Excel Saga Anime Review
US Release By
Insane Parody of Everything
26 25-minute Episodes
1999-10-07 - 2000-03-30
The evil and severely understaffed secret organization ACROSS, headed by the mysterious Ilplazzo, is about to begin its nefarious plan to conquer the world... or at least City F, which is far more manageable. The conquering army consists of a Martian Princess on the verge of death and young, pretty Excel, who isn't even qualified to flip burgers without causing some sort of severe havoc or killing herself unintentionally. The Will of the Universe also seems to be on some form of retainer.
But who cares about plots, anyway?
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Excel Saga is the quintessential example of hyperactive, disturbing, free-associative comedy. It's weird (actually, I think it stands at the pinnacle of the weirdness category), repetitive (the situation changes, but the joke is the same in every episode), and for the most part horrifically wrong (it's basically an extended parody of tragic death), and it does absolutely everything in its power to beat every peer in those categories. The animation and frantic acting is every bit as rapid-fire as the unending stream of parodies, so the only real question is whether this brand of comedy is your thing.
If you can't handle utter, random, manic, and extreme insanity, not to mention merciless parodies of a variety of extremely tragic situations, don't even stand too close to the box. If that sounds like your cup of overcaffeinated beverage, it's not going to get any better than Excel Saga.
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That one word (sound, really) is about the best I can do to sum up Excel Saga. Why? Because it's the reaction humans are most likely to have after seeing it, and it could potentially be either a spasm of mental anguish or an expression of stupefied hilarity. What else can you say about a series in which the title character dies four times before the first commercial break?
Seriously, though... no, actually, there's nothing serious to be said about Excel Saga. In fact, it's hard to review, because written words fail to convey just how utterly insane and absolutely, positively, wrong this series is.
Have you seen Elf Princess Rane? If so, imagine a series with the same level and general style of manic weirdness, then add to that framework the insanity of Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl, the stupidity and wrongness of a series like Gokudo, a story that makes far less sense, enough tragic violence for a whole shelf full of shoujo dramas, and parodies of everything. Everything. Then imagine watching it at 4am on a huge caffeine bender. And I'm not exaggerating.
If that analogy doesn't mean anything to you, maybe try to imagine what it would be like to watch a couple dozen entirely different movies--anime and live action--all at the same time, on fast-forward, while on some form of hallucinogenic drug and plenty of prescription-strength stimulants. Then ram your head into a wall a couple of times, just in case it was making too much sense.
I'd apologize for all that hyperbola, except it's nearly impossible to exaggerate when describing how loony this show is. I will try to explain the general idea with a straight face, though:
Excel Saga is, essentially, an extended parody of death. Death, and tragedy (which usually involves death). People--main characters, minor characters, and plenty of random folk--die constantly, usually in the most tragic and dramatic manner possible. And every, single time, the deaths are surrounded by such utter wrongness that it's hard not to laugh hysterically through the weirdness-stained trappings of drama. There are heaps of other parodies in there, but the continuous stream of simultaneously brutal and hilarious tragedy is the one constant.
The show demonstrates its complete mastery of this mocking of tragedy in an episode near the end that sends up Fist of the North Star. The episode is played completely straight--the series has reached the point that you can read the humor between the dramatic lines without any pratfalls, background gags, or other indicators past the fact that it's an episode of Excel Saga.
If that isn't enough to make your head spin, the Will of the Universe shows up periodically to resurrect characters (Excel, mostly, who seems to have a love affair with mortality) or reset what passes for the plot when things get too far out of hand for even this series (which is frequently).
I'd try to explain just how bad and (here comes our catch-word for the day) wrong it gets, but to do that I'd have to explain poor immigrant worker Pedro, and I'd rather leave that experience untouched. I will mention poor Menchi, the world's cutest dog/emergency food supply, though: As if the combination of puppydog eyes and an ongoing series of pathetic failed attempts to escape being turned into nutrition for Excel weren't bad enough, Menchi eventually mows down a special forces squad with a gatling gun. Gaah.
Anyway, the story and acutely self-aware writing (among other things, constant pot-shots are taken at the writer of the original manga) are more high-speed, messed-up free-association than cleverness, but each episode focuses on some very classic movie genre--political drama, cheesy Hollywood action, horror, and so on. Mixed in with each of these general themes is a wide variety of more specific references--Star Wars, Galaxy Express 999, Alien, and a sick ongoing Utena-style mascot nod to name a handful.
After the first couple of episodes, which are particularly chaotic, each episode follows something that could theoretically be called a plot, and the individual episodes fit together end-to-end, but none of it makes any sense whatsoever. (Heck, if it wasn't for the Will of the Universe, the series would have been over in the first two minutes.) There is one point, and one point only, to Excel Saga: Insanity.
