My Review of Excel Saga!

“This world is corrupt! In order to prevent further degeneration, the natural order must be put to right. And yet! Should the human race be unified under one rule, the ignorant masses would doubtlessly experience untold trouble adjusting to the new status quo. Revolution, though necessary, should not happen all at once, for such a thing would overwhelm the very problem it was created to solve. Nay, like the proverbial toad in hot water, the world must be conquered gradually, so the ideals of the future can have time to settle in the minds of the people. Thus, rather than aiming to conquer the entire world, or even an entire country, an act that would most assuredly be met with violent opposition and unflattering propaganda, a more prudent first step towards overall domination would be a much more reasonable goal… The conquest of a single city! Yes, this far more modest approach will allow the population to acclimate to our presence, while also giving us some very lenient room for setback. Oh, and we also don’t have much of a budget, so kindly see yourself to a part time job or something.”

These are more-or-less the words that greet new recruits of the highly ideological organization Across! While the majority of this organization remains shrouded in mystery, but we can at least indulge in some insight into the situation of the F City F Prefectural branch, which may or may not be the only one in existence, and is overseen by the ambitious and campy Lord Ilpalazzo, a man who rarely ever leaves his lofty throne while giving orders to his minions, the dysfunctional duo of Excel, a hyperactive zealot, and Hyatt, a demure beauty who would sooner spit blood on you than say hi to you. With their forces combined, along with a pet dog ans emergency food supply named Menchi, these two constant failures are at the forefront of the battle for city conquest, when they’re not battling to pay the rent and put food on the table, all while living right next door to the opposition that’s trying to stop them. As the battle heats up between the forces of Across and a brigade of underpaid civil servants, whose side will you choose? Or rather, with all the wacky and nonsensical comedy going on, will you even bother to pick one?

I’ve probably talked about JC Staff the second most out of any other animation studios, right behind Studio Gainax, and I’ve made a habit of saying that it’s visual style is inconsistent. Well, inconsistent is the word of the day here, because I’ve seen them put out a bunch of different looking anime, but I’ve never seen anything else in their library that looked like Excel Saga. This is probably because they shared production duties with another Studio, namely Studio Shaft, and to call this an unholy union would be an understatement. Shaft has always been really weird visually, and when their sensibilities are combined with the animation of a company that can’t seem to stay consistent from scene to scene, let alone from episode to episode, Excel saga is probably the strangest looking anime that I’ve ever seen. And to put that into context, I posted a review over three years ago of the series that ripped this one off, Panty and Stocking. At least in that show, the visual changes were intentional and artistic.

The animation quality here is indescribable. That’s not to say it’s good beyond words, it’s to say that I literally can’t describe it. I honestly can’t even figure out what kind of budget it had, or how it managed said budget, because the level of quality goes up and down more often than your mom making the rent money. There are scenes that flow beautifully, with graceful animation and smooth movements, and then there are moments where movement becomes stilted and stiff, with long periods of talking heads periodically interrupted by bits of movement. There are two clip shows that obviously exist for budgetary purposes… Both of them even spend a lot of time recapping the same character arc! And then there are scenes where the action is happening so fast that you’d swear it was going at a million frames per second. I can only assume the budget was so high that the studio, also high, didn’t give a shit how it was used, and the clip episodes were done more so to make up for a lack of ideas than a lack of funds.

The characters whose images were bought to life in Koshi Rikdo’s original manga have been given a massive cartoony upgrade… Or downgrade, depending on the scene… And while they don’t look too unrealistic, for the most part, they still look like anime caricatures of real people. These designs are mostly reflective of the original manga, but with the aforementioned cartoony upgrade presenting them as more polished and malleable, making them ideal for the anime’s screwball comedic style. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are much more stable and consistent, and they’ve been endowed with way more detail than they actually needed, as the director makes use of very short cuts. The lighting can at times remind you of an actual stage play, as even an episode taking place in a sewer can be more than bright and open enough for you to enjoy the action, without ruining the illusion of a claustrophobic environment. The set pieces are also incredibly diverse, as the characters venture out into an untold number of unpredictable locations, and they clearly had a lot of fun bringing them all to life.
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The music is just as bizarre as the visuals, but personally, I like it a lot better. I own a couple of CDs from this show’s soundtrack, and back when I had a car that had a CD player, I would often steal tracks from both of them if I felt like making an Instrumental mix. The music was produced by Victor Entertainment, and they get a much higher billing in the series than most music producers ever do. They totally deserve it, too, putting out a soundtrack full of instrumental and synthetic sound, which work both as standalone tunes and occasionally as parodies of the musical convention of other shows. A good example would be the bland, repetitive track it attached to a literal dating game, which was somehow able to sound good while still capturing the cringe of the harem genre. They forego the synthetic tunes completely in a later episode focusing on a rock star character, and it winds up sounding legitimately badass. I’d keep going, naming off good tracks and why I like them, but it’s probably better to just say that it’s a really diverse, really weird soundtrack.

