With each year I look forward to a film that will hit all the right spots and unequivocally propel itself firmly to my best of the year list based on excellence on many fronts. It doesn't have to be something high brow, or cost millions to make. It just had to move, to entertain, to tell a good story with competent technical qualities and a superb cast, and while 2011 to date had many close calls, none comes close to BECK by director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who also was responsible for yet another manga adaptation to the silver screen with 20th Century Boys, except that BECK is so much better.
Perhaps I'm a sucker for zero to hero type stories, or stories about the underdogs banding together to create magic as a rag tag team in their chosen field of specialization, filled with the usual, easily identifiable ups and downs stemmed from very basic human emotions ranging from envy to fear, or finding one's spirits in the doldrums before inspiration and encouragement spur the players onto the next peak. Sure there are many rote elements and qualities in the narrative that you'd probably find them familiar in essence, but it is the execution, delivery and chemistry amongst the cast that you cannot deny giving this film a leg up amongst those in similar genres.
There's comedy, there's drama, and then there's rock music in a heady mix you may think it's a Masala film with all ingredients put into a melting pot and coming off deliciously entertaining. It's a story about the coming together of five individuals who share the common love for rock, and for the fictional band Dying Breed, before circumstances led them to form their own band, to create their brand of music to move the world. It's the tale about the struggle of an indie band in the cutthroat world of the music industry, where rules aren't always fair to begin with, and often experiencing being muscled out from the bigger players who live to engineer sounds like hotshot producer Ran (Shido Nakamura) responsible for rival band Belle Ame, versus those that play and create from the bottom of their hearts.
From the tale of the individual character perspective, it's about Koyuki (Takeru Sato, almost over-utilizing his bug eyes when blindsided), an oft bullied schoolboy who finds himself learning to play the guitar under the guidance of a master (Takanori Takeyama) before teaming up with fellow schoolmate Saku (Aoi Nakamura), where both find themselves propelled into the more adult world of performing under the auspices of a real band in real gigs, rising from obscurity in school to having their own groupies, and having fellow band members protect them from incessant bullies at school. For Ryusuke (Hiro Mizushima) it's about forging a name for himself, coming from USA to Japan to do just that, breaking away from his ex-band due to his attitude and animosity, setting up some real competition. Chiba (Kenta Kiritani) the loud mouthed rapper who provides most of the comic relief as the impetuous frontman who knows a thing or two about rousing a crowd, and Taira (Osamu Mukai) the bassist modelled after Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, completes the band BECK.
Most of the subplots take us through the emotional roller coaster of the various characters, especially that of Ryusuke, Chiba and Koyuki as they deal with demons from the past, envy and worry, and romance respectively, the latter having a relationship with Ryusuke's filmmaker sister Maho (Shiori Kutsuna), who is also being pursued by rival band Belle Ame frontman, the actor turned singer Yoshito (Yuta Furukawa). While all the cast members forming BECK share some incredible chemistry as a tight outfit, these three characters and the cast playing them stand out especially, with screen time dedicated to their struggles. I would have preferred a little more insights to possibly the most mature band member in Taira, while Saku has a very fleeting romantic angle coming from an ardent BECK supporter Hiromi (Sari Kurauchi).
For its almost 2.5 hours runtime toward the ultimate goal and closure for the usual genre strategy of having to perform on the biggest stage possible, we journey with the band toward the Greatful Sound Festival which is the fictional version of the real Fuji Rock Festival, and the punchy pacing allowed for a lot of plot devices and elements getting squeezed effectively into the film, such as the dark history of Ryusuke's guitar Lucille that comes with six bullet holes in its body, jamming sessions with Blues legends, and even guitar picks become objects used to emote through music. You'll also find yourself rooting for BECK throughout, celebrating their inching toward success, and crying when pressure builds and cracks starting to appear and threatening band longevity.
But of course, what is a film about a band, if there's no rocking music to stomp your foot to? BECK provides this by the bucketloads, although of course three signature tunes of the titular band stood out, especially since we bear witness to their creation and practice sessions, primed for that all important make or break performance. There's the rock tune Evolution with Chiba in his prime, but making way quite surprisingly to Koyuki who is responsible for the slower English numbers, and here's where some may be disappointed.
We're made to believe that Koyuki, while he can't understand nor converse in English, can actually belt out English songs with plenty of heart even though he knows those lyrics by rote. And his innate ability is to move mountains and part oceans each time he opens his mouth to sing. Now this being a Japanese film, and I suppose it's quite clear that the actor Takeru Sato may not be able to confidently emote and cause audiences to break down as per those on screen, Yukihiko Tsutsumi came up with deliberately muting his voice. This may not go down well with some audiences, but I thought it was a rather creative way to allow one's imagination to run wild into how Koyuki does actually sound like when singing, and how awesome his voice would probably be judging from the supporters, and fellow band members' reactions. It also played out almost like a running joke, leaving you literally begging to hear some singing voice, so I have absolutely no qualms about that.
The last film involving Japanese rock music to form a premise was Fish Story, also an excellent film that was one of my favourites in 2010. BECK belongs to the same charming vein that makes this a highly recommended film , and in my books one of the most entertaining film so far in 2011 for rock fans and non-fans alike. Clearly a favourite in my books, and a contender as one of the best. Don't miss this, and see if you can spot Naoto Takenaka rapping too, albeit for a very short cameo!
BECK in Action!