This week on Manga Island we explore a section of the island that I can never get enough of, quality stories about music and musicians. Being a musician myself, I was really intrigued by the premise of Beck, and how music can change us no matter what age we are. It is one of those books that makes me want to pick up my bass or head to a club and experience a show to get back to music after a long day at work. Harold Sakuishi has created a coming of age story for musicians, high school students, and anyone who has tried to find their way through the trials and tribulations of their teenage years.
"Beck" gets its title from the oddly patchwork skinned dog that introduces 14-year-old Yukio Tanaka to Ryusuke Minami, thereby changing his life forever. Yukio's life before Beck was boring and seemingly pointless. Shy and a little neurotic, Yukio goes along with his best friend's schemes (such as taking pervy pictures of the girls swim team to sell to other students), hangs out at arcades, and generally does what bored 14 year olds do. His boredom and sense of honor (and the fact that he is a "grandma's boy") forces him into an altercation to defend an old woman. After getting beaten up for his troubles, the dejected Yukio once again stands up for the little person by defending Beck the dog who just happens to be owned by the aloof, ultra cool and mysterious Ryusuke Minami, who has just returned to Japan from America. Even though Yukio gets bit for his trouble, being introduced to Rsum will have a profound effect on his future. Soon Ryusuke seems to appear everywhere Yukio is, a force not be ignored.
Part of what makes "Beck" so endearing is the high school drama and the accurate depiction of growing up shy and awkward, just trying to find a place to fit in with hormones raging, new social dynamics and trying to form ones own opinions about the world. Yukio's friend Tanabe plays unplanned matchmaker when he takes pictures of a childhood friend of Yukio's and accidentally gets them noticed by her. Izumi Ishigiro is no longer the tomboyish girl from Yukio's grade school calligraphy class, and when he is asked out to a friendly night of bowling by Izumi, he is ecstatic, nervous, and can't believe his luck. Luck being what it is, the bowling date takes a turn no one expected and they meet Ryusuke under totally different circumstances. Tanabe is blamed for keying nasty sayings onto a car owned by some tough guy Americans. As Yukio steps in, Ryusuke decides to repay the favor for Yukio saving Beck and stands up to the thugs. Thus, solidifying their relationship even further as Ryusuke gets beaten by the thugs for his troubles and his own sense of honor (due mainly to Yukio standing up to the thugs in another clash of him defending the weak, this time Izumi).
Ryusuke is the epitome of the aloof, mysterious cool guys that women fall for even when they know that they are bad news and that guys either bond with or hate with a passion (mostly out of jealousy). To be honest Ryusuke has the hallmarks of people that I don't tend to like hanging out with, but he's precisely the kind of person to get Yukio out of his shell. It seems that Ryusuke was once in a band with the guitarist of one of America's coolest bands "Dying Breed", thus giving him extra cool status to chicks and rockers alike. The fact he likes much cooler music than Yukio also makes him even more appealing and cool to Izumi, a point not lost on Yukio, who really wants Izumi to like him. After hanging out with Ryusuke, Yukio's own musical tastes slowly change from pop singers (who Izumi is barely interested in) to rock and indy music. It's always cool to see that point in someone's life when they really start to form their own musical tastes and tracking that person or album that brings them to this discovery. Being a metal head for many years now, I remember when my step brother brought home Whitesnake's self titled album and told me it may be "too heavy" for me. I laugh about that a lot now, it seems so far away. I'm guessing that many of "Beck's" readers will be able to hearken back to their musical turning points, or will be on the lookout for those albums which will turn their own musical world upside down.
Things really get underway when Ryusuke and friends got to one of Ryusuke's gigs, complete with ego clashes, band fights, technical problems and Yukio's first bout of ringing ears and late nights on the town. Yukio meets Ryusuke's cute, talented younger sister and promptly shows that his shyness and naivet is not just channeled at Izumi. It seems he is destined to botch things with girls everywhere if he doesn't get a clue. After the gig, the music bug hits Yukio even harder and he begins to hang out with Ryusuke and (unintentionally) his sister even more. As things progress Yukio's eyes are opened to even more about bands, women and the complexities of life. His struggles to be a nice guy get him closer to both Izumi (by accidentally getting conscripted onto the swim team) and Maho (Ryusuke's sister). Add to this the fact that the music bug has bitten Yukio and he turns out to be a singing diamond in the rough, and you've got a setup for the second volume that is sure to be a page-turner!
Harold Sakuishi's art style is perfect for the story, blending realistic elements (especially the guitars and equipment) and odd quirks such as the title character's Frankenstein monster/Blackjack look. The characters are rendered realistically but with a shade of wide eyed almost shojo look to their features. It's a style that should be appealing to girls and boys alike. "Beck" has tough band elements and some action to keep moving along, as well as bad boys, cute awkward teens and tough, but very real school girls. The story flows effortlessly and very cinematically. I wish Beck was on the WB or Fox when I was in high school, as I feel it's a lot more interesting than most the high school drama's of then or now. It seems a shame that Japan gets "Beck" and the only high school band show we got was "California Dreams". Sakuishi is very adept at capturing characters who feel realistic. I feel like have been or have known a version of most of them and I think that junior high and high schoolers can understand where the characters are coming from no matter where on the planet they go to school. Even if you deplore Ryusuke's cockiness or Yukio's neurosis, there is always a new wrinkle in their characters to explore.
"Beck" volume 1 definitely has me hooked to see how this series turns out. If the rest of the books (and it appears that it will be at least 19 volumes) are as enjoyable as this, I will be there for everyone. If you've ever been in a band, admired an older hero, or are in school just struggling to keep your head above water, "Beck" is there for you. Fans of teen dramas and comics such as "Scott Pilgrim" should definitely give "Beck" a look when they are in a local bookstore. Meanwhile, I'm going to be picking up my bass, and chasing patchwork dogs across Manga Island.
Volume 1 (of 19)
Rating T 16+ (Violence, Language and Adult Situations)
Links of Interest:
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop, PSY-COMM. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.