The opening, Love/Loyalty, is also one of my favorites. The song itself sounds like something from Michael Jackson, which isn’t surprising if you’ve seen some of the director’s other works. It’s sung by The Excel Girls, a fictitious band made up of two idol singers pretending to be members of Across(They appear as characters in the series, too), and they seem to have a lot of chemistry together. The video is basically what you’d expect from an anime… The main characters being shown in different situations, with the rest of the cast getting highlighted in brief shots, only it’s done with that special brand of Excel Saga insanity. It’s skippable, but the ending theme isn’t. They being the dog character Menchi on screen to sing about how she’s resigned herself to being eaten(In barks, while a woman translates), which is amazing in it’s own right, but then you have the dub, where they stuck a lot of jokes in the credits, some of them actually being funny.

If you’ve forgotten the list I posted a few years ago of my top ten favorite English dubs, then let me get you up to speed: Excel Saga has one of the best dubs ever. Period. It was one of ADV’s attempts to translate Japanese comedy for American audiences while still retaining the spirit of the original, and since Stephen Foster wasn’t involved at any point, they pulled it off beautifully. Every performance is either good in all the right ways or bad in all the right ways, with very little room for error… For the most part. It was, I believe, almost perfect, and if you know the series well, you pretty much know what I’m referring to. Jessica Calvello, who disappeared from the business for nearly a decade before recently making a triumphant career resurgence, plays the title character of Excel, and I’m going to stake my reputation on the claim that it’s the single best performance in anime dubbing history. Her role was an extremely demanding one, but she still owned it, and I’d even argue that she did a better job than the original seiyuu.

Due to the translation differences between the two languages, the English dialogue would often be a lot longer than the source, and instead of making changes to shorten it, Calvello just ran with it, talking way faster than her Japanese counterpart without ever diminishing the quality of her performance. Even during her most rapid speeches, you could feel how devoted she was to Ilpalazzo, how enthusiastically zealous she was for Across’s cause, and how little she cared for anything else. She could portray pain and suffering even better than Brittany Karbowski can, and get this, she even spoke with a perfect Kansai accent… well, as perfect as the English language can convey. She plays it like she’s tried to get rid of it, but it’s still kinda there, and it only comes out full force when she’s shocked or emotionally overwhelmed. The amount of control she had over her voice was insane, and,well, it took it’s toll.

You’ve probably heard about this, as it’s kind of a famous story in the industry, but Jessica Calvello put so much raw energy into this role, pushing herself so far beyond the limit, that she wound up injuring her throat, and had to be replaced by Larissa Wolcott halfway through the series, and it’s a noticeable step down. Larissa didn’t do a bad job, or anything… To be fair, she did an admirable job matching the pace of Calvello’s performance, and anybody who can motormouth like that deserves recognition for it… But she just didn’t have the acting chops to measure up. It felt wrong. It was kinda like when Dan Castelanetta played the Genie… Yeah, he did a fine job, but he’s no Robin Williams. On a side note, Calvello also had a knack for Adlibbing that helped to Americanize the humor in some neat ways, which is probably why some of Excel’s dialogue gets stranger after the switch. Thankfully, there were a bunch of other really good performances that we didn’t have to lose.

In addition to a handful of heavyweight voice acting veterans proving their ranges by playing an unbelievable number of characters… Like John Swasey, Spike Spencer, Tiffany Grant and then-newcomer Kira Vincent Davis… They even got great performances out of two of my least favorite voice actors, Mandy Clark and Mark Laskowski. Clark did an amazing job on the tragic pint-sized assassin Cossette Sara, and Laskowski’s knack for sounding stiff and hammy at the same time was a perfect fit for the goofball Iwata. It’s a lot of fun hearing Chris Patton play a rock star, as he actually got to sing the translated songs, and he fucking nails each one. It’s a shame he wasn’t in Beck. Rob Mungle uses an over-the-top latino accent to play the immigrant Pedro, and while I was never a huge fan of that character/story arc, his commitment to the character was impressive. Brett Weaver was also impossible to ignore as Nabeshin, the parodic avatar of director Shinichi Watanabe, playing him as a kind of white Richard Roundtree(his words, not mine).

