Series about young boys searching for themselves and their place in life are not rare by any stretch of the imagination, but ones that really grasp the viewer and provide something more than a simple coming of age story are astoundingly rare. Beck takes the coming of age story and introduces two characteristics which help to distinguish it greatly from other series of its kind: a deep immersion in the world of underground rock, and a deep involvement with its subject matter, which lends emotional weight and a sense of honesty to a tired premise.
Koyuki, the main character, is unremarkable at first glance--a currently unskilled boy who shows a lot of promise(unheard of!)--but the major difference is that Koyuki quickly establishes himself as a real person. A kind, determined, hard-working student, Koyuki often finds himself discouraged by his current situation, and is prone to melancholy and bouts of hopeless resignation. As we watch, we see firsthand the profound impact that the introduction of a new form of music, along with Koyuki's growing love of it and rapid immersion in it, has on the young protagonist, deeply rooted in his newfound friendships and initially rooted in a superficial desire to impress and spend time with the girl he fancies. This assessment is true of most of the cast, all of them interacting together in something which often remarkably resembles real life, and at others completely abandons realism but still remains fundamentally grounded in the series' profound sense of humanity.
The characters in Beck's main cast all retain an honest, human feel to them. This is juxtaposed against the fantastical nature of most of the series' supporting cast, and solidifies the sense of close-knit family which develops within the band and the people close to them. This down to earth feel persists even as the characters gain wider and wider success, making what might have been a completely unbelievable and unsympathetic story decidedly the opposite. Bassist Taira is undoubtedly the weakest of these main characters, his stand-offish demeanor and mysterious history preventing him from capturing sympathy like the rest of the main cast.
The animation in Beck is decidedly high quality, with only a few minor complaints to raise. Foremost among these are the often jarring uses of three dimensional models, particularly during some of the performance scenes. These performance scenes represent both the best and worst of the animation in Beck, usually incredible but occasionally clunky and amateur. It is good to note, however, that all of the major performances are almost universally on the better end, leaving only the minor scenes to suffer this fate. Characters' visual design shares the nature of the characters themselves, the main cast simple and real, and the supporting cast fantastic, from black record executives who encapsulate a good percentage of relevant stereotypes to shop assistants resembling Swedish guitar virtuosos. At times this difference is striking, at other times simply odd, but undeniably the fantastic designs of the supporting cast make the main characters seem even more human by comparison.
Beck's soundtrack represents both the strongest and weakest point of the series. Because of the nature of the story in Beck, a great deal rides on the audience's impression of the soundtrack, particularly the tracks performed by the bands within the series. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous position, as disliking the music gives much of the series a false feel, in part nullifying the humanity of the story and the interactions within it. The soundtrack does, however, perform its task admirably throughout the series, and I personally enjoyed the insert songs played by the various bands from the series a great deal. But while the series stands on its strong points well even should you dislike the insert songs, it becomes nearly impossible to view the series the same way, particularly towards the conclusion, if you find the music to not be your thing.
The voice-acting in Beck, while not spectacular and without featuring any performances which particularly stand out, is universally solid, and is bolstered by good writing and expressive animation, thus making the overall experience on the whole remarkably satisfying. It is worth lauding here that the singing voices and speaking voices of the characters who have both are very well cast, and match up seamlessly. Also noteworthy is the handling of English in the series, especially the characters who are supposed to natively speak it. These characters almost actually do sound as if they speak English naturally—an astoundingly unique trait in animes featuring English(watch Negima if you want a good example)--and, although the writing of the English lines is decidedly sub-par compared to the series as a whole, they perform their parts well, in fact making the writing seem not so bad at times. Even if you ignore the fact that English is a second—conceivably third—language for the actors and writers, the scripting and performances are pretty good. If you take these into consideration, they are simply astounding.
The core plot--both the growth of Koyuki and Beck, and the relationship between Koyuki and Maho--stands as Beck's greatest achievement, a remarkable journey through the life of several remarkably real people. Many of the side-stories, however, leave a great deal to be desired. Sub-plots are all well and good, but Beck's sub-plots leave one anxiously awaiting the series' return to its core, and in many cases simply go on for too long. Though generally interesting and still rather well-written, they lack the emotional weight and honesty that propels the core of the story forward, and in some cases cheapen that quality. Especially guilty of this is the story involving Ryuusuke's guitar, which, especially during the times when it takes center stages, drags the series down right when it should have otherwise been strongest.
Ultimately, Beck rises from the mass of coming of age series by providing solid writing and a uniquely honest take on the whole notion of growing up. It suffers from occasional animation hiccups--particularly with the use of three dimensional models in some of the minor performance sequences—and a heavy reliance on the audience to enjoy the soundtrack, particularly the songs played by Beck, but manages to minimize these weaknesses while bolstering its strong points. The core plot and interactions between characters is highly laudable, but some of the side-stories simply do not compare in quality, and should have been either scrapped, strengthened, or shortened.
Maho, won't you sing for me?