When most people think of music with regards to anime, the first word that comes to the minds of many an anime fan would probably be “Cowboy Bebop”. And rightly so, the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop is nothing short of legendary. However, to those who are looking for something that is less Jazz and more Rock, and a show that you can enjoy on multiple levels, then I submit to you that “Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad” is the PERFECT show for you. With its combination of excellent story telling, endearing and complex characters, outstanding animation, a soundtrack that will knock your socks off, and what has to be one of THE best cast dubs in anime, “Beck” has something to please any mature palette. So, what’s it all about? What has “Beck” done to earn this high of praise from myself and countless others? Well, keep reading to find out.
Warnings and Notable Objectionable Content – Oh boy…I will say this here and now; if you are averse to profanity on any level, then this may not be for you. Just about all the characters in this one uses salty language that would make any sailor blush. There is also some violence, and a little bit of sexuality. Bottom Line, “Beck” is rated TV-MA, so if you are not of a mature age, then you might wanna take a pass.
Series Availability – “Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad” is readily available in DVD format from a lot of different stores, both brick and mortar and online. Originally the series was available in several individual volumes that includes commentary tracks for set episodes featuring the English dub cast and crew. Now “Beck” is available in a four-volume S.A.V.E Complete Collection; no extras, but a great price for all 26 episodes in one spot. “Beck” is also available for viewing on the Funimation page of YouTube. Take note though, that the series is listed under “Mongolian Chop Squad” [Don’t question it, just enjoy it while it lasts!] There is also a live-action movie version of “Beck” made in Japan.
Story Premise – “Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad” is a twenty-six episode series based off a manga by Takahiro Sakuishi. Our story starts with fourteen year old Yukio Tanaka, AKA “Koyuki”. His life is pretty much boring, routine and humdrum…that is until a chance encounter with the mother of all mixed breed dogs and his owner, the long-haired, English-speaking musician Ryusuke Minami, changed his life forever. Now with his new found band mates, the cool and collected Bassist Taira, the hypeman/lead vocalist Chiba, and the young yet talented drummer Saku, Koyuki must learn the intricate ins and outs of musicianship from the beginning all while trying to learn how to play guitar, keep said guitar, and himself, in one piece from local school bullies, and sort out his feelings between an old childhood friend, and the newfound love of Maho, Ryuske’s younger sister. One of the things that I love about “Beck” is that a viewer can enjoy it on so many different layers. If you want a slice-of-life story, “Beck” provides. If you want a love story, “Beck” provides. If you want a drama, “Beck” provides. If you want a coming of age series, “Beck” provides. If you just want to sit back and enjoy the music, then “Beck” more than provides. The story is tight and to the point, taking advantage of each and every episode, not giving everything to you at once, but slowly and naturally. The ending is both conclusive and hopeful for the future of our characters, leaving the viewer feeling rocked out and fully satisfied. [25/25]
Favorite Episode/Scene – My favorite overall episode has to be Episode Fourteen “Dream”. This story marks a great turning point for Koyuki as we see him reach the next level in his devlopment as both a guitarist and a musician as a whole, and it marks the first time we hear him REALLY belt out a song. My favorite scene has to be in the last episode “America”, when Maho and Koyuki are watching a slide show [off camera] and commenting about the different pictures. I really love the acting in this one, and it makes for a very unique way to end a series. I also find it funny that, dispite all that he’s accomplished, Koyuki sucks as a photographer.
Characters – As mentioned time and time before with shows like this, its’ the characters that propel the story forward. If you don’t have good characters, than your story will suffer greatly. The characters of “Beck” are one-of-a-kind. There’s no one stereotype that applies to any of them. They all are multi-dimensional characters that are intriguing to watch with each episode. Take Koyuki for example. He’s a 14-year-old middle school student who is melancholic about life, but he’s not a whiny little dweeb like most other characters in that same age bracket. He is the perfect awkward teenager that grows and develops as the series goes on. The same can be said with Maho, Ryusuke’s little sister. She’s a typical 14-year-old girl doing typical 14-year-old girl things, but she is neither a shrinking violet, nor a Witch-with-a-“B”. She’s strong due to her upbringing and background, yet she has a vulnerable side that makes her endearing. With regards to Ryuusuke, Chiba and Taira..as strange as this is going to sound, I get a Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy “Star Trek” vibe from this trio. Ryusuke is the headstrong captain; his word goes, and if you don’t like it, then you can take a jump. He is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others and for the sake of the group; a born leader. Taira acts as the logical, level-headed Mr. Spock; he’s the voice of reason in the group, more apt to say “Hey, let’s calm down, think this through, and consider things for a minute.” than jumping headlong into things. [Granted, Spock is not prone to taking off his shirt whenever he plays his Vulcan Lute…] Chiba is the emotional Dr. McCoy; he lets his emotions show [with multiple explicatives…] and is not ashamed of it. He’s more apt to following his heart with his head, and his almost countless explosions of energy is hilarious to watch, especially when everyone else is relatively calm. Saku is pretty much Koyuki’s sound board; someone on his own level whom he can talk with and ask for advice, yet is going through the same growth and learning process. Overall, the characters of “Beck” make the show worth watching, and one of the key components of it’s success. [25/25]
Animation – The animation style used in “Beck” is an excellent study in what I like to call “Animated realism”. It the kind of animation style that I enjoyed in “Planetes”, and for this series, it is equally beautiful to watch. It’s real enough that makes you take it seriously, but it has its scenes and moments, like Yukio’s amazing jump in episode twenty-two, “Performance Eve Festival”, which brings home the fact that this is, indeed an anime. While it is never explained what the heck is the deal with the Frankenstein-Fido Beck, for some reason, I think it’s a quirky touch to the series, and I really didn’t see anything wrong with it. [12.5/12.5]
Music – As I mentioned earlier, the soundtrack for “Beck” should be, if it’s not already, the stuff of legend. If you are looking for a worthy successor to “Cowboy Bebop” with regards to music, then “Beck” is a prime contender. The opening song “Hit in the U.S.A” by Beat Crusaders, sets the tone for the entire show. It’s upbeat tone and infectious chorus makes for an opening that stays with you long after the series ends. The opening sequence animation is epic, showing our boys on tour in the USA. I particularly like the fact that we see the main characters sing the opening chorus. “Beck” gives you three ending songs for your approval, used at various points throughout the series; “My World Down”, by Meister is a tribute to all that is Rock and Roll, “Moon over Water” also by Beat Crusaders with artist Sowelu on vocals giving a peaceful aura to the series, and “Slip Out” by Mongolian Chop Squad as one epic final sendoff to the series and the viewers as a whole. The music throughout the series pays proper and due respect to the history of Rock & Roll, R&B, Hip-Hop and Blues music, from the “British Invasion” era with The Beatles, to groups like The Who, The Rolling Stones, and individual artists like Jimi Hendrix. All is represented, respected and well done. Heavy rock songs like “Spice of Life”, and “Brainstorm” get you up on your feet and get the blood pumping while other songs like “Follow Me”, “Moon over Water”, and “I’ve Got A Feeling” are mellow, nice, and memorable. Adding to this is the excellent vocals for the English Dub which I will touch on later. But for now, if you are looking for one of the most awesome soundtracks in anime, then “Beck” gives you that and then some. [12.5/12.5]
