Although artists like Yoko Kanno and series like cowboy bebop have made music an indispensable part of anime, music-centric anime usually struggles to gain acclaim or retain lasting influence. An exception to this is Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad — a rock-themed series centered on Yukio “Koyuki” Tanaka, a 14-year-old boy who forms a rock band. Adapted from Harold Sakuishi’s 1999 manga by Osamu Kobayashi and Madhouse Studio in 2004, beck remained a standard of the genre for almost two decades.
The challenge of the musical anime genre is reminiscent of the challenge of Kunstlerroman — a category of story which, unlike the most common Bildungsroman, describes an artist’s coming of age. By bringing together his sources on rock in the angst and melodrama of adolescence, beck remains perhaps the best example of this subgenre.
The challenge of this subtype has three parts, all of which present considerable difficulty for storytellers and performers. The first is to credibly depict a phase or picture of life in which the characteristic sensibility of an artist is absent. The second is to offer a realistic account of awakening and inspiration with elements specific to the life of this character. The third is to show how this process moves from passive reverie to action and even mundane practice, showing how the natural complexity of artists’ dreams meets reality. While there are many examples of Kunstlerroman in various media, only a few musical anime rise to these challenges, and arguably none as well as beck.
The series takes full advantage of its episodic slice-of-life feel to deliver a realistic portrayal of Koyuki’s unease, later subtly and gradually triggering his development as a musician. To that end, the series’ tone, atmosphere, and careful pacing places these core elements in such a way that the anime tells a compelling yet relatable story of adolescence. The series progresses slowly, but this deliberate pacing allows its moves to stick.
Koyuki – a nickname given to him by a childhood friend – is anxious, insecure, and distressed, though not particularly needy or disadvantaged. If anything, compared to other anime, there is a noticeable lack of serious tragedy and obvious drama in Koyuki’s life. This makes the show’s emotional stakes harder to recognize, but ultimately more enduring and easier to understand. as a fairly typical teenager, Koyuki simply lacks the experience and maturity to see himself, let alone do anything in his life.
To that end, Koyuki’s entry into music expresses a story of self-awareness and self-expression. Rock and roll becomes for him the palette and the lexicon of his adolescence, yet the radical change that takes place over the 26 episodes of beck is made possible only with the laborious but realistic torpor of its first episodes.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Elsewhere, Koyuki’s initiation into the religion of rock is handled delicately and artfully, using incidental and indirect details to deliver a more personal and organic tale of inspiration. Besides Koyuki’s chance encounter with Ryusuke, an example of this realistic approach to inspiration is his turbulent encounter with Maho, Ryusuke’s sister. During an awkward interaction at a restaurant, Koyuki mocks Maho’s hesitant Japanese. Hesitantly, she responds angrily, “Who the fuck are you?”
The moment matters – not just as an Easter egg for die-hard The Who fans, but for its outsized importance in creating a visceral, realistic on-ramp for Koyuki’s investment in music. While for any 14-year-old boy to be insulted by a potential romantic interest would be a traumatic experience, the lingering impact of this encounter – and his burgeoning curiosity for Maho’s abrasive and troubled personality – fuels his newfound appreciation for the rock band Dying Breed. Although diverted and circumstantial, this kind of spontaneous and very personal detail reflects the inspiration more organically.
The Long Black Road (or “Driving the Van”)
In addition to its rhythmic and spontaneous visions of reverie and self-discovery, beck offers a realistic picture of the practical difficulties of music, from the boredom of learning to the frustration of squabbling over artistic personalities – a kind of inglorious labor of love that Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath called “driving the van”. In this respect, the possible tensions that form in his relationship with Ryusuke and his bandmates, as well as his own initial shortcomings as a leader, add another necessary dimension as Koyuki’s dreams inevitably collide with reality.
Of course, much later in the series, as the band risk their lives to stay and play together, such careful preparation of these authentically inspired organic threads is what keeps beck to fall into the cliche and promises decades more of a truly righteous rock journey.
Carole & Tuesday is the best since Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop