Hip to the Groove #8: Rock'n'Roll Redemption
by Tom Körp
Hip to the Groove #8: Rock
For all my years—and, by this point, I think that all those scattered hours have finally added up to years—spent listening to, watching, reading and writing about, playing, and otherwise experiencing music, I have never truly thought of it as having saved my life.

Likely because I never felt like one of those storied and stereotypical “at-risk” kids—think Keith Richards, Roger Daltrey, John Osbourne, Phil Lynott, Jeffry Hyman, John Lydon, Anthony Kiedis, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Scott Weiland, Jeff Mangum, or Anton Newcombe—the standoffish or outright rebellious sort who suffer abuse or neglect, who engage in boredom-based juvenile crime or gadabout delinquency, who rely on drugs or alcohol, who fall into music by felicitous accident, discover it as their calling, and, by chance or by choice, set out on their own to actually become rock stars. The people who live their lives drowned in sound, and who use music to fight their demons and share their joys, on stage and off.

Rather, I grew up in a stable, solidly middle-class suburban environment: two loving and supportive parents, two equally loving and supportive siblings; grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all around; comfortable home life, church on Sundays; Catholic school, Jesuit college; beach vacations in the summer; picnics, holidays, and seasonal gatherings throughout the year. Low stress, arguably idyllic, and hardly the proper environment to foster the sort of fast-burning, emotionally tortured genius so typical of rock’s musical luminaries.

After all, rock’n’roll is about overcoming hardship, and I’ve never really had it all that hard.

Not that I’m complaining about being blessed with such a pleasant and privileged upbringing. Nor am I saying that I ever really had the inclination (or the chops) to be a “rock star” to begin with—or, for that matter, that I am so naïve as to think that a tormented adolescence and some sort of miraculous musical epiphany are absolute prerequisites for becoming a talented or successful musician. Still, I find that the milquetoast normalcy of my own formative years provides an interesting counterpoint to the long, hard row hoed by so many of my musical heroes, one that leads me to question the reasons for my sympathizing with the biographical drama attendant to the down-and-out guitar-slingers, skin-slappers, and rhyme-crafters of rock’n’roll. So I’ve begun to wonder: In listening to their music, am I looking to be entertained, or am I seeking some sort of vicarious salvation? A redemption that I am too frightened or unworthy to seek on my own—a riotous return to a state of sanctifying grace that can only be reached through melody, rhythm, and lyric?

Oddly enough, the impetus for this present instance of hyperactive music-critical existential self-awareness stems from a recent viewing of the Madhouse-produced anime series BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, which is now available in its entirety via the video-streaming service Hulu.

No lie. This is what I think about while watching cartoons.

Adapted from Takahiro “Harold” Sakuishi’s award-winning manga series (originally published in Kodansha’s Monthly Shōnen Magazine from 2000–2008), BECK is, at its heart, a coming-of-age tale centered on hapless teenaged everyman Yukio “Koyuki” Tanaka. More than that, it’s a well-written biopic of a fictional band of hardscrabble misfits. Complete with prerequisite shōnen subplot set-pieces—awkward romances and boyhood friendships, camaraderie and rivalry, schoolyard politics and inveterate classism—BECK follows the gradual and oft-hazardous rise to fame of its eponymous rock quintet, charting the band’s growth from basement bar-haunting nobodies to festival-playing fan-favourites while simultaneously chronicling Koyuki’s transformation from a bullied nebbish to a confident musician and unwitting international celebrity.

Naturally, there is plenty of comedy and melodrama to keep things interesting along the way, most of which rely on some sort of misunderstanding or miscommunication—a constant theme throughout the series, as a large portion of BECK’s cast is either bilingual or international, and regularly resort to (somewhat haphazard) Engurishu in casual conversation, to the frequent dismay of the Nihongo-only Koyuki. (This linguistic dilemma is that much more obvious in the subtitled version.) Equally constant is the theme of music as a “universal language” able to reach and affect listeners regardless of their native tongue or social status. It may sound a bit trite and after-school-special-y when acknowledged outright, but Sakuishi manages to weave the pan-cultural importance of music into the series without too much self-awareness or self-congratulation.

Although the earlier episodes in the series operate a bit like exercises in Murphy’s Law (tailored specifically to the trials and travails of a junior-high student), the uniqueness of Sakuishi’s story and the sincerity of his characters come through despite all the hormones and hijinks. As schmaltzy, embarrassing, or absurd as some of Koyuki’s experiences can be—what with his schoolyard melodrama, neurotic swim coach, on-again/off-again relationship with the sister of one of his bandmates, ominous threats from a violence-prone record executive, and a fever-dream vision of the rock gods of yore—the simple fact remains that Koyuki’s life is saved by music: saved from boredom and immaturity, saved from despair and insecurity, saved from blind obedience and mediocrity, saved from being a directionless life wasted in just getting by.

