Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Quack Experimental Anime Excel Saga Review (English)

A couple years ago, now, I got to be a guest on The Five Point Podcast. It was my second time joining the guys and they had asked me if there was a series I would be interested in watching for the podcast. I took a look at the list of requests they had stacked up, at the time, and, somehow, there was one series that stuck out to me that I thought would be rather amusing. I think it’s about time to review that series.

Excel Saga is a 26 episode Action/SciFi/Comedy series based on the manga by Rikdo Koshi and published by Shonen Gahosha. Viz Media currently holds the licensing rights. Originally running in the Fall of 1999, the series is from director Shinichi Watanabe and production company JC Staff. As of this review, Excel Saga can be found in the states thanks to FUNimation Entertainment.

Hyperactive Excel does anything and everything to try to please her lord, Il Palazzo, who wants to take over the planet. Excel's misadventures takes her and her partner, the ever-dying Hyatt, all over the world, meeting several strange people as they go. Everything is bizarre and goofy, as any kind of anime or entertainment genre gets mocked and spoofed.

Here’s something you’re going to see me say a lot in this review: Excel Saga is fully aware of it’s own restrictions. By that I mean in the case of budget. I’ll admit, my knowledge of animation from the 90s is a bit lacking, but I can at least tell enough to say that Excel Saga has it’s low quality moments, but it manages to use that to great effect. What helps this is the fact that it is a comedy, however even that excuse only goes so far. Because the series is self aware, this helps the viewer understand that this isn’t an amazing looking show. JC Staff, as of recent, has wonderfully animated series like Golden Time and Selector Infected WIXOSS. Hell, when you look at the timeline of series from the company, you’d notice that two years prior to Excel Saga we have Revolutionary Girl Utena and two years after Excel Saga we have Azumanga Daioh. Granted I have only seen bits and pieces of both series, but I know enough to say that Excel Saga looks kinda bad compared to these other two. Again, the self awareness is enough to keep me from complaining too much about the animation. As for the soundtrack, there are pretty standard, recurring, tracks that fit the tone of the series rather well. Coming from the same composer as Mushi-Shi (No, I’m not joking), this isn’t that surprising. As for the opening and ending themes, I found them to be rather amusing. The opening was penned by series director Watanabe on a train five minutes before the deadline and, like the series itself, it’s pretty silly and out there. The ending theme was also enjoyable as the song centers around Menchi just singing her own personal ballad.

There’s a simple way to describe this story: there is none.

There are quite a few characters in the series that......... What? You want me to go in more detail about story? Seriously? But there’s not really anything to talk about.... Oh alright fine!

The story of Excel Saga is really just the exploits of ACROSS as they try to conquer F City. That’s the best I can do, plot wise. The reason why I can’t really go into more detail than that is because, technically, the anime takes place in a different timeline than the original manga. What JC Staff and Watanabe managed to do was create something completely bombastic that it’s hard to really know what the true story is unless you read the manga. However, again, the series is fully aware of this choice and they use this to go in several directions. One such direction was making each episode into some sort of theme. How this was done was by a short introduction scene before the opening theme from Excel Saga’s author Koshi Rikdo giving his permission to turn the anime into something. Some of the themes you will see throughout the series can include a B Action movie, a musical, and even an episode where there are no gags (Yes, they somehow managed to make this). Using these episodic themes, this gave the production team an opportunity to parody current pop culture hits as well as common troupes that were well known at that time, with some still very familiar to us even now. One episode, you may see some mecha battles a la Gundam and then episodes down the line Fist of the North Star is made fun of. Nothing is sacred here, making for some fun humor throughout the show. Excel Saga does end up going towards a more serious and plot driven tone once the final four episodes pop in, but only because, by that point, the production team ran out of material to use (or at least so they say during the series). Actually... scratch that it was the last three episodes of the series. I’m saying this because episode 25 is the true ending of the show. Episode 26 is a kind of epilogue, except it’s extremely obscene and violent that it was never aired on TV in Japan and was just included as a bonus for the DVD release. Believe me when I say that there is a reason why this final episode never saw broadcast, and this intentional decision is certainly a..... Humm..... Interesting way to end the series.

What seems to be going on with the characters is that there are three major groups the series gives focus on, and I’m going to refer to them like this: ACROSS, Public Security, and Pedro. For ACROSS, we see our leading characters Excel and Hayatt; however we can also place Il Palazzo and Menchi into this group as well. This is the group where the basic premise derives from, and the characters in this group are rather amusing. Menchi gets special mention because she actually has a couple episodes in the series that are dedicated to her story and desire for freedom from being the emergency food supply. It’s funny how much a dog, that doesn’t talk, can be much more likable than you would normally think. Il Palazzo’s character just does the same thing over and over again and it can grow a little stale after a while until the final few episodes where something in his character changes, even if it’s by cliche means. Hayatt is my favorite character in the series, bar none. She is beautiful and intelligent when it comes to her job so you could typically see her in the role of the flawless heroine. However, this is taken and now given some death to go along with it which takes the potentially flawless, perfect girl into a bloody mess quite a lot. Excel, as the obvious opposite of Hayatt, is just crazy and so full of a little too much energy that she manages to get herself into the most stupid of situations. So much so, that some people may want to drop her down that hole over and over again just like Il Palazzo does as a recurring gag.

