Damp rock movie for the generation without a voice

by Mark Schilling

Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s band drama “Beck” is being hyped as one of the big Japanese movies of the year for the usual reason: The manga on which it’s based, by Harold Sakuishi, has sold 15 million copies. Distributor Shochiku justifiably expects monster box office numbers, no doubt thinking of “Nana,” another movie adapted from a best-selling band comic that grossed ¥40.3 billion after it was released in 2005.

To further ensure packed houses, the producers have used two tunes by big-name foreign bands — Red Hot Chili Peppers and Oasis — as theme songs. They also enlisted the cooperation of the organizers of the Fuji Rock Festival for the film’s crowd-of-thousands climax.

So how can “Beck” miss? It probably won’t, box office-wise, since local films with similar prerelease hype usually breeze past any critical quibbles about patchy plots or hammy acting.

The story of “Beck,” however, has a strange, gaping hole in its center. It focuses on the transition of the hero, Koyuki Tanaka (Takeru Sato), from high school dweeb to rock star. His ticket to fame and fortune is not his guitar playing, which rises to merely adequate, or his stage presence, which is zero, but rather his voice, which astonishes all who hear it.

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Run Time 144 minutes
Language Japanese

Whenever Koyuki opens his mouth in angelic song, however, the soundtrack goes blank save for the backing band. It’s like listening to a karaoke track — not the most thrilling musical experience. When this first happened, I thought the big reveal of Koyuki’s miracle voice would come later, with the silence being a tactic to build anticipation and suspense.

When it happened again and again, I became annoyed and then puzzled. What, I wondered, did the producers think they were doing? It was as if Steven Spielberg had decided to show only awe-struck faces, but not aliens, in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

The story begins like dozens of Japanese seishin eiga (youth movies). Koyuki is bored and bullied at school, until he has a fateful encounter with Ryusuke (Hiro Mizushima), a temperamental, if talented, guitarist who has just returned from New York. After Koyuki helps rescue Ryusuke’s dog, Ryusuke tells his new friend that he wants to form the best band in the world — and presents him with a precious vintage guitar.

Ryusuke is as good as his word, finding a blazing bass guitarist — and a cool blonde — in Taira (Osamu Mukai) and a powerful, if erratic, vocalist in rapper Chiba (Kenta Kiritani). The rest of the puzzle pieces fall into place when Koyuki masters rhythm guitar under the tutelage of Saku (aka Sakurai, Aoi Nakamura), a smiling, quick-fisted transfer student-cum-drummer. When these boys demonstrate their talents, including Koyuki’s mystery vocals, to Ryusuke, he knows he has a band.

Calling themselves Beck after Ryusuke’s pooch, the boys are a hit with the club crowd, but big-time success proves elusive. Meanwhile, Koyuki falls head over heels for Maho (Shiori Kutsuna), Ryusuke’s pillowy-lipped sister, who is fluent in English and hangs with an international crowd, making her fearsomely intimidating to our hero.

There is more, much more, including a flashback to Ryusuke’s nighttime adventure in New York with Eddie, a genius guitarist he worships, that netted him Beck the dog and a legendary guitar called Lucille. It also gained him a deadly enemy in the person of Leon Sykes, a powerful record producer. Naturally, Leon later turns up in Japan, with thuggish bodyguards in tow.

Tsutsumi, fresh from his smash hit “20th Century Boys” trilogy, films this busy, crowded story with his usual visual flair, while giving the heroes more prickly individuality than the idealized, cartoonish manga-to-movie norm.

Also, instead of the regular J-pop, the film is filled with Western rock, punk and rap sounds, from the Chuck Berry licks Koyuki practices to Beck’s rap-vocal, guitar-hero performances inspired by Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers (but not, apparently, American alternative-pop artist Beck, who doesn’t garner a mention).

But the introduction of lame thriller complications, as well as the dawning realization that Koyuki is never going to sing an audible note, undercut the band’s character-testing, career-defining moment at a big summer rock festival. By the end I wasn’t quite ready to call the movie, like its namesake, a dog — but I felt like growling that someone had stolen my catharsis.

Perhaps the manga’s millions of fans won’t mind, having never heard Koyuki’s voice save in their imaginations. But literal-minded me, when I go to the opera, I expect the fat lady to sing.