Really, for this reason alone, BECK is an extremely compelling work that explores music as a path to salvation and self-confidence, particularly in the lives of adolescents.

It bears noting that, thanks to the efforts of a widespread community of fans-turned-translators, I had previously been able to read the entirety of Sakuishi’s 34-volume, +6000-page manga opus, and I as yet remain familiar enough with the source material to notice when plot points and character developments are clipped, condensed, or otherwise omitted from Madhouse’s 26-episode adaptation—which, understandably, limits itself to the first eleven volumes of the manga. Still, even with all that it amends or leaves out, the anime actually manages to improve upon the manga in one major way: it provides tangible, listenable music. Not that Sakuishi’s incredibly realistic renderings of instruments and emphatic line-work do not effectively convey the physicality and emotional intensity of Koyuki & co.’s live performances when viewed on the printed page, but there is something to having the likes of the Beat Crusaders, Ryō Matsui (alias “Meister”, formerly of The Brilliant Green), and The Pillows supply a fitting soundtrack to the series—one that finally rights the manga’s most glaring irony.

That is: For a story so wrapped up in music—as performance, as subculture, as philosophy, and as business—and so concerned with the celebrated heroes and instrumental touchstones of rock’n’roll, BECK’s printed pages are noticeably silent. For all the time and effort Sakuishi spends in visually and textually referencing the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Pixies, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Velvet Underground, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and The Beatles (to name but a few), and for how much thought he gives to intimating the differing tones and timbres of Les Pauls, Strat- and Telecasters, White Falcons, ES-335s, SGs, and Jaguars (again, to name but a few), the fact remains that looking at an illustration or reading an onomatopoeticism, however detailed or exacting, can never truly convey the sound, style, or emotional impact of the music it seeks to imitate. Sure, the reader is given clues and cues that BECK is some sort of alt-rock/rap-metal band in the same vein as RAtM and RHCP, and that Koyuki is this diamond-in-the-rough vocalist who fronts the band’s slower songs and whose guileless stage presence is a huge draw, but it’s understandably hard to tell what BECK’s music sounds like, let alone feels like, based on illustrations alone. They are two completely different art forms, after all.

And, really, there is so much to be found in the music, and that much more lost in its absence. Which is why, for as avidly as I read the fan-translated BECK manga, I never found myself to be terribly affected by the events of the series. The story and characters kept me intrigued, true, but without the music—without an audible soul—the whole thing felt incomplete. Likewise, Sakuishi’s repeatedly page- and fold-spanning scenes of Koyuki & co.’s live performances, while technically impressive, seemed like little more than fan-service page-fillers, and were about as potent as a live performance on mute.

So, embarrassing as it is to admit, over the past few months, I found myself looking forward to Hulu’s weekend BECK updates with all the eagerness of a sugary-cereal-fueled kid counting down the days to his favourite Saturday morning cartoons. Given that I knew the story from the manga, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t the novelty of Sakuishi’s narrative that kept me coming back, but the addition of the music—the completion of a familiar story, however abridged, by the inclusion of a long-awaited soundtrack. The moment of grace conferred, if you will.

Case in point: Compare Koyuki’s impromptu night-swimming duet performance of “Moon on the Water” in the anime—which, despite its quaint Engurishu phrasing, is attributed to the (fictitious) American rock band Dying Breed—with the original panels and poetry of the manga. Even more than the translation from static illustration to fluid animation, it’s staggering to actually hear the difference that the music makes: how much fuller the event appears, how this particular combination of sound and scenery becomes a touchstone throughout the remainder of the series, and how much more emotionally invested the viewer is likely to become because of it.

But that’s the power of music: the coalescence of narrative context and personal sentiment, with the BECK anime simply managing a more direct expression of the manga’s illustrated implications of how such structured sound affects the people who hear it, and the people who create it.

Regardless of format, Sakuishi’s BECK handles its characters and subject matter with a sense of sincerity and realism that most western viewers and readers would not often ascribe to the frequently absurd, fantastical, and science-fictional mediums of cartoons and comic books. The series is escapist fiction, certainly, but even though it is rendered in ways that encourage flights of fancy, BECK nevertheless hews close to both literary and cinematic believability with subtlety and aplomb—far more so than its recently released (and woefully over-acted) live-action feature-length counterpart. Dig that irony.

Still, what I took from Sakuishi’s series—what I found in the life of Yukio Tanaka, and his career with BECK—was an unexpected reflection of the importance of music in my own life. How, time and again, I’ve turned to albums and artists to help make sense of the world around me, to provide context and gain perspective, to put into words that which I could not. I may not be a rock star, and my life may never have been saved by music in some remarkably profound way, but it is, without a doubt, that much less ordinary because of it.

It's just strange to think that it took a cartoon to teach me that.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Features (October 14th, 2010)

Tags: beatbots, features, hip to the groove, BECK, Mongolian Chop Squad, rock'n'roll