Oh, and there's also the 26th episode, which covers all the stuff they couldn't get away with on broadcast TV. Meaning that the already-large volume of blood and gore is ratcheted up exponentially and it includes enough very dirty jokes to make up for the (slight) restraint in the entire rest of the series. Somewhat surprisingly, while there are some truly horrifying moments, it doesn't send up tentacle porn. Be thankful.
The visuals carry their end of things, and that's a heroic effort of animating to be sure. The animation is surprisingly smooth, and more impressively manages to keep up with the manic pace of the story. The art is as creative and random as the writing, with a wide variety of styles--everything from dark, letterboxed jungle drama to cartoony pratfalls and wildly exaggerated expressions.
Toshio Masuda's musical score is in the same boat--a little of everything, generally weird, and well suited, although unlike the rest it sounds a little cheap in terms of production values. There's an appropriately insane and badly-sung intro theme (set to "Wha?"-inducing visuals) and a dead-opposite end theme that must be heard to be believed--it's appropriately titled "The Bolero of Sorrow" and barked out by Menchi. Plus, you'll never think of "House of the Rising Sun" (Pedro's mournful theme) the same way again. (No, really--if you love that song, stay away from Excel Saga.)
The acting... well, there's a large cast of varied and skilled players in Japanese, and at the center is Excel. Being the most insane character in a thoroughly insane series, it takes a... special sort of performance to fill those shoes. A performance that the incredibly diverse Kotono Mitsuishi delivers. Terminally annoying, to be sure (you'll be glad to see her die horribly as many times as she does), but that's sort of the point. The previews in particular are worth mentioning--there is dialogue in some that's so fast it rivals (possibly even surpasses) some of the auctioneer-speed, no-time-to-inhale rants in Elf Princess Rane. Wow. Omi Minami makes Hayatt's sweet, waifish voice a wonderful counterpoint. Surprisingly, the other memorable performance is Satomi Koorogi as Menchi--her barking sounds impressively realistic, yet full of personality.
The English dub does a surprisingly good job of keeping up with things, but I personally don't think it has quite the spunk of the original, and Jessica Calvello's Excel is even more annoying (her voice switched to Larissa Wolcott in the second season). Still darned funny, though.
The only real question is whether you'll think Excel Saga is hilarious, incredibly annoying, so stupid you can feel your brain cells dying in droves, or all three. Actually, I can guarantee #3, and Excel herself would be annoying to anybody short of a teenybopper on pure crystal meth, so the real question is whether you'll think it's funny or not. With anything this weird (pretty much the pinnacle of the category, in fact), repetitive (the parody changes, but the joke is the same in every episode), and (one more time) wrong, it's entirely up to personal taste. If you can't handle utter, random, manic, and extreme insanity, not to mention merciless parodies of a variety of extremely tragic situations, don't even stand too close to the box. If that sounds like it might be your thing, though, there simply isn't anything more random, more manic, or more demented than Excel Saga.
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To start with, the spiritual successor Puni Puni Poemy is essentially another couple of episodes of Excel Saga with different characters (except Nabeshin) and even less restraint--yes, seriously. There are heaps of other wacky parodies out there, but Elf Princess Rane is the only series I know of that has the same level of manic insanity as Excel Saga. The difference is, the manic style is the point of Elf Princess Rane, while it's only a medium for Excel Saga. A few other notables, on various counts: Urusei Yatsura (variety of weirdness and parodies), Jubei-chan, the Ninja Girl (insanity), Gokudo (stupidity), Labyrinth of Flames (weirdness, and marginally less tasteful), Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster (horror and offensiveness), and Those Who Hunt Elves (wrongness, to a much lesser extent). I'll also throw in Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses and Project A-ko, on account of their varieties of parodies.
Notes and Trivia
Based on a manga series by Koshi Rikdo; both the manga and Rikdo (voiced by himself) appear in the anime a few times (they literally murder him, among other things). The manga is available in English from VIZ.
The director, Shinichi Watanabe, is better known by his nickname, Nabeshin. The anime incarnation of Nabeshin--recognizable by his Lupin-style red jacket and massive afro--is a relatively major secondary character in Excel Saga, and is voiced by Watanabe himself. Nabeshin has made appearances in several other anime directed by Watanabe: He's a major character in the Excel Saga spin-off Puni Puni Poemi and the musical Nerima Daikon Brothers, and makes cameos in The Wallflower and an episode of Combat Buttler Hayate that he directed. He also voiced the pervy robot NB in Tenchi Muyo GXP, one of his less-successful efforts as a director.
Excel's Jpaanese voice actor, Kotono Mitsuishi, has an illustrious and almost shockingly diverse career; some of her most famous roles include the title character in Sailor Moon and Misato from Evangelion. More in line with this particular role (and an indication of what she can do when she gets amped up), are Mink from Dragon Half and the filthy hamster Ebichu from the series of the same name. Also, if the fact that Usagi shares a voice with Ebichu makes your head hurt, you may want to stay away from Excel Saga.
