Tuesday, August 07, 2007

REVIEW: Mongolian Chop Suey: "Beck" on Form

[ARTICLE written for Toon Zone News: 06.08.07]

BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is an odd beast: an anime ambiguity, a musical misfit, a punk peculiarity. It does come with a free plectrum, though.

If you pick up this DVD while looking for the standard anime manga attributes—over-the-top fights; large breasts; big explosions; big, big guns—you are clearly so far from the beaten track you might as well pull out your eyes and slip in a pair of rocks in their place. If you are looking for a piece of Japanese anime that feels culturally alien to your Western environment, indulging in Eastern anthropology and archetypes, again, let me pass you them rocks.

However, if you are looking for a gently paced character drama about some Japanese kids aspiring to form a popular rock beat combo (or for a free plectrum), then eyes back in, my friend, as you've picked up the right box.

This is the first volume of the animation adaptation of Harold Sakuishi graphic adventures, first published in Monthly Shōnen Magazine. It contains five episodes of the 26-episode series, and the aforementioned free plectrum.

The story revolves around a 14-year-old Japanese lad called Yukio (Koyuki to his friends), who through a series of mishaps and good fortune, finds himself unexpectedly heading into that crazy, rebellious world of rock and roll, though not quite in the way you might expect. The first five episodes unfold at a very gentle pace. Music doesn't really become a driving force until part three, and even then the story is not hostage to its musical background. Character interaction takes center stage in these opening episodes, and to some extent that helps this story avoid some of the clichés you so often seen when rock is portrayed in television and film. Bands are as much internally political as they are musical—finding the balance of skills and egos is difficult in real life—and this is an aspect that the show seems committed to exploring.

Yes, it does have some formulaic archetypes, some of which will be familiar to anyone who has watched more than a couple of Japanese animations. Koyuki is the typical "ordinary" Japanese kid who is more reactive than proactive and trapped by the whims and behavior of the other characters. We also have the two love interests: the hot headed, exciting rock chick, and the cute childhood friend Koyuki has long crushed on. We have the rough-edged friend playing the "cool loner" character type, and the standard comic relief guy. And one can't help feeling that, as with so many Shōnen, the protagonist is a cipher onto which certain audience members are meant to project their own insecurities, all of which can then be given a positive resolution in a fantasy environment. Those viewers without such insecurities, on the other hand, might find Koyuki's cautious character irritating and the romantic interest shown by his beautiful lady friends utterly, utterly bewildering.

But I'll admit to enjoying the show's attention to musical detail. Having spent a fair amount time in music myself, I was pleased to see it take many technical elements more seriously than most Western films and television do. It gets the educational aspects right: the use of bar chords (which are visualized accurately); the blisters you get on your fingers when you are starting to learn; and the fact that moving the student to a live performance does very often increase learning potential. The scenes depicting rock gigs are also very true to form, with the atmosphere, technical elements and acoustics all spot on. On occasion it does indulge in some unrealistic conceits (Koyuki's untrained voice sounds like a trained singer in the American version, and his ability to play the guitar and sing comes a little too easy), but the balance between realism and the tricks needed to make the story more interesting are pretty well balanced. The animation and backdrops also work particularly well and, again, show a remarkable attention to detail. You can, for instance, feel the weight of the guitars the characters are holding, which is not something I've often noticed animation getting right.

Despite these strengths, FUNimation's westernized adaptation of Beck is a mixed beast, just like the cartoon canine character the band is named after, with some important aspects getting lost in translation. Some of this is discussed in the DVD's key special feature, the FUNimation director's commentary, which focuses on the fascinating difficulties the American adaptors had in finding a balance between the tale's original cultural roots and the need to place the story in a more Westernized context. They have done a very good job of this: too good of a job, in fact, as it has been too Westernized in places. The American English spoken by the native Japanese teens, for instance, actually sounds more American that that spoken by two characters who have spent a great deal of time in New York. For me, there was a slight imbalance between cultural identities which blurred some of the story elements.

The DVD comes with an adequate array of extras: the aforementioned commentary (which is an interesting listen), a music video (which did not tickle my aural taste buds) and clean versions of the opening and closing credits. Pity we have the mandatory trailer tacked on the front, making me yearn for the days of VHS once more.

Overall, this is a very well realized piece of Shōnen that uses a musical backdrop for a character drama about respect and understanding. The pace might be a little slow for some, and the FUNimation edit may seem a little crass in places, but generally this is a story that could be an enjoyable little piece of light drama.

And in case you forgot, it also comes with a free Beck plectrum. With any luck, future volumes will have the same gift, as you're almost guaranteed to have lost that little piece of plastic in between the floorboards by the next release.