Monday, December 24, 2007

REVIEW: "Beck" Strikes a Chord: The Mongolian Chop Squad Returns in Volume 2

[ARTICLE written for Toon Zone News 12-19-07]

Ladies and Gentlemen! Tonight—and for tonight only—on your very own DVD player comes the return of the guitar-strumming, mic-fumbling, tom-tapping heroes of teen angst. Yes, light your lighters, spill your drinks and get all sweaty for Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad Volume 2.

For those slightly too many people not in the know, Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad was the creation of Harold Sakuishi and originally featured in Monthly Shōnen Magazine. More recently it has been adapted for animation and distributed in the US in English-friendly form by Funimation. Volume 1 contained the first five episodes of this 26-episode adaptation. If you have no interesting in reading that previous review by clicking here, I will summarize Volume 1 as an enjoyable, gentle piece of Shōnen that captured the spirit of its manga origins and of the music business in general. Aside from some questionable success with the Western dub, it was a light but fun entry into the story. It also came with a free guitar plectrum.

Volume 2 is more of the same, though I must confess my disappointment with the free gift. As Volume 1 had generously started my personal journey into the music world with a free guitar plectrum, I naturally expected the second DVD to include a free guitar to go with it. Alas, all I got was another plectrum. On the upside, it was a different color.

Gifts aside, I can safely say I enjoyed Volume 2 far more than Volume 1. It took me some time to get used to the pacing, characters and story line in the first volume. In fact, the characters weren't immediately likable, and it took those first five episodes to build a rapport. By the time you get to the Volume 2 and the sixth episode of the story, you are a little more entrenched in their enchanting if turbulent world; the characters mean a little more, and the viewing expectations have found a happy medium.

The pace of Beck is one of the show's strongest merits. It doesn't rush its way through the story. By the final episode of this second volume, the story's protagonist, Koyuki, has only just played his first gig with the band. Quite often the spine of the story plays second place to the character orientation situations that surround it. Volume 2 pushes Koyuki and his friends through some social challenges which all play out satisfactorily. In particular, the bullying arc—a story thread that carries through these five episodes—has a particularly enjoyable momentary resolution.

As with Volume 1, the show portrays the entry level environment of the music industry with dignity and a fair amount of accuracy. Having myself taken a stab at the music industry, I can attest to many of the issues, circumstances and overall portrayals of the music world. Band politics, musical technique, rehearsals, sound checks, and gig performances all play very true and should resonate with any musician who has been "there". The only real downside to the series is the lack of sparkle in its range of characters. Koyuki is—as with so many protagonists in the Shōnen genre—reactive rather than active, with a flair for unattractiveness that the females seem not to notice but which can bewilder the audience. Likewise, the females neatly sit in their respective manga archetypes, and the band are just too cool to be interesting. Fortunately, a few of the older, minor players such as Koyuki's musical mentor Ken'ichi and his school teacher Momoko, add texture, but it's really the story and ambiance which holds the attention.

The DVD itself is pretty uninspiring. As with the first disk, the basic interface remains pretty but no more than functional, and this second volume even lacks the commentary track like came with the first. In fact, the special features are very barren, with little more than spiced-up excerpts to carry the bonus footage, along with the obligatory trailers.

Speaking of trailers, Funimation has once again decided to splash its faithful viewer with nostalgic memories of VHS, thanks to yet another catalog title that commences with a mandatory trailer. Ah, for the days of analog fast forward and rewind. Skipping seems to have become an unpopular option with the animation industry. Not only do you get promotional trailers listed as "bonus" or "special features" (yes, I buy DVDs purely on the hope that they have some adverts as extras), but you have a fixed one at the start! Yes, you can navigate around the title you've bought, but not the adverts! You have the choice of watching the main feature, but not the trailer at the beginning. I can't help feeling something there is the wrong way round.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable DVD. Essentially, it's more of the same, but I think the drama of Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad is beginning to pay off in volume two. Certainly it's a story worth sticking with that entertains and remains faithful to its source, even if the DVD itself is lacking a certain lustre. But then, no rock gig is complete without one duff track, and on that note, I will crescendo my review by underscoring that rock and roll simile: Beck's second DVD is like a solid rock band that needs to work a little harder on its image and charisma; the substance is there, you just have to look for it.

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