There are a couple of mostly-instrumental soundtracks that were also released in the US. One of them includes the full version of the Bolero of Sorrow, which features Mechi going berserk barking near the end (demonstrating just how good at barking Satomi Koorogi is). The Japanese version elsewhere in the soundtrack demonstrates why--a combination of utter panic and cooking advice. There was also a Japan-only CD produced that includes the theme song performers, Yumiko Kobayashi and Mikako Takahashi (who also have cameos in the series as Excel Kobayashi and Mikako Hyatt), doing a few bits of crazy ad-lib along with several wacky original songs of varying quality. Highlights inclue an utterly incoherent self-introduction in which the two actresses are ranting at the same time out of opposite speakers, and "Kazoku Kaigi" ("Family Meeting"), an appropriately-titled song that devolves into, quite literally, complete gibberish by the end.
On the 26th episode: When it aired on Japanese TV, Excel Saga was 25 episodes long. The 26th episode (which doesn't really connect, plot-wise, to anything else, as much as there is any ongoing plot) was included on the video release. It takes advantage of this to go wild with all the stuff they couldn't get away with on broadcast TV.
If you have the ADV DVDs, be sure to read the credits--they got into the spirit and every episode's crawl has a number of gags.
US DVD Review
There are, as of this writing, four different DVD releases of this series--three from ADV, one from Funimation--with three different versions of extras. Sadly enough, the oldest is the best of them. The reason is ADV's inline liner notes.
On the original ADV release--six individual DVDs with four or five episodes each--they went all-out. From the appropriately strange comments on the packaging (for once, ADV's over-hyped ad blurbs are entirely deserved), to the severely screwed-up copyright screen (you simply must read it in its entirety), to the strangely minimalist menus, everything about their handling of it shows that they understand this series, and tried their darnedest to do it justice. The six discs (four or five episodes each) have sharp, bright video transfers and nice, crisp audio in both languages. Almost more importantly, the subtitles are accurate, funny, and keep up with the dialogue.
Best of all (for the dedicated insanity-watchers), in lieu of liner notes explaining the wide variety of parodies and cultural references in the series, you can turn on a separate text track that pops up little word bubbles on the screen pointing out jokes that the average non-Japanese viewer might have missed, as well as a few other random comments. They're interesting, funny, and worth reading, but they also appear more or less in the middle of the picture (there's a lot of text), so it's probably a better idea to watch it a second time with that feature turned on. Also, they're available in both dub and sub versions, meaning with or without the rest of the subtitles--nice touch. Oh, and there are a few Japanese trailers and a small collection of other bonuses on each disc that are pretty darned funny in and of themselves.
Incidentally, if you use your remote to switch language tracks, you'll notice that there are a lot of them. The reason for the overload is because one of each (English and Japanese) includes the little "pop" sounds that accompany the on-screen commentary. If you're the sort that skips the language select screen and just uses the remote, keep this in mind if there are funny noises at random moments (er, more funny noises).
Finally, you do not want to see the background of the language select screen on the final disc. Consider yourself warned.
So that's how this series should be treated. After finishing with the individual disc release, ADV packed the same six discs together in a set with a nice, dark blue artbox, called the IM-Perfect collection. So far so good.
A while later, though, they re-released the series on a "Complete Collection" box set consisting of five DVDs in thinpak cases with a racy, Puchu-covered artbox. This version, tragically, does not have the notes feature, which is a crying, insulting shame.
Several years after ADV went poof, Funimation finally picked up the license to Excel Saga and released a four-disc Anime Classics box set with nice but much less wacky art. While it's great that it's back in print, and as with most Funimation sets it's dirt cheap, this version also lacks the notes.
Point being, if you can, get the six-disc ADV version.
In addition to bordering on horrifying most of the time, there is a lot of relatively graphic violence, some nudity, and a lot of crude jokes, so ADV did right in rating it 17+. Then there's the bonus episode 26, which is worse on every count, and is definitely adults-only.
Violence: 3 - Bloody for sure, and it'd be even higher if everything wasn't so silly.
Nudity: 2 - Nothig terribly graphic. Episode 26, however, probably merits a 4 (and some of the nudity is the type you really won't want to see).
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - Nothing graphic, but some highly tasteless jokes, and a lot of very, very wrong things. Then there's episode 26, which qualifies as a 4.
Language: 2 - Some relatively strong language. Again, episode 26 includes enough dirty talk to merit a 3.
Available in North America from Funimation as an "anime classics" bilingual 4-disc DVD set of the complete series. Previously available from ADV on bilingual DVD as a thinpak 5-disc complete set, prior to that an "IM-Perfect collection" box set of 6 discs, and originally on six individual discs.
You can get the Complete collection from RightStuf.