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Beck (TV Series)

The Show

Beck is every boy and every girl who has ever dreamed of being a singer, a guitarist, a bassist or a drummer. It's everyone who's ever wanted, even for a second, to be a rock star. It's as simple as that, as good as that, and as wonderful as that. Beck thrives on this simple idea. Its strength lies in great characterization and solid writing. As with many series like this, Tanaka Koyuki, the star of the show, is a simple, kind, gentle boy. Nothing about him stands out. Through grit and sheer hard work, he becomes something bigger than his wildest dreams. To balance him out, the rest of the cast is that zany magic that makes the story. There's Ryuusuke, the resident 'cool guy' guitarist who inspires Koyuki, leader of the band and slave driver. There's Maho, his private school brat of a sister, the obligatory love interest who needs to be smacked really hard. There's loud and crazy Chiba, who's the real elder brother character that everyone wants to know. Stoic Taira, the guy who understands everything between the lines. And Saku, the best friend any guy could ever have.

Beck himself refers to Ryuusuke's mongrel pet, a weird little Frankenstein-like dog that hates everyone and eats everything. The humour's good, a little pervy, but that works for the age of the characters. I was going to say Ryuusuke swears a hell of a lot, as does Maho, but then, I think I was 16 at some point in my life too. Out of all the characters, I had the most trouble with Maho. She's far too much of a brat to be likeable, and while it's easy to see why Koyuki would like her (she does have a nice body...), that kid needs more smacking than she gets. Basically, she represents everything I disliked about glamorously rich private school girls to a tee -- and in that her character is well-acted and well-written, but she's not there to be liked, I think. Ryuusuke survives by being a cool guy for about 23 episodes before he becomes a complete [swear word] to the end of the show. It happens quite suddenly, and badly. This is also where the show's plot starts wobbling around (more on that below). Forewarning would've helped, especially when characters need to break down.

Animation is great. The style is fluid and realistic. Backgrounds are always a hive of activity. There's plenty to absorb in the backgrounds, every piece of signage, every t-shirt, baseball cap and newsflash that shows up. Most of it is nonsense. A lot of it is either a rock reference or a bit of hilarity. It feels good.

Somewhat outside my usual style, I chose not to read the manga before or while I watched this show. I believed a show where the focus was music would probably work better heard rather than read, and I'm glad I persevered on that point. I think it really would've wrecked the watch if I hadn't done this, knowing the plot in advance. I did strongly feel they could've ended the series at least one episode earlier. This is hard to say though, since that would've amounted to an unhappy ending, and that may have been the point of having things end the way they did. The last two episodes do feel chopped up as a result. It's clear they were patching together disparate parts of the manga, and while events didn't feel out of order, it did feel rushed. The final scene, a slide show, says far too much in too little time. It was poignant, yes, and didn't lack emotional impact, but it really was an info dump on a massive scale. If the series had to end at Beck's peak, it could've ended an episode earlier.

The English

One of the major appeals of Beck for me was the large amount of English used in its dialogue. English is a glamorous language in Asia. Very frequently, it's used as a design element, to enhance the marketing of products, to show off and to look good. Many Asians will understand some English. Not many Asians will speak English extremely fluently, and broken English is propagated by the use of English as design element, with no particular stress on grammatical correctness or even correct word choices for the occasion. There's a lot of issues surrounding speaking English, even though it's taught as part of the regular curriculum of schools all over Asia -- and not often very well.

The English language, as the language of international business, is cause for big business in Asia. Children are taught to speak English to get ahead. Any Asian who speaks English fluently is considered a step up from the man on the street. At least, it is, if you're talking about work.

A bilingual Asian child who speaks English will almost never be considered a normal Asian child. Parents will coo. Peers will tear you apart. Having grown up with this, it has never been easy for me as an English speaker among peers who may not understand me as well as they'd like. There's a funny thing about speaking English well as an Asian child. It changes your thinking to something slightly outside an Asian frame, and if that didn't set you apart enough from your peers, it usually implies a failure to speak the Asian language you adhere to nearly as fluently. It would've been easier if this Asian child spoke a multitude of any number of Asian languages, if only one of those languages wasn't English. This was true in my case. My family spoke English to me from the start. The dynamics of English-speaking Asian families are different from Asian-language speaking Asian families. There will always be less adherence to traditions and particularly to societal rankings -- the fabric of all Asian societies are based on a strict code of recognizing where the people around you stand in society in relation to you. This means many English-speaking Asian children have "worse" manners than many of their purely Asian-language speaking peers. The lack of familiarity with societal rankings and traditions is a wall. Whatever the English-speaking Asian child may do, their purely Asian-language speaking peers will see them as being on the other side of this wall.

Beck is the first series I'd ever seen willing to tackle all these issues head on, in full stereo. Ryuusuke and Maho, two of the main characters, apparently grew up in New York. Both speak English to themselves, and very often, only to themselves, because hardly anyone around them has the skills to understand them otherwise. Maho calls her brother "Ray" rather than any allusion to his rank. Wherever possible, they cut corners with polite suffixes. English becomes the language of exclusion -- and of rebellion.

In Beck, characters comment on the deficiencies of learning English from non-English native speakers who are themselves seriously lacking fluency in the language at school. Koyuki, for example, makes known his distaste for learning to read English using katakana throughout the series. The English lessons at his school are often a lot of garbled text because they really lack value in the real world. Rock music, the deus ex machina of everything, is either strongly punctuated by or in English. It's a "worldly" language, compared to the stifled surroundings of all the characters. But the characters themselves don't really have to understand what any of the English means, and the few characters who do understand become even more excluded from the others as a result. Maho finds comfort in English-speaking friends from her (possibly international) private school, being unable to hold down temp jobs due to language barriers. Neither Ryuusuke nor Maho can read Japanese very well, which limits their ability to communicate with their peers. Rock music does save the day, because it is a comic book and happy things happen, but the observations are made.