Rounding out the main cast, this anime was my introduction to Monica Rial, whose portrayal of Hyatt is probably one of the best in her repertoire. Taking a step up from her Seiyuu counterpart, she incorporates the character’s anemia and weak constitution directly into her speech, as she perpetually sounds like she’s on the verge of fainting. She also has no problem at all with all of Hyatt’s… Well, let’s just say her ‘bodily malfunctions.’ Jason Douglas takes the flat-voiced, one note character of Ilpalazzo and seems to channel Maximilian Pegasus to create a more foppish, melodramatic shine that the character was so sorely missing. They really didn’t have any need to redub the character of Menchi, as she’s a freaking dog whose only lines consist of dog noises, and they could have easily just kept the Japanese performance like Pokemon did with Pikachu, but they cast Hilary Haag anyway, and her dog noises are almost as funny as Luci Christian’s duck noises. Even if you’re a hardcore sub fan, this is one exception I highly recommend you make.

If the name Shinichi Watanabe means nothing to you, it means you’ve never seen one of his anime. If you had, trust me, you’d know it. Watanabe, or “Nabeshin,” as he’s also known, is something of an auteur, as his work generally has a distinct style and personality to it that’s directly reflective of his influence on it. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, as any follower of Akiyuki Shinbou or Hayao Miyazaki will tell you, and for Nabeshin, it’s kind of both. He often gets praised for his work in the genre of anime comedy, as well as for his flare for satire and genre parody, and the results have been… Well, mixed. His work tends to consist of lightning fast pacing, rapidfire jokes, and constant references to other anime, and that’s pretty much Excel Saga in a nutshell. Granted, he’s worked as episodic and storyboarding director for a lot of other peoples’ projects, but he’s taken on very few himself, so it’s easier with him than it is with most directors to examine what it is that he’s all about.

His work, particularly in reference to Excel Saga, has garnered a reputation for being insane and random, and it’s here that I feel I have to disagree. The Excel Saga anime is not the work of a madman, or an unhinged mind. The writing on this show is in fact very calculated. With examples of genuine insanity and randomness out there, like FLCL and Rejected, Excel Saga skews closer to one of those focus-group facades of insanity and randomness, like (and I am so sorry, but you know it’s true) Invader Zim, but with an extra bit of conceit and arrogance hiding behind it. Nabeshin took the premise and characters of the manga, saw how offbeat it all was, and used it as an excuse to just not give a fuck. Yes, Excel Saga is one giant bag of fucks not being given, and by God does it show. It’s so easy just to write whatever you want, make fun of what’s popular, and do constant pop culture references… That’s why Family Guy does it. Excel Saga is, at it’s core, the true anime version of Family Guy. Moreso than Lucky Star will ever be.

And for those of you getting annoyed at me for interpreting the intentions of a creator that I’ve never met before, I’m not just talking out of my ass on this. I know that the anime wasn’t a product of actual insanity or inspiration, because I know what those things look like in a narrative… I have, after all, read the original manga. The Excel Saga manga, created by Koshi Rikdo in the 90’s, is an example of what true insanity looks like… It’s not unhinged and disconnected ramblings of randomness, it’s a genuinely batshit narrative that reads like it made perfect sense to the person writing it. Yeah, it looks bonkers from the outside looking in, but it still gives off a sense of consistence and intention. It was a grand, sweeping epic with foreshadowing, themes, depth, smart callbacks and meticulous attention to detail. It’s like if Lord of the Rings were written by a mental patient. I don’t know how Rikdo actually feels about Nabeshin getting all the popular credit for his work, I mean he DID take a couple of ideas from the anime long after the fact, but I still don’t picture him looking upon it fondly.

One of the biggest downsides to this is in terms of characterizations. Nabeshin didn’t just bastardize the original concept, he also turned almost the entire cast into one-note jokes and shallow gimmicks. There’s almost no character development in the entire series, outside of a few plot-specific changes and a few early actions taken from the manga. Aside from these, their actions are largely interchangeable. There’s not a whole lot I can say about that, as I don’t really want to give away too many spoilers about either entity(especially the manga), but there is one character I might be able to offer up… The fourth Civil Servant and later Municipal Force member, Misaki Matsuya. She starts out in the manga as a bit of a tsundere, spurning the annoying advances of Iwata, and in the anime, that’s basically where she stays… A violent and ultra-capable stick in the mud with stilted speech patterns and a no-nonsense demeanor. She even legitimately tries to kill Iwata in one episode, but can’t because her gun misfires.