Next I want to talk about Public Security. This is where Watanabe (the character, not the director) and his friends and coworkers fit in. This story doesn’t seem like it would fit in the series, however everything on this end does line up with the main story. As for our group of characters for this section Watanabe, Iwata, Sumiyoshi, Matsuya, and Kabapu are the larger players with Watanabe getting the most screen time out of them all. Watanabe is really just the likable guy that’s down on his luck and is stuck with pining for the love of Hayatt. What makes his story funny is his image of Hayatt. Without ever really knowing that she is a part of ACROSS, Watanabe always has this innocent view of her and is the only one to defend her when the possibility of her reputation being slandered comes in. His character is probably one of the more endearing of the series. Sumiyoshi is just a silent character with his dialogue only conveyed through subtitles on screen, but he’s more of the voice of reason between him, Watanabe, and Iwata. Speaking of Iwata, he’s just a complete idiot that I wanted to punch so nothing much to discuss there. As for Matsuya and Kabapu, both characters were ok, but one is really exploited more for fan service reasons while the other is just kinda underdeveloped.

Lastly, the group that actually got more screen time than page time in the manga: Pedro. Pedro’s story was actually expanded upon in the series compared to the manga, and I think it was an amusing touch. For this group, Pedro, his wife and son, and the Great Will of the Macocosm are the major players. You may be able to place Nabeshin here as well since he does play a decent role in this story line compared to the other two. But, really, Pedro and Nabeshin get more screen time then anyone else in this group. Pedro’s character is pretty much a wimp. For a good amount of the series, he just cries “tears falling like waterfalls” over his poor lot in life. As fun as this side story is, it really just wasn’t necessary and Pedro as a character was fun but at the same time was rather draining the more you watch. As for Nabeshin, his character is a product of Watanabe wanting to be in the show. That’s my best guess here. His character really serves no purpose during the main story (whatever amount of story we get) and is really just there to be a cool guy. Again, he does help the Pedro story progress in the latter half of the series, but otherwise than that there’s no real reason he’s there.

Monica... You really need to stop dying...
First and foremost, in talking about the dub, it was released in 2002 making the dub over ten years old. Also, although FUNimation is the current licensor, they did not dub Excel Saga. Originally it was under ADV Films until they closed their doors... Or turned into Sentai Filmworks... (Gotta remember to look into that). And, as a product of an older dub, there are a decent amount of parts that don’t really stand up well today. A lot of it really comes down to the direction of the dub with some performances moderately well and others rather ear splitting bad. Some of the more annoying performances are really.... well.... Everyone except for a few. Jay Hickman’s (Le Chevalier D’Eon, Princess Tutu) Watanabe has very wooden and annoying moments but his is still rather bad. Mark Laskowski (Diamond Daydreams, High School of the Dead) plays, again, one of the more annoying characters, Iwata, so the performance matches but it’s still a pain. On the bright side, however, there are at least three performances that were tolerable. Brett Weaver’s (Gurren Lagann, SDF Macross) Nabeshin did bring the cool factor that the series calls for while Jason Douglas’s (Black Butler II, Future Diary) Il Palazzo was fitting for the character. Once again, my favorite of the series is Hayatt and Monica Rial (RahXephon, Ouran High School Host Club) takes her soft spoken voice and uses it to great effect in this role. A few other mentions of the cast include Kelly Manison, Paul Sidello, and Hilary Haag along with some one off roles from Chris Patton and Vic Mignonga. Now here’s where the dub gets interesting. There are actually two voice actresses who play Excel in the dub. For the first half of the series, Jessica Calvello’s (Attack on Titan, Genshiken) performance was extremely fitting for the character to the point where if I were to wear headphones at any time, my ears would more than likely bleed. However, the voice did some damage, and Calvello had to leave production half way through making room for Larissa Wolcott (Bamboo Blade, Romeo X Juliet) to take over the role. It does take some time for Wolcott to achieve a similar level Calvello had, but she managed to piece it together by the end of the series. Personally, Calvello was the better Excel and it sucks that she had to leave part way due to her damaged vocals. But, at least she’s better and working now!

Somehow, in some way, Excel Saga is just absolutely insane but manages to be self aware of itself to the highest extent. Even with a lack of story and some rather cliched troupes and gags used throughout, this series still manages to get the laughs due to sheer stupidity and insanity. The humor in Excel Saga will result in one of three things, either you’ll laugh because it’s funny, you’ll laugh because it’s stupid, or you won’t laugh at all. The first three episodes should give you an idea as to whether or not the humor will sit well with you. Or you could be like me and just enjoy the insanity. Either way, I’d test the waters before going for a long cruise.

If you’re interested in hearing some first impressions of the series, then click here for The Five Point Podcast episode I was a guest on with Bobcat and Burk! Next time, we meet a rather interesting family. Until then, otaku on my friends!

Final Rating - 5/10
Certainly an insane one we have here....

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