Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad

Genre: Musical drama
Length: 26 episodes
Rating: PG for nudity
Score: Very good

Yukio is an ordinary dull teenager with little going for him, until he meets Ryuusuke – or Ray – a musician who lived in America and speaks English. Yukio is entranced by the aura of danger around him, and starts hanging around Ryuusuke and his musician friends (and it doesn’t hurt that he has a hot sister). Soon Ray notices Yukio’s own talent and persuades him to form a band together.

Musical dramas seem to be a genre to themselves. They have something in common with shounen or sports, but with a stronger air of realism. They are also each strongly influenced by the type of music that the characters play. In this case, it’s underground indie rock, with influences of punk and rap, and a backlash against soft meaningless J-pop and J-rock.

Yukio is the embodiment of the ordinary Japanese boy. He doesn’t have good looks, he’s not strong, he’s not too smart, he’s not popular, he’s got no confidence at all and he’s not clued up on social situations. He has a hard time with bullying, and it gets worse when he starts to get some degree of success in the band. The series does a good job of balancing the two needs: showing that bullies are people too, and showing just how horrible bullying can be. Like a lot of Japanese people, his reaction to almost any sort of challenge is to back down, apologise profusely and let himself be walked over.

He does have one thing going for him, though: musical talent. That probably explains why, when everything in his life is falling to pieces, he sticks with the music – even against advice of teachers telling him to give up because he’ll never amount to anything.

The story also weaves in a twisting romance with Ryuusuke’s sister Maho (who also speaks English better than Japanese). In many ways this was portrayed realistically – the way he knows so little about how she feels, the way things can go completely cold for months only to suddenly turn warm again. But I wasn’t entirely convinced by his feelings for her. Everybody craves love and approval, especially teenagers, but I felt for much of the series that he only really loved one thing: the music.

The depiction of the music business is pretty good too – with poor, romantic creatives on the one hand, and ruthless businessmen on the other. They do things like forcing stupidly unfair agreements on bands, changing their name at a whim, and judging quality purely on audience numbers. Things get more dangerous later on, when it turns out that Ryuusuke’s favourite guitar Lucille – the one with the bullet holes – was actually stolen from some pretty nasty people.

Something that comes out in the original soundtrack, but not to my knowledge the dub, is the way the series uses English – which is to say copiously and moderately well. Ish. Mostly. Some of the actors are playing native English speakers and some merely Japanese people who speak it. Engrish in anime is famously bad, and many of the actors in this are a lot better than the average – but not all. And the words themselves felt a bit awkward. They clearly needed a gaijin consultant to even out the kinks.

And the music? It’s pretty good. As long as you don’t mind Engrish.