ADV Films // 1999 // 650 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // September 2nd, 2004
"I've sweat and even shed a few tears, playing out my part in this incredibly wretched story!" -- Pedro
This is a very challenging review to handle. Watching a series like Excel Saga is best spread out over several months, not watched in long sections as I have needed to do. I fear that a full appreciation of the series would require a godlike understanding of anime, which few people have (I am not one of them). While it is occasionally clever and funny, so much of it is gratingly obnoxious that I can't even begin to imagine sitting through it again. I realize that this series has a large group of rabid fans that will likely send me tomes of hate mail for comments like that, but I am not writing this for you -- I am writing it for other viewers who are approaching Excel Saga for the first time.
For the uninitiated, Excel Saga follows the conquest of the city of "F" by a small ideological organization called ACROSS. Excel is an annoying teenage girl who is infatuated with Lord Ilpalazzo, the leader of ACROSS, and also happens to be his only agent. As the organization attempts to take over the city, more characters are added and several other plots develop that intertwine with this main story. Excel is joined by Hyatt, a beautiful woman who dies a lot and came down on a spaceship, and Menchi, a dog that doubles as an emergency food supply. The series also follows the adventures of Excel's neighbors, who become civil servants to impress the ladies. Meanwhile, an immigrant worker named Pedro is killed in an accident and his ghost returns home to find that things have changed in a most horrible way. This full collection contains all 26 episodes of the show over the same six discs that have been sold individually up to this point.
* Volume 1: The Weirdness Has Begun
There is a real mix of good and bad in Excel Saga. The good news is that it is extremely funny, and goes right for the throat. The bad news is that it's often quite annoying and doesn't usually make a whole lot of sense. This first volume is a good indication of what the rest of the series will be like. Some of it is awesome, but a couple of the episodes were difficult to get through. There are enough common anime references that even relative newcomers to anime won't feel completely in the dark, but most viewers will likely find themselves drowning in a sea of obscure references. By the end of the first volume, I was starting to get a feel for the series, but wasn't looking forward to another five discs.
* Volume 2: Mission Improbable
The second volume of Excel Saga is a definite improvement over the first volume. The story thread with the neighbors becoming civil servants starts here, which offers a great break from the ACROSS story. Episode 8, in which only female characters are shown, is one of the funniest episodes of the series. By this point in the series, I was better able to accept the fact that the plot really isn't going anywhere, but each of these episodes hold up fairly well on their own. Nothing ever quite happens as expected, and it's fun to see the lengths that the animators are willing to go to defy expectation.
* Volume 3: When Excels Strike (Out)
After the second volume, I was expecting (and hoping) that Excel Saga would keep getting better and better. It doesn't. The third volume is the weakest in the series, with several extremely nonsensical and unfunny episodes. It begins with a ridiculous animal anime parody starring Menchi and ending with the first of several review episodes (which seems completely pointless in an anime with no plot). The episodes on the second volume worked because they were crammed to the brim with jokes. Each of these episodes seem to rely on a single joke to carry the whole story, which simply isn't enough. I found this entire volume to be annoying and tiresome, with few bright points.
* Volume 4: Doing Whatever it Takes
After the hellish experience of watching the third disc of the series, I was scared when the fourth didn't seem much better through the first two episodes. Aside from a great twist in episode 14, this seemed like a lot more of the same. After that, things start to get better again. Episode 17, with Excel and Hyatt traveling to the U.S. is really funny. Now, this may just be because the humor hits closer to home, but I think there's more to it than that. This episode not only mocks American culture, but it also makes several more serious comments about the anime industry in general.
* Volume 5: Secrets and Lies
The penultimate volume of Excel Saga is a broad mix of good and bad. In the 18th episode, the civil servants become a Power Ranger inspired attack force, which is probably the funniest thing in the whole series. The way that the conventions of that genre combine with the Excel universe is a riot. This is exactly how the rest of the series should have felt. Unfortunately, the attack force episode is followed by another stupid Menchi animal story (slightly better this time) and yet another summary episode, completely ignoring the fact that nothing has happened in the plot since the last summary episode. The final episode on this volume suggests that there may actually be a plot after all, and delivers with a pretty entertaining music video parody.
* Volume 6: Going Way Too Far
Well, although it begins pretty late through the proceedings, this last volume of the series actually decides to advance the plot. Through some nicely animated space battles and a couple of cool post-apocalyptic episodes, all of the plot threads start to come together in a quite satisfying way. If only we hadn't had to wait this long. Ironically, the end battles between all of the characters seem rushed, as though they could have started the plot before the last disc and not run out of material. Still, it was a fairly satisfying end for the series. I suppose it would be remiss to ignore the infamous final episode that could never be aired on Japanese television. This was a chance for the production team to cram in all the naughty stuff that they couldn't put in the previous episodes. As a result, it is overflowing with blood and near-nudity and naughty situations, but it seems more like an excuse to let the animators deliver some extra fan service and gore rather than an opportunity to tackle material that couldn't be handled in previous episodes. It feels juvenile and silly, and was far more silly than funny. I suppose anime fans that still get excited at the opportunity of seeing animated (almost) nudity will be more impressed than me.
And there you have it. Although a plot synopsis of Excel Saga seems both pointless and unmerited, I was impressed by the continuity through the various episodes. Each has a different mission and acts as a parody of a different genre, and it would have been easy for the writers to ignore what had come before to prevent the series from becoming too complicated. Instead, they let the craziness of each episode remain in the series, so that the bizarre twists and turns keep stacking on top of each other as new elements are thrust kicking and screaming into the already chaotic mess. That they have chosen to do things that way at all is impressive, even though at times I wished they would just start over. The series feels like a story told by a small child, with a wide range of elements tossed about willy-nilly simply to get a laugh or shock the viewer.
