Yukio Tanaka might come off gawky to his classmates, but far from his outward image, he’s despondent and directionless – a rock star in the making if ever there was one. Even at fourteen, he maintains that his life is already a dead end, and while this lead isn’t uncommon in anime, there’s something refreshing in Tanaka’s existentialism. We might expect him to get whisked off to a fantasy land only he’s capable of saving, or discover some tremendous power or ability, but he doesn’t. Instead, he moves from day to day, with the same fatalism of a salaryman twice his age. While certainly not a ‘bad boy’, per se, Tanaka – known affectionately as Koyuki – has a problem with authority, striking out at the world with petty rebellions. We see him stare up a train station security camera before stepping over the yellow safety line.
In such situations, in anime and American narratives alike, we expect the male protagonist to have their zest for life reinvigorated by a kooky girl. Maho Minami, who Tanaka later falls for, does have a whiff of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ archetype about her, though she’s altogether more confrontational, abrasive and, best of all, challenging. But it’s her older brother, the guitar whizz Ryusuke who changes Tanaka’s life.
Ryusuke straddles both American and Japanese societies, having lived in New York for years. This has made him a stranger in both societies, being unable to write or read kanji and decrying “feudalistic practises” like using honorifics. And while he dresses like a two-bit Kurt Cobain, he turns down hair dye, saying he likes his black hair au natural.
Beck rubs shoulders with Perfect Blue and Nana on Studio Madhouse’s roster, both of which are touchstones of the series. In the case of Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon’s cinematic masterpiece, the link is visual rather than thematic. The punk DIY ethos of the bands in Beck stands in stark contrast with the noxious inner workings of celebrity culture in Perfect Blue. But both the filmic editing and leisurely pace are reminiscent of Kon’s deliberate and effortless storytelling. Beck likewise is masterfully constructed, carefully considered, and although it owes much of its style to Takahiro Sakuishi’s original manga (under the pen name Harold Sakuishi), Beck sets itself apart with a style conscious of TV and, more specifically, film. Madhouse’s anime is indebted to American independent cinema, even with the original aspect ratio rather than widescreen.
Beck is, of course, most ostensibly about adolescence, but it’s also a narrative about cultural identity. Read as a discourse on the proliferation of American culture in Japanese society, as experienced through its central characters, Beck becomes a potent statement of globalisation. But rather than demonising this phenomena, it adopts a more neutral standpoint, where these icons are evocative of being a Japanese teen, while simultaneously mourning a country losing touch with its own tradition. Its focus is rock music, a distinctly Western style, starting life in America morphing out of the blues tradition, before being exported over to England, and then beamed back to the US as the Merseybeat sound. The British Invasion saw myriad bands from Blighty introduce their own take on rock ‘n’ roll and inspire generations of artists to come. In the following decades, it would adapt and mutate, covering everything from heavy metal to punk and later grunge. And that’s where we find Tanaka and co, obsessed with British rock and punk; and America’s alternative underground.
Throughout the series, we experience the day-to-day lives of teenagers, focussed more on their time outside and after school than what goes on in the classroom or sports field. There are American signifiers everywhere. A close-up of a vending machine sees a can of Coca-Cola dispensed, with the lingering shot framing the drink like Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’. For the teens, though, it’s less an act of consumerism, more a lifestyle choice. A means of rebelling against their own cultural identity, and wearing it like a fashion statement. In a society as regimented and conformist as traditional Japanese life, it’s hard to imagine a more punk sentiment than that.
Yet even in the English dub, you never lose sight of its Japanese origins, though Beck differentiates itself as much visually as thematically. The end result is ubiquitous with the teenage narratives of 80s and 90s American cinema. The viewer may associate the goings on with the popular idea of teenage life in the US or here in Britain. Early in the series, Tanaka and classmates go out bowling. Afterwards they all want to get McDonald’s, though Tanaka himself wants a beef bowl. They look at him almost shocked, and this serves to establish that Tanaka is out of sorts with these particular peers, never fitting in as a loner or in the company of his classmates, but also the detachment from traditional Japanese identity.
It’s part of the teenage mindset to rebel, as we struggle to understand and then define our identity at perhaps the most tumultuous times of our lives. It’s ironic that many viewers would themselves have experienced a similar idea, albeit in reverse. Western viewers may throw off the touchstones of their own culture in favour of a more Japanese lifestyle, filling their lives with a clichéd Japan, as much as the Americana of Beck is a romanticised USA.
The indie movie aesthetic threads through the series, ever evoking vast open landscapes or long, undisturbed road journeys, in direct contrast with the urban cityscapes of Japan and its altogether more ethereal countryside. Even the trappings and tropes of anime have been whittled away, leaving Beck in a class of its own. Flashbacks still pervade, but Beck handles them in a more evocative and interesting way. It utilises the spoken word, diary-entry idea to impart a sense of time passing, of one’s older self revisiting their younger years. The exposition is accompanied by acoustic guitar and harmonica; roots music filled with yearning. In the context of the series, it signifies the inevitability of growing up, of struggling to maintain existing friendships as everything changes around you. In trying to control those changes, and maintain an equilibrium, we ourselves undergo the biggest changes.