Or, as it’s better known in its North American release so as to not confuse it with another Beck, Mongolian Chop Squad.
Koyuki, the hero of our story, is a bit of a boring kid. His only friend is a major jerk (with the face and hair coloring of a 40-year-old), he has no interests or hobbies, and the only music he listens to is sung by pop idols. Then, two things happen: he reconnects with Izumi, a girl who went to calligraphy class with him as a kid, and he saves a dog (Beck) that looks like Frankenstein’s monster pet from some dumb kids. Both these things lead him to the dog’s owner Ryusuke, a guitarist with the goal to create the ultimate band. Koyuki starts to make new, not-awful friends, not just Izumi and Ryusuke but new band members like loud-mouth Chiba, and classmate/drummer Saku. Then he discovers real music—and everything changes for him.
Inspired by Ryusuke, Koyuki learns the guitar, getting lessons from ex-Olympic swimmer and British rock fan Mr. Saito, gaining confidence until he joins Ryusuke’s band, puts himself out there as a singer, and eventually writes his own song. In addition to that, he spends the show navigating awkward teenage love—not with Izumi, but with Maho, Ryusuke’s bold, blunt, and encouraging sister.
I first found Beck through my then-boyfriend, now-husband, when he began collecting the manga released by Tokyopop (talk about nostalgia…). I became a fan pretty quickly. I was interested in the anime, but I put off watching the subs (mainly due to viewing preferences) and soon it fell off my radar.
A short time later, my excitement pumped up when FUNimation acquired the license and started promoting the heck out of the anime. For a couple years when I sat at their panel at Anime Boston I was treated to clips, music videos, and tales of the all night efforts script adapters went through to keep the songs as authentic as possible. They were enthusiastic, which made me enthusiastic, and convinced me to preorder volume 1 with the amp-shaped art box. I started watching the anime with some friends, and as well written and engrossing (though woefully unfinished in English) the manga is, the anime nabbed me even harder as a fan.
Beck is a coming of age tale, a story type I’m particularly fond of, with a main focus on Koyuki, first with his struggles through life in general—he’s forgettable, and just when he begins to find confidence in himself he becomes the focus of bullies—that slowly progresses into something bigger. There are the usual plot lines of true friendship and first love that normally come out of these types of stories, but the big theme here is finding a passion. Like I said, when the story begins Koyuki has nothing in his life that excites him. But with music he finds something he’s driven to do—staying up late practicing until his fingers chafe—that gives him confidence, and finally becomes more important than other parts of life that outside people like teachers think he should focus on.
Aside from a driving force for the main character, the music part of the show has an effect on the viewers. Whether you love the songs, think they’re okay, or dislike them outright, emotions swell when Koyuki sings. The mood of the other characters alters, and they’re all driven because of what they heard. Probably the songs and the voice, whether you’re watching it dubbed or in Japanese, aren’t as wonderful as you imagined when reading the manga, but the anime seems to realize that, and many of these big moments, like when he sings the song Face, written about Maho, for the first time, begin as the show fades to black. It gets that amped up feeling started, and lets you imagine the rest.
The way most of the episodes are timed out is pretty off putting, something I’d forgotten since the last time I’d watched the whole show through. Often they end in the midst of a new plot point, with the next episode taking off at that exact spot, so that the rolling of credits startles you out of the show. Partly this is because Beck isn’t really episodic; everything leads into the next, so things don’t split off so easily. But I think this also comes from the deliberate slowness of the show. Koyuki might meet Ryusuke in the first episode, but he doesn’t start playing the guitar for a few episodes after that, and doesn’t even join the new band until episode nine. And there are always multiple things happening—Koyuki learning to swim while Ryusuke struggles to pull a band, also called Beck, together—so the slow, mellowed pace helps keep everything straight while maintaining interest in each successive scene. If it wasn’t for the opening and ending songs to break it up every twenty-odd minutes, I could easily get lost in the continuous flow.
Beck also has a huge cast—Koyuki, his music teacher Momoko, crazy old Mr. Saito, his classmates (and bullies), band mates, other bands…but much as with the layered plot, the slow pacing of the show makes it easy to digest, so characters don’t needlessly overlap and crowd each other out, allowing you to feel the importance of each person, even if they don’t remain prominent for the entire show. While most of the important people in Koyuki’s life stick around, some fade to the background as the plot carries Koyuki on. With Mr. Saito, as Koyuki masters the guitar and spends his time with the band or his demanding job, he slips off to his own love life (though he manages to still affect the plot in some major ways). But the biggest example of this is Izumi. She’s the first to pull Koyuki out of his quiet life and away from his horrible friends, and the one responsible for introducing him to real music when she lends him an album by the American band Dying Breed. She even gave him the nickname (“little” Yuki, to differentiate him from a boy in their calligraphy class) that everyone that truly matters in his life calls him by. In a normal show, Izumi would have been the love interest. But she graduates, goes to a different high school, slips a little bit out of Koyuki’s life. “I missed my chance,” she says to him, knowing, even if he won’t admit, that his affections have moved to someone else: Maho.
Though the viewers know early on that Maho and Koyuki will be together, the pair stumbles through a fantastically awkward teenage romance. Koyuki starts off befuddled, in the midst of a crush on Izumi when Maho becomes a big part of his life, and later remains confused as Maho encourages him to sing, visits him at night, even kisses him, but then hangs out with another guy who obviously wants Maho to be his girlfriend. And then there’s Maho, who plays the cool tough chick, but can’t hide her distress or jealousy when Koyuki shows attention to other girls and even admits to being too nervous to sleep in the same room as him. It’s almost painful at times, seeing them get so close and then solidly getting in their own way, but it rings true to the awkward experience of young love, and the payout at the end, while small, feels great.
The story gets bigger than just Koyuki’s gradual character growth with the introduction of Leon Sykes. Years before the show began when Ryusuke lived in New York, he was breaking into cars with Eddie, the now-leader of the band Dying Breed, when they found Prudence, a legendary guitar riddled with bullet holes. Ryusuke stole it, along with his dog Beck, not realizing until later that it had been in possession of Leon Sykes, crime lord and music business head. Fastforward to the band’s first CD released in America, with Prudence featured on the cover. It doesn’t take long for Sykes to come looking for his guitar and dog, putting not only Ryusuke’s life in danger, but the future of the band.
Koyuki has no idea of any of this, not until the very end, after it came to a head at the Greatful Sound music festival. Seen through Ryusuke’s eyes, this was a separate plot from Koyuki’s own coming-of-age tale, but both grow in intensity in conjunction. It does make the story a little over the top—Sykes kidnaps Ryusuke in a helicopter in the middle of the night—and the point changes from Koyuki getting out of his own way to Koyuki overcoming the obstacles other people put in front of him. But it’s also where Koyuki’s problems become bigger than himself. Too bad the anime ended before we could see how he moved on through it all.
Slice-of-life coming of age stories are always making an appearance with shows like Silver Spoon showcasing a lackluster kid who learns to care deeply about something. There’s not really a lack of these tales, but there is always a need. Viewers can put themselves in the character’s shoes and think, I can try something new, I can be good at something, and Beck excels at it. There’s nothing about Beck that makes the story too old or out of touch for today’s fans of the story type; ten years later, Koyuki’s story still makes you excited and hopeful.