Slightly American Bandstand
Beck presents a coming of age story set on the cold, harsh streets of Japan.
Yukiyo Tanaka, or Koyuki, is fourteen years old and perfectly normal. His face is uninspired, he sleeps through class, he doesn't have any talents to speak of, and the only music he listens to is pop. In his own words, he's one hell of a boring guy.
Then one day, Koyuki is resting on a bench after getting beat up when he sees a dog that looks like a canine Frankenstein. The dog is Beck, and his owner Ryuske is a mysterious musician that takes Koyuki under his wing and introduces him to the world of underground rock. Koyuki becomes inspired, and he dedicates himself to music. Slowly but surely, a boring Japanese kid learns to assert himself and pursue his dreams.
This title is an interesting one, and the mixture of good and bad points will keep people wondering if it's good or not, even while they're downloading their tenth episode. We're going to get the bad stuff out of the way first.
Beck is a simple anime, and many things about it might lead some people to brand it as low quality or low budget.
The animation, for example, is sub-par. Figures are drawn roughly, and movement is anything but smooth. Some scenes are drawn out so that the same animation is looped a few times. Detail in the characters is very sparse, and somewhere between episodes eight and ten, the style changes all together, as if there had been some displacement in the animation department. If you compare Beck to some of the other titles that came out around the same time, such as Bleach or Grenadier, the contrast in quality is obvious.
If you look at the manga that Beck is based on, the reason becomes apparent. The manga is not drawn in the usual Pokemonesque pointed chin, primary color style. It's expressive, and very flamboyant. Although the anime removes the high level of expressive detail that's found in the manga, it keeps the funky character designs and rounded lines.
Next to the loose animation is a healthy does of Engrish. Ryuske and his sister, Maho have come to Japan from the US, where they had spent much of their childhood. As such, both are supposed to know English much more fluently than Japanese.
The second they open their mouths, you know this not true. The voice actors make a commendable attempt at an American accent, but any native speaker can tell they're uncomfortable with the language. Engrish isn't only in the dialogue, it's also littered throughout Beck's music. The opening theme to the series is, in fact, a song that proclaims, "I was made to hit in America!"
Once you're done chuckling at the funny speech, you're introduced to the music, which is the major theme of this anime. There's a lot of name-dropping in Beck. Joe Satriani, Stevie Vai, The Cure, all the classics and the greats from the Western guitar scene are mentioned, and the ending credits are nothing but pictures of famous artists magnified.
The music in the anime isn't bad, but it's not stunning. Koyuki's band, Beck, is a garage band after all, and most of the music is garage band quality. For people who like amateur j-rock with a heavy Engrish influence, Beck's sound will be very welcome. Those who expect skill up to par with the likes of Liquid Tension Experiment will be sorely disappointed.
If you don't recognize anyone in the above paragraphs, have no fear. Even though the anime (and the manga exponentially more so) is chock full of pop references, you can watch the entire series and not understand a single one of them and still know exactly what's going on.
Because Beck has a lot to do with music, there are many spots where a good chunk of time is spent on a performance scene. There are also long pauses in the anime or still shots of barren streets with nothing much happening in the background. Between each episode, there is a lot of passing time as well. Beck is not a cliffhanger anime. Everything moves at a snail's pace. We follow Koyuki as he slowly learns his way around a guitar and starts getting better at the backstroke, and as the band builds and starts their search for fame. Sometimes the growth is almost indiscernible. But the anime grows, nonetheless. Even though the first few episodes seem to be going nowhere, those who stick with it will be rewarded.
Beck isn't an anime about beautiful animation, good English, or high end music. It's a story about Koyuki and the people around him, and this is where it shines. Koyuki is a very sympathetic character. We can all understand being a fourteen year old kid, feeling as if he could die and no one would ever notice. We feel his pain when he's sitting near a table of girls, all literally speaking in a language he can't understand. We feel his despair when he saves up all his money to fix a friend's guitar, only to have it broken by bullies.
And we celebrate with him when his practice puts him in first place during a school swim competition, or when he's asked to play supporting guitar in the band of a man that he looks up to and respects. As Koyuki's frustration and feelings of uselessness give way to a strong spirit and a will to succeed, we watch and cheer him on also.
It's not just Koyuki who is an outstanding character. The other characters in this anime are all simple, yet unique and complex beneath the surface. None of them would win any awards for outstanding character design, but each and every one of them has a personality that can't be completely pigeonholed into 'the girl next door' or the 'quirky friend'. Their problems and their quirks take a back seat to our hero's own, and by learning to help them, he learns to help himself.
The atmosphere of Beck is rather original as well. Never before has Japan been so grungy, so seedy, and so downright dangerous. Punks lurk in every ally and bullies wait in every privy. The kids of Japan throw punches, key cars, and drink like white trash. The Japan of Beck is like a de-clawed downtown New York. This perspective is very different from what some people might have of Japan, but it also may be a little more accurate. It's nice to see an anime with a different atmosphere than all the magic worlds, honorable history, and pretty romance.
There is a lot going for Beck. Its slow plot and sloppy animation are just superficial problems. The story, the characters, and the humble story of growing up at its heart are what keeps people coming back episode after episode.