Boy makes it big with a band, thus overcoming the loneliness of being an outcast. Using this unremarkable foundation, the series proceeds to erect an impressive plot quite unlike a lot of other shows around. It's mainly the style of presentation, the attention to the details of this musical world, and the fantastic characterisation that allow the story to shine.
If there were one literary word to sum up the entire story, it would be ‘engaging'. It doesn't grab you with stunts or sick twists, but with drama that is textured and intricate in delivery. How does this show make you feel? Well, being a sucker for long-haired men in baggy jeans and Vans trainers, I immediately wanted to blast out some Silverchair, stick posters of Kurt Cobain all over my wall, dig out my tattered jeans from days past, and lounge in a smoky room pretending I know a lot about Hendrix.
On the one hand, the most fun episodes portrayed the practical obstacles in the way of the characters' dreams. For example, the episodes where Ryuusuke, the lead guitarist, hunts around for various characters to enlist for the band, all the while considering the compatibility of these individuals, are excellent. Koyuki's awkward progression from rookie to decent guitar player is believably slow, and the way he and his friend Sakurai Yuuji come to form the final additions to the band comes across as a well-deserved triumph. On the other hand, the personal dynamics found in the bullying side plots, Koyuki's love triangle, and Ryuusuke's semi-gangster background added real value.
In a more general sense, this series also celebrates the universal power of music to shape a person's life. We all have a song that means something to us, or an album that describes how we think about the world, or a band that first bonded us with our friends, and this fact of life makes it easy for us to connect with Beck's central theme. Not once does this series lose pace or divert into silly unrelated subplots in order to bulk up the mid section. If anything, the level of entertainment rises consistently until the very satisfying climax.
Created in an era when glossy animation, flawless movement, and bold colours are the trend, Beck presents us with something directly opposed to the norm. Nothing but deliberate stylistic choice could explain what the creators did with the visuals; for one, movement was generally awkward and what I can only describe as ‘easygoing'. The animation also had an unrefined quality because of the muted colours and simplistic character designs.
Yet, I could tell that different did not mean shoddy in this case because the attention paid to capturing Japan's rock counterculture was fantastic. Everything appeared lifted from real life, from the various phrases on people's T-shirts, the labels on their baseball caps, the layers of colourful outfits, to the fashionable glasses, their distinct hairstyles, their peculiar mannerisms, and the posters and shop signs that depicted where these people went to have fun. I was also impressed with the CG shots of instruments being played, and the realistic way in which the musicians moved. In the end, the high rating is deserved simply because the quality of the actual product - the effort put into capturing the culture - is so high, and the unconventional, unpretentious style works so well to enhance the mood of the story.
Well, it should be clear by now that Beck is very much about sound; in fact, making beautiful noise is all Ryuusuke and his band care about. Do they achieve this? Most definitely. Is it worth buying? Hell, yes. That is, if you like that kind of music. ‘Hit in the USA' by the Beat Crusaders is such a catchy rock opening theme, that I insisted on listening to it every episode (maybe even rewinding to hear it a second time before the story started). ‘My World Down', the ending theme, reminded me a lot of classic nineties Brit-rock bands like Oasis. Whilst the songs during the rehearsals and live gigs often had nonsensical English lyrics, the heavy riffs and hard guitar sounds were right up my alley. Interestingly, unless a radio was present or the characters were in a rehearsal, music was largely absent from the everyday scenes, with natural sounds being used in the background instead.
Just like the animation, the voice acting has a laid back quality to it which I find captivating - moreover, all the voices are well suited and competent in straight Japanese. A few of the characters, like the bullies in the first episode, have genuine American voice actors, however, Ryuusuke, Maho, and a couple of other Engrish speakers sometimes did not make the grade. With lines like ‘Who do you think I'm making me scary?' Maho is the second worst Engrish speaker I have yet come across (Black Lagoon's Revy being number one). Ryuusuke's is more weird than bad because he has the accent down, but not the pronunciation. Fortunately, although Engrish features relatively often in this show, it doesn't detract much from the overall quality.
Beck's approach towards its cast is very well considered. I got the impression the creators allowed these personalities to be themselves and to develop and drive the plot in the way that suited them. The characters, in essence, felt natural.
Yukio Tanaka (generally called Koyuki) is introduced in the first episode as an isolated individual. For example, he gets embarrassingly tricked in class, but rather than get upset or angry, he just sits down again, as if this were normal. However, Koyuki isn't a simplistic introverted dork, nor is he strictly antisocial, because he does have friends of sorts. Moreover, he will unreservedly stand up for a physical fight even against three massive American bullies to protect his friends. It is only in the face of conventional social situations that he rolls over. He is not a coward, exactly, but a person who is so overwhelmed by group dynamics that he can't comprehend being a part of ordinary society.
Ryuusuke Minami is a company executive's son with a legendary guitar, well-travelled, well-connected, and charming in that mysterious musical genius sort of way. Like Koyuki, he is disconnected from the norm, but unlike Koyuki, he gets noticed. One of the first instances he is introduced, he's coldly and publicly breaking up with a girl, showing no sensitivity whatsoever. At the same time, he is a passionate and inspirational person who helps Koyuki to find meaning in music. Ryuusuke is not straightforward, and the several facets of his very subtle personality are revealed incrementally throughout.
Other band members worth some limelight include my favourite, Taira the bass player, who has a calm, self-assured attitude, and Chiba, a silly, aggressive front man who provides some classic comedy moments.
A host of important but less central characters include Maho Minami, who is Ryuusuke's sister and Koyuki's love interest, and Saito the perverted former Olympic swimmer, who makes for a good comedy addition. He links seamlessly into the plot by helping Koyuki build a sense of self-worth through swimming and work. Izumi Ishiguro, Koyuki's childhood love and Hyoudou the bully make enlightening contributions too despite being minor characters.
There are many musical anime, a multitude of coming of age stories, and countless plots about nobodies who become somebodies, and yet Beck still manages to navigate a refreshing route through these well-worn ideas. The characters have a notable intricate quality, the story is an uplifting one about perseverance and passion, and the animation style both surprises and delights. Beck is just a superb piece of work.