dialogue's been spoken. It's kinda awkward, y'know? I feel like some more edits should've been made with some new scenes squeezed in, and this problem would be mitigated more. But oh well. Too late for that now. While my issues with the story's propensity to wander wherever it wants and its pacing are legitimate gripes, they're not too terribly major.
What is major (to me, anyway) is the utterly, infuriatingly, teeth-grindingly inconsistent art and animation. Normally, I don't care if a series looks bad--I'll just make a note of it and move on--but BECK's visuals drive me crazy for two reasons: one, this is Studio Madhouse we're talking about, so consistency should be a non-issue for them, and two, the art style of Osamu Kobayashi is such that you absolutely and indisputably need the animation to be smooth and silky in order to work. If you look back at the "Hit in the U.S.A." video above, you'll notice his rather off-beat, almost rotoscope-y art style looks pretty great there, and that's because the animation is smooth and nuanced. There, it looks great! But there are many, many shots in the series where the artwork is so abominable that I couldn't keep looking at the screen while the animation is so janky that the characters look like they're having seizures. This is not quality animation. It bugs the crap out of me, and it'll probably also bug the crap out of you.
With all that said, do I recommend BECK? The short answer is "yes," but the truth is that a wholehearted recommendation is only possible to those who are very much into music and want to see a story with a heavy emphasis on it. As for everyone else, I'd still give it a modest recommendation, but only if you can overlook the hilariously inconsistent visuals and have the patience to endure some of the slower scenes scattered throughout. If that sounds feasible to you, then have at it. You'll have yourself a good time, and maybe even some rockin' new tunes to put on your playlist.
Final Score: 7 out of 10. While the obvious draw of BECK is its excellent rock music and incredible English dub, the story and characters are also very rewarding to those who can excuse an occasional lack of focus and dysfunctional visuals.