Not all the English spoken or sung on Beck is great. There's a lot in there that needed me to grit my teeth to watch. Ryuusuke probably speaks the best English out of the entire Japanese cast. It gets increasingly broken as the show goes on, and I suspect this is more to do with rushed deadlines more than anything else. Not only are the English lines poorly proofread, but it's noticeable that Ryuusuke's seiyuu seems to be just rushing or mumbling through his lines. He does, however, speak English pretty convincingly like how I've heard more fluent Japanese speakers of English speak. The American accent is fluid, and the pronunciation flows. Even when the English is slightly broken, it's understandable and forgiveable.

On the other hand, the show also makes use of many "American" characters where the broken English can get awkward and particularly hard on the ears. It seems, at least from cursory glances at the credits, that efforts were made to obtain reasonable facsimiles of native speakers. I have a feeling a lot of the fault here is the script. Not enough proofreading, and it's quite easy to see where the English was written with the conversation thought out in Japanese. Even when the grammar is correct, there are conversations between apparent native speakers that seem slightly off. Still, these are only as bad as some of the poorly edited stories by native writers of English I've seen over the years. It's a real editorial problem, not one of accents or enunciation. And that's actually pretty darn good.

The Music ('Cause an anime about rock music should not have a soundtrack that sucks.)

The soundtrack of Beck rocks. That should be obvious, since this is an anime about rock music. But seriously, this is the kind of soundtrack that probably will at least produce one or two frantic hunts for the people behind the nifty sounds you hear on screen, and a good scramble for the soundtrack. All the songs credited to "Beck" on the show are the combined efforts of Beat Crusaders and Typhoon24. Most of the music sung by the main characters were composed by the Beat Crusaders, including all of Beck's ballads and the de facto love theme, Moon on the Water. Typhoon24 handled all the performances during the show, and were behind the "rock" portion of Beck. The singing voice of Koyuki is Hirabayashi Kazuya of Husking Bee, and the rapper behind Chiba is Tatsuzo of YKZ. The singing voice of Maho is Sowelu.

Hidaka Tooru of Beat Crusaders (at least based on my mangy reading of the credits) was responsible for putting together the music that appears in the series. Beat Crusaders have a somewhat Weezer-like sound -- I've been listening to them since I heard one of the songs they did for the Bleach soundtrack last year -- good, solid emo rock that's easy to get into. Typhoon24 are a slightly harder sounding band, a bit messier and a bit more punk. It's a great combination. Lots of energetic rock, with a song for every scene worth remembering. Also, there is an awesome, awesome cover of the Beatles' I've Got a Feeling that is the entire climax of the series, which I just don't think would've worked without Typhoon24.

Hirabayashi Kazuya, the singing voice of Koyuki, has a high-pitched, nasal voice that's just perfect for Koyuki's adolescent character. That cover of I've Got a Feeling? Couldn't have worked without him. Beat Crusaders' own version of Moon on the Water had more depth with Hidaka Tooru on the vocals though. I was slightly annoyed by Tatsuzo's rapping for most of the series. I couldn't find anything particularly distinctive about his voice to hook me with, and I thought he sounded too "soft" for the music involved. It's okay, but not really mind blowing. Sowelu has a pleasant, albeit somewhat generic, easy listening type voice. I've heard some of the stuff she's done before. It's really not my cup of tea, but it works great for Maho, and especially for the key songs she appeared in.

Every T-shirt and CD cover that appears on the show is a rock reference to something else. The first school band two of our heroes wind up in to prove their chops is called Ciel Blue, which the vocalist constantly reminds everyone means "Blue Sky" in French. One of the first Japanese rock crushes I had was for a band called L'Arc~en~Ciel, whose name means "Rainbow" in French.

And then we have the huge roster of people who appeared during the show but didn't make it onto either of the official soundtrack CDs. Most of Beck takes place in live houses. The music from this end of things stays pretty solidly high energy but generic rock. There's a lot of sly digs when the music does go into variety meat mode. Belle Ame, the main musical rival of our intrepid heroes, are a kind of horribly discombobulated amalgamation of Glay and Luna Sea. They're featured as a skyrocketing new band specializing in banal, generic 90s girlie pop-rock, complete with arcane hand signals from a primarily female audience. In fact, there is a scene during a major rock festival near the end where it is proven that real rock bands have fangirls that flash their tits.

*peace signs!*

... y'know, I've been wondering for years if Japanese fangirls are into the whole flashing thing...

There is a salute to The Pillows. The awesome, awe-inspiring, winsome genkiness of, THE PILLOWS. Their music inexplicably shows up throughout the series under the guise of The Heroes. Taira, the bassist of Beck, is recruited at one point to play with them. Yamanaka Sawao and Yoshiaki Manabe have speaking cameos. And then, in Episode 26, to save us from the dying plot that's trying to walk itself in front of a moving vehicle, it's all them.

There's even an imitation Jewel. Is there something out there even more generically whingy than Jewel? There is. Imitation Jewel. And in a true scene to kill every last vestige of the sad little whingy girl who listened to the first Jewel record back when I was 16, not only does our intrepid Hero the 1st takes up Jewel's acoustic guitar, he uses it to play the truly awesome cover of I've Got a Feeling that Saves Rock Music(tm).

Official Verdict: This soundtrack totally rocks.

Whaddaya know, I was able to finish this review without having touched the manga once. Yay me!



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 15th, 2007 04:46 am (UTC)
you have me watching Beck out of curiosity.
Jan. 15th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
How're you finding it?
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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