The good news is, this random and insane humor is often quite effective. This series has some of the best sight gags and pop culture references I have ever seen, and there is something delightfully wacky about the whole thing. Never for a minute are we sure where the production team will take us next, and it can be quite a bit of fun finding out, at least when it's one of the better episodes. Many anime fans will love the feeling of insanity and lack of control that puts the series constantly on the verge of complete chaos. Like some jazz music, it's the play on that line between order and chaos that makes Excel Saga fun to watch at times. In some episodes, the narrative structure is in constant danger of being completely lost, but just enough of it remains that it can't be completely forgotten.
The creators of Excel Saga were willing to do anything during the production of the series. No topic is sacred, no joke is too off topic, and no cultural reference is too vague. The series works best when the fourth wall is broken, such as the segments with the producers of the show fighting with the original manga creator, Koshi Rikdo. The relationship between him and this group is hilarious, and director Nabeshin's projection of himself as a cool secret agent with an afro is quite clever. The characters sometimes apologize to the audience for the craziness that fills the series and how little sense it makes at times.
Unfortunately, I often felt that those apologies were well deserved and necessary. Yes, it's funny that they apologized for the review episodes because of the limited budget and laziness of the animators. It was funny for the ten seconds that the apology was actually happening. That didn't make sitting through those episodes any more tolerable. The creators seem aware of the weaknesses of the series, but I would have been a lot happier if they would have avoided those problems, rather than simply comment on them.
The other major complaint that I have about Excel Saga is in Excel herself and the world conquest of ACROSS. This should be the most well developed and entertaining part of the series, as it is certainly the central plot. However, Excel is simply loud and obnoxious, the only real part of her character is her obsession with Lord Ilpalazzo. Hyatt is equally shallow. Her only trait is her tendency to die over and over again before reviving herself somehow. It's not until the final few episodes that the ACROSS plot even begins to connect to the other plot threads or advances in any way. I was far more entertained by the adventures of the neighbors as civil servants in the city defense force. Their plots were consistently funny, clever, and more complex. Neither of those stories even holds a candle to the crazy adventures of Pedro the immigrant worker. Sometimes the promise of two minutes of his story is all that carried me through some of the less effective episodes. One-joke characters work well if they only have a little bit of screen time, but after several hours of the same thing over and over again, I tend to get a little cranky.
The audio tracks and subtitles do not leave viewers with a clear choice on the dub/subtitle issue. The English voice cast is pretty bad. Excel Saga simply doesn't work translated, as there are too many language puns and jokes that get lost in translation. To make matters worse, the voice actresses who play Excel (Jessica Calvelo's voice gave out half-way through the series) are horribly shrill, at times bordering on a dental drill level of pain. While it's hard to sit through the English track, the Japanese track has other problems that make it a poor choice as well. There are points during the show when two conversations are going on at a time, or Excel is speaking quickly over a conversation between other characters. That means there are several lines of subtitles to keep up with at a time. As well, in the literal translation, it is almost necessary to use the on-screen translation notes in order to catch any of the references. When the subtitles and the AD Vid-notes are turned on, the screen is almost always filled with text that needs to be read and it goes by really quickly. In the end, I found the best solution for myself was to accept that I was not going to get all the reference, and watched the Japanese track without the translation notes. Besides, references are usually only funny if you get them without needing to read a page of explanation.
The technical transfer is on par with other ADV releases. The video transfer shows the occasional aliasing problem, but not more than can be expected with this kind of animation. The colors are represented well, and the black levels are acceptable for cel animation. The animation in Excel Saga is excellent, capturing the tone of the various genres and character expressions really well. The audio transfers do an excellent job of hammering into the viewer's brain like an ax, which I suppose is the desired effect. Seriously, though, both tracks are well mixed for stereo tracks.
The extras vary in quality. Many of these focus on Puni Puni Poemy, a two-part video series that takes place in the Excel universe. While I understand why they would want to advertise upcoming products, it seems like a pretty cheap move. The requisite clean opening animations and production sketches are exactly as expected, so I don't think I need to talk much about them. Some of the discs have small games and other funny things, such as the "Find the Urinal Mint Game" and "Menchi Recipes" on Disc Three. These fit the tone of the series well, although they aren't something you will return to all the time. Some of the interviews have interesting content, but some are printed interviews, rather than filmed. Other interviews are completely devoid of information, which I suppose is also quite suitable considering the series. Overall, the extras are a bit of a disappointment.
Each episode of Excel Saga saga is approached as a failed experiment. I think that's also how I feel about the series as a whole. It was an entertaining idea, and the results certainly aren't disastrous, but the show never quite accomplishes what it sets out to do, either. Would an increased exposure to anime make the series more entertaining? Perhaps. More likely, I think that this is a series that most people will either find grating and aggravating or fresh and fun. My time with Excel felt more like a jail term than entertainment, but I suppose I can see how her adventures have gained the support of anime super-nerds. If you are a fan of the series and have yet to buy it on DVD, this set is the way to do it. It's quite a bit cheaper than purchasing each disc separately. If you aren't sure whether you will like the show, you may want to watch a few episodes first to see whether Excel Saga is the right brand of comedy for you.
It's not really my cup of tea, but Excel Saga has been made with enough creativity, enthusiasm, and guts that I have no choice but to release it on the unsuspecting world. I have, however, placed a restraining order on the series, and I never want to see it back in my courtroom again.
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* AD Vid-Notes
* Production Sketches
* Japanese Advertisement Spots
* Interviews with Creators
* Menchi Recipes