Review of Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad (2004)

Moving picture, 10 hours

Seen in 2016.

I took a break of about 6 years between the first two thirds of this show and the rest of it.

A dull Japanese 14-year-old with no particular prospects is slowly sucked into a love of foreign music, eventually joining a garage band named Beck to perform contemporary rock and roll. In the final episode, he quits his oppressive part-time job in a restaurant kitchen and chooses touring over senior high.

Drama combining fledgling rock star fantasy and slice of life. The good part of this series is its portrayal of a coming of age: a baby-faced normal kid discovering a passionate interest and developing a new skill with a bunch of other kids who are all pretty believable, derailing off the bourgeois career track as a result. That’s a good central motif, and this show doesn’t piss it away. A couple of scenes of implausible action don’t hurt it, but practically everything else that’s tied into it is mediocre.

The love stories are awkwardly curtailed. A well-connected bilingual fashion model literally sleeps together with the protagonist at one point, without sex or even kissing, and it’s unclear whether she’d want to, but she lets his mother believe they’re fucking. At other times they kiss, but if they ever confess to their feelings, or say anything about a relationship status, or fret over the issue as real teens would, the audience doesn’t hear of it. The protagonist’s mother, an off-screen character, is heard lecturing him on having a responsible sex life but is never heard commenting on his apparent decision to drop out of school. These things are downplayed to such an extent that realism cannot have been a major objective of the scenario writer and overall director, despite the long arc of the plot.

There’s a plot thread involving a ruthless American promoter named Sykes and his henchman (Goldie) who almost murders the founder of Beck on more than one occasion, and obstructs the band. These scenes have terribly stilted English dialogue and none of the humour of—for instance—Frank Zappa’s satires on the music industry, or Phantom of the Paradise (1974). They come across as one part American-style action movie imitation, three parts warning about exploitative industry practices for music-loving kids watching the show and considering the protagonist’s atypical choice of career.

Aside from the great opening, the animation is mostly low-budget early digipaint with some abysmal outsourced cuts and 3D CGI people. The way the characters play their instruments usually looks off. The character designs are pretty good, including some admirably realistic Americans. Very little of the music is actually good, but again, the opening stands out, being set to the Beat Crusaders’ perfectly appropriate “Hit in the USA”. Some of the bilingual acting is all right, but an English-speaking writer correcting the scripts would have been a big help.

The writers, or at least the author of the comic, obviously have an interest in music. The band The Pillows, responsible for the iconic soundtrack of FLCL (2000), have a couple of songs in here. They cameo as The Heroes (ピロウズ≈ヒーローズ), and there’s a gentle parody of Yngwie Malmsteen as a man who sells guitars. Many of the intentionally vague, unauthorized allusions to other musicians are beyond me.

At one point in episode 23, the protagonist gets up on stage alone, without the rest of his Beck, and a member of the audience expresses confusion at the idea that Beck—a band he’s never seen—might be just one guy. World-renowned musician and 15-year Scientology cultist Beck Hansen never comes closer to being referenced. I get the impression that the show takes place in an alternate universe where he never existed or never succeeded. The show’s style of music doesn’t even resemble his. This weirds me out, just like the omission of basic romantic beats. Beck’s first hit, “Loser”, seems to have reached Japan, and that happened 5 years before the start of the comic this show is based on. The fantasy patchwork dog named Beck does nothing except to damage credibility. There is no implicit extradiegetic reason why the dog—and thence the band—are named Beck, except as an allusion to the musician, so I assume that all corroborating evidence in this regard was omitted for legal reasons.

References here: Zombieland Saga (2018), Carole & Tuesday (2019).

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction series