Whose style came in first? What about the best suit? It's all in here!
Reviewby Mike Crandol, Jun 17th 2002
In an underground base far below the city of F, the ideological organization of ACROSS secretly plots to conquer the world....the problem is ACROSS only consists of two members. Japanese teenager Excel is ACROSS's sole operative, fiercely devoted to her overlord Ilpalazzo's vision of global domination. Ilpalazzo, however, is more interested in rock music and video games. Aided by her pet dog/emergency food supply Menchi, the anemic Martian Princess Hyatt, and the Great Will of the Macrocosm (who handily alters reality every time Excel dies in the line of duty) Excel undertakes all sorts of stupid and pointless missions that are somehow supposed to help ACROSS take control of the city. Throw in Pedro the immigrant worker, super secret agent Nabeshin, and Space Butler...and you have the fall-down funniest anime since Dragon Half.
If Tex Avery had directed an anime, it would have been Excel Saga, but it probably wouldn't have been as quite as zany. A unique marriage of Looney Tunes' self-referential slapstick with the conventions of epic anime storytelling, director Shinichi "Nabeshin" Watanabe's Excel Saga is the "Airplane!" of Anime: a gag-a-second sendup of every anime genre imaginable, as well as every non-anime genre imaginable. It's not the first time anime has indulged in self-parody, but such a level of irreverent, take-no-prisoners comedic excess has never before been attempted. This extreme free-form style of comedy is familiar territory for classic Hollywood cartoons and South Park but is virtually unknown in the anime world. The shock of seeing such antics in an anime makes Excel Saga one of the most wonderfully hilarious works of animation in history.
Excel Saga is especially side-splitting because it never stops to explain itself. While some of the jokes may be pretty dumb, the show never dumbs itself down for the audience. Seldom do the creators tell you what they are parodying at any given moment, they assume you already know...and if you don't then the joke's on you. Whereas a more typical anime comedy would give the mysterious afro-wearing action hero Nabeshin a lengthy exposition, Excel Saga never even bothers to tell you who he is or what the hell he's doing. Instead he just pops in at random, fights some guys, says lots of cryptic dialogue, and vanishes. Cutting the setup and getting straight to the punchline means more jokes will misfire, but the ones that hit are three times as funny; many of Excel Saga's gags could be seen coming a mile away had the show followed a more standard mode of comedy. Not giving the viewers any kind of warning, Excel Saga keeps them rolling in the aisles.
Impressively, Excel Saga holds blithe disregard for everything except The Joke, yet somehow manages to develop a cohesive (if more than a little unbelievable) narrative along the way. Despite switching genres every episode, the story continues to flow smoothly from one installment to the next (helped out a little by the Great Will of the Macrocosm). After blowing up a Star Destroyer in the Sci-Fi themed Episode II (get it? har har) Excel falls to Earth and lands in a Jungle Prison Camp, setting up the third episode's Rambo-type adventure. In the same episode Princess Hyatt, also having fallen out of the Star Destroyer, is charged with finding Excel and bumps in to Excel's neighbor Watanabe, who is taken with the chronically-ill Martian Princess. Episode four's Shojo-Comedy tone follows Watanabe's pursuit of Hyatt. And given the bizarre nature of the show, the plot remains delightfully unpredictable throughout. This developing story is crucial in keeping Excel Saga's viewers coming back for more....for if the show were nothing but gags it would get old really quick, no matter how funny it may be.
Another key element to the series' success is it's well-established personalities. Purposefully inconsistent in all other areas, including the genre itself, Excel Saga's one unchanging constant is it's characters. It would have been easy for the creators to go for cheap laughs by having straight players like Hyatt and Watanabe break character, but instead they have wisely constructed the jokes around their personalities, and the show is all the more funny for it. The combination of character-based humor, outrageous slapstick farce, and a plot that is engaging if only for how weird it is make for a thoroughly enjoyable comedic experience.
