Review: Excel Saga (2003)

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Cast: ,

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There is a certain pointless charm in self-referential entertainment. On a good day, it can be almost painfully clever, but on the other hand there is only so much tongue/cheek action one can handle in one session and self-absorption can get a little old after a while. One might even wonder, in this case at least, exactly how much of an increase in pointless charm certain genres of anime can actually take before critical mass is exceeded and they collapse into nothingness.

Wonder no longer. Theoretical Physics and Post-Modern art move over. Quack Experimental Anime Excel Saga proves that in anime at least, this source of energy is not only terrifyingly inexhaustible, it actually demands a certain educated awareness to properly appreciate it. Not of course that I would describe this truly, deeply, apparently out-of-control series as high-art, or indeed even high-brow, God forbid. No, Excel Saga is art cleverly disguised as madness. Amidst all that chaos there is a certain amount of skill involved, a knowledge of the vagaries and histories of anime and manga enough to impress even the expert otaku.

The story itself is almost irrelevant (which…uh…when I think about it, is really just another genre feature in itself in some cases…). But this series is also wonderfully irreverent, and indeed that’s the whole point. Each episode is a genre unto itself, each parodying its source with wit and style not only in order to ridicule but to examine, to dissect the medium and see what makes it tick. Each episode, given express permission by the author, one Koshi Rikdo, undertakes the next twenty-four minutes according to the definitions and limitations of its origins, to often-hilarious effect, right down to the details. Plot line, character rendition, even animation style, none of them are sacred and the distinctions in genre they indicate are applied with deliberate intention. From easily recognisable Super-Deformed caricatures, terrifyingly cute Pikachu-type aliens, shoujo lighting techniques and dating simulation game graphics to the animation stylism of artists like Monkey Punch (Lupin III) and Reiji Matsumoto (Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato), Excel Saga is a no holds barred class on Japanese Pop Culture 101. The references fly thick and fast and in some cases so high you can feel them shooting past overhead.

And perhaps that is Excel Saga’s only real flaw – some of the references are obscure in the extreme for the average Western anime fan so be prepared to utilise that pause button and the extremely handy AD Video Notes, which appear in the form of the much valued, possibly tasty, emergency supply Minchi. This much-abused pooch and its cartoon bubble hints might seem like a distraction but believe me it will help with the more culturally and linguistically specific puns and provide some serious extra chuckles into the bargain. This is one series where it pays to check the extras for production information first.

Not that Excel Saga is necessarily impossible to get. Even a little exposure to ‘serious’ anime will have the farce alarms buzzing (haha!). Excel’s irritating screech, exacerbated by her inability to pause for breath but redeemed by the fact that she always seems to stand on the trap door, is something that many anime fans will find instantly familiar. So too the cool, calm, handsome demeanour of the great Lord Ilpalazzo, visionary and leader of the secret ideological organization Across, to which Excel claims overly enthusiastic membership. The man is poster boy for bishounen heroes everywhere (I’m positive there’s more than a little Clamp in his design) but if it ever gets out that he’s really just a loser, the world might really be in trouble! Hyatt, ex-Martian princess and permanently terminally ill completes this little coterie, and provides just a modicum of sense, or at least she would if she could stop dying for more than five minutes at a time.

That none of them can be taken even slightly seriously as they plot to take over the City of F on their way to conquering the world (after the electricity bills are paid of course) only really reinforces the idea that Rikdo knew exactly what he was doing when parodying the genres from which he