Performances and Production – This project was handled by Funimation Entertainment, with Christopher Bevins and Taliesin Jaffe taking turns at the helm for this project. Both directors have had their hands in many different projects in the world of anime, with Christopher taking credit for shows like “Spiral”, “Big Windup!” and “Dragonball GT”. Tallesin Jaffe…well…we’ve discussed his involvement with anime in prior reviews…[none too favorably I must admit…] but honestly, his skills with all things outside of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” are praise worthy and redeeming, with projects like “MoonPhase” and “Read or Die” under his belt. “Beck” is a study in putting the right people in the right places at the right times. The writers were not only faced with the challenge of adapting the regular dialogue for american audiences, but they also had to adapt each and every song which, truth be told, makes little to no sense in the original English-turn-Japanese. The crew came through though, as each song and word of dialogue is given new life in this English adaptation, while still keeping true to the feeling of the original. Next came the voices. Not only did the actors have to focus on their standard dialogue, but they also had to sing..and sing well. Thankfully, the actors chosen were musicians in their own right, and put on a performance that eclipses the original Japanese. Please understand that this is not a slight to the original Japanese actors at all, but given the choice between the songs as they were performed by the Japanese and the ones done in English, I prefer the English a great deal more. In addition, I have respect for the English actors, in particular Greg Ayres as Yukio, Brina Palencia as Maho, and Justin Cook as Chiba due to the fact that, unlike their Japanese counterparts who used separate voices for singing and dialogue, did both acting and singing and produced a high quality for both. Again, I don’t mean that as a slight at all to the original voice actors in any way, I just simply admire the extra effort on behalf of the cast and crew of the English dub for doing double duty as actors and singers. Other voices, like Eric Vale as Ryuuske, Johnny Yong Bosch as Saku, and Jerry Jewell as Taira are all awesome across the board and extremely believable, giving performances that make “Beck” one of the best written, produced and dubbed shows of ALL time. [25/25]
Story Breakdown – 25/25
Characters – 25/25
Animation – 12.5/12.5
Music – 12.5/12.5
Performance and Production – 25/25
Final Score – 100/100 – A
Lagniappe (A Little Something Extra):
In episode six, “Hyodo and the Jaguar”, the choir can be heard singing [Terribly, I might add…] “Tsubasa wo Kudasai (Give Me Wings)”. This song was later used in “Evangelion 2.0: You Can (NOT) Advance” and a cover of the song was recorded by the group Ho-kago Tea Time. [OtakuAndrain would kill me if I didn’t mention them…he’s something of a fanboy…]
In episode fourteen, “Dream”, Ciel Bleu, a band formed by Koyuki’s schoolmates, sings “Justice of darkness ~ Yokai Ningen Bem no Theme” which is called “Apparition Beasts” in the English dub. This is the opening theme for an old-school anime known as “Humanoid Monster Bem”. This song was also performed Karaoke-style with similar lyrics in the anime “His and Her Circumstances”.
The series makes references and homages to a number of famous musicians and bands including but not limited to The Ramones, Red Hot Chili Peppers [The character design for Taira is based on one of the members of R.H.C.P] The Who, Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, The Beatles and many more.
In the last episode, Taira is seen playing with another band, The Heroes. This group is actually The Pillows, as they are heard playing several songs made famous in the anime “FLCL”. In fact, a member of The Pillows makes a cameo appearance in the show’s last episode.
In the original Japanese version, Ryusuke’s guitar is named “Lucille”, a reference to B.B King’s guitar of the same name. However, for unknown reasons, the English Dub changed the name to “Prudence”. [It COULD be because there may have been some Copyright issues with the name “Lucille”…heck, I’m not certain…]
In Episode 26, “America”, during the slide show with Koyuki and Maho, a picture of Chiba can be seen reading “PlayGirl” magazine. For those of you who DON’T know, “PlayGirl” magazine is the female equivilant of “PlayBoy” magazine. [Hey, I don’t judge…]
Almost ironically, the two greenest members of Beck, Koyuki and Saku, have English voice actors who are highly talented in the world of music; with Greg Ayres being a successful DJ and singer [A talent that will be called upon once again in another series…], and Johnny Yong Bosch heading up his group Eyeshine. [Seriously, if you have yet to hear the song “Our Whole Lives Tonight”, then you’re missing out.]
So, where does that leave us? Just look at the score and see for yourself. “Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad” is a show that goes above and beyond the call of duty, taking a simple premise of a group of guys staring a band and running with it. With a simple yet engaging story, intriguing characters, surreal yet real animation, a soundtrack to end all soundtracks, and acting/singing that is Grammy-Level, “Beck” does what many have tried and few have truly accomplished; they made an anime you can sing to.
And so, Musical March kicks off on a high note [pun intended…nyuk, nyuk, nyuk…]. Coming up down the line, I’m going to turn the mic over to OtakuAndrain as he has more experience with this next show than I do [That and I have a six-day work schedule ahead of me that is going to leave me a sobbing mass of goo…]. So please be kind as he reviews one of the cutest musical anime of all time…