Be warned, however, the show is geared towards an audience already acquainted with Japanese culture and anime in particular. There is some more universal comedy to be found here as well, such as Immigrant Worker Pedro's woes, several references to Star Wars, and Nabeshin's many action-hero spoofs....but Excel Saga's biggest laughs come from Ilpalazzo's obsession with Dating Sims, the Pokémon-esque Puchuus, the "cosplay" Excel and Hyatt, and numerous other parodies of anime, manga, and otaku culture. This makes the series somewhat inaccessible to newbies, and though ADV has included Pop-Up linear notes to explain the more obscure references, jokes are seldom funny if they have to be explained to you. If you haven't seen too many anime it's probably best to get some other series under your belt before tackling Excel Saga.
Much like everything else in the show, Excel Saga's art design can be chameleon-like. For the "Rambo" episode, the scenes in the jungle are all shot in widescreen, while sequences in the city of F are shot standard size. Characters sometimes appear briefly in the style of other anime, such as that of Leiji Matsumoto works or Love Hina. And a favorite animation gag of mine, often used in classic Hollywood cartoons but hardly ever in anime, is the insertion of jarring live-action effects shots and/or backgrounds at opportune moments. The sight of Excel and Hyatt running down a live-action Japanese highway in the opening credits cracks me up every time. The animation quality also varies from moment to moment, but again this is in the service of the show. More attention is lavished on scenes where it will serve the comedy better, such as Traffic-Controller Excel directing cars to move in ways no car could physically move, or Nabeshin's guerilla warfare with one of his many unexplained adversaries.
Excel Saga's eclectic music suits the show's many moods perfectly. The ACROSS theme is ever-so-slightly TOO pompous, and Nabeshin's appearances are always accompanied by a funky guitar chord. The show's opening theme is a dead-on parody of J-pop bubblegum tripe, and the closing theme...well, let's just say it's sung by Menchi and leave it at that.
It was long believed that Excel Saga was incapable of being dubbed in to English. Excel is a character who is always talking a mile a minute, and anime with this type of comedic mentality are always funnier in their native tongue anyway. Well, ADV met the challenge, and has produced a dub which is such a close approximation of the original it's uncanny. Jessica Calvello sounds so much like Kotono Mitsuishi's Excel at first I thought I was listening to the wrong audio track. The English vocal casting is sheer brilliance; almost to the point where it seems the entire Japanese cast learned English to re-record the show. Not to undermine the American cast's achievements....the dub is not merely an imitation of the Japanese track: Each actor gives an excellent performance in their own right and makes the part their own while remaining true to the sound of the original. In Miss Calvello's case, she may have been TOO good: when coded in Japanese Excel's screechy chatter is comedic and appealing, but in English we find out just how truly annoying the character is meant to sound. Despite the dub's excellence, after an hour of Excel's shouting I found myself switching back to the Japanese track.
ADV Films has been sitting on this release for a while, but they made sure it was worth the wait. In addition to the stellar dub job, the DVD contains the indispensable AD Vid-notes feature. With this feature turned on Menchi will appear "Pop-Up Video"-style throughout the show and explain some of the more obscure Japanese jokes that appear in Excel Saga. No matter how well-versed in the culture you may be, unless you've lived in Japan for many years you will not get every little in-joke in this anime. The vid-notes not only give a greater understanding of Excel Saga, they also subversively teach the audience more about Japanese culture, making Excel Saga fun AND educational! Other niceties included on the disc include the original Japanese video piracy warnings (featuring Excel scratching her butt....always comedy gold), production sketches, clean opening/close (also the Japanese open/close with the kanji intact), and some truly hilarious Japanese trailers for Excel Saga which make the show out to be anything except what it really is. Add to that a flawless video transfer, a generous five episodes on the first volume, and your own ACROSS membership card free with purchase, and you have the best anime DVD you could ask for shy of a two-disc special edition.
It may not be everyone's cup of sake', but Excel Saga is an impressively insane accomplishment that has finally been given a worthy American release. Featuring an engaging cast of oddball characters in an anything-goes action/adventure/comedy/sci-fi/romance/tragedy/horror tale, Excel Saga will be treasured by anime fans who also appreciate Monty Python, National Lampoon, and Tex Avery. Much like their works, Excel Saga is the sort of thing you will be showing to your friends repeatedly at get-togethers for years to come.
+ simply put, Funniest Anime Ever, with a perfect English Dub
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