In the manga, however, she gets a lot more development, and feels a lot more like an actual person. She becomes friends with her teammates, and shows at least enough compassion towards Iwata to care whether he lives or dies. Did you know she’s a hardcore gamer in her free time, and that she wanders over to her coworkers apartments to hang out if she’s feeling goofy from losing sleep to a gaming session? Did you know she forms a bond with computer geek Sumiyoshi by helping him to test out his elaborate computer set-ups? Did you know that when their boss Kabapu’s plans get out of hand, she actually attempts to leave the country to avoid getting dragged into them? No, you don’t know any of that, because Nabeshin did jack shit with her character. And she’s not a special case, either. Every single character in this series has expansive development that far outshines anything they did in the anime, and yes, I mean literally every character, from the pedophile scientist to the ill-fated dog Menchi. If I told you what was supposed to happen to Iwata down the road, you’d seriously think I was fucking with you.

And I know it’s tacky to judge an anime by comparing it to the original manga, but I’m not doing this to condemn it for being inaccurate, but as a device to show you just how lazy it is. Yes, that’s right, the Excel Saga anime isn’t crazy, it’s lazy. It takes what it needs to from the manga, and then just puts no effort into anything that it did with it. Don’t get me wrong, the music and animation clearly had a lot of love put into them, but in terms of writing and story-telling, and especially with the comedy, Nabeshin just did the easiest things he could at every turn. Breaking the fourth wall is easy. Random gag humor is easy. Parody, or at least Nabeshin’s brand of it, is easy. Justifying your show’s problems by having characters complain about them, and having meta characters talk about the production, is taking the easy way out. Having your Lupin-inspired stand-in complain about the lack of story and plot doesn’t create a story or plot. You can only wring so much of an excuse out of calling your show “Experimental” before people start to wonder what substance you’re actually experimenting with.

And I can’t just shut up and turn off my brain, and enjoy it as a goofy comedy, because about 90% of the time, I just don’t find it funny. I’ve heard people refer to it as satire… Are you kidding me? Satire has a point. Satire has logic. Satire has intentions. There is no satire in this show. The closest it gets to satire is picking a vague genre, blatantly calling out what’s wrong with it, exaggerating a few cliches and then just adding some weird shit like monkeys to the mix. The very idea of an existing internal logic is completely absent. If there’s any satire in it, and if any of the comedy in it is smart in some way, then it’s buried under culturally impenetrable Japanese references. There’s a rule in comedy that if you’re going to do a reference joke, it has to work as both a reference and a joke, so that people who don’t get the reference can still enjoy the joke. I first saw this series almost fifteen years ago, and I still don’t think I’ve seen a quarter of the anime I’d have to in order to fully enjoy the experience.

Excel Saga was originally available from ADV Films, but after they went under, this property was one of the many they wound up selling off. It’s currently available from Funimation, and while the form they’ve released it in isn’t as visually impressive as its’ previous forms, it is more affordable and easier to obtain. The original manga by Koshi Rikdo is available stateside from Viz, and while a couple of volumes were impossible to find a few years back, it’s all readily available nowadays for some decent prices. An extra episode called Going too Far serves kind oif as the true ending of the series, and it can be found on most DVD sets. A spin-off series called Puni Puni Poemy is also available, and it actually IS genuinely insane.

I feel like the reason Excel Saga is looked upon so fondly is because people generally haven’t read much of the manga. This is also probably why Nabeshin’s adaptation of Hayate the Combat Butler wasn’t as well received, because people actually cared about that manga. As for me, I’m not gonna lie and pretend that it’s a good show, but I do I have a soft spot for it. It’s mostly because of the dub, but it’s also because it was one of my formative anime. When I decided to venture beyond what was available on TV, this was one of the manga that my local library introduced me to, along with Love Hina, Chobits, and Azumanga Daioh. I can’t out and out hate it, but I do consider it to be something of a guilty pleasure, like how I occasionally might get bored, fire up Netflix and watch a Family Guy episode. It’s crap, but once in a while, crap is comforting. There’s some good here, but it’s all taken from the manga, and NOT a product of mad genius from the talentless hack who directed it. I give Excel Saga a 4/10.

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2 comments
  1. I’m going to have to track down the dub credits now because I really want to know what jokes they added. (I’ve watched some episodes in Japanese but never seen the dub.) Definitely a classic ending song though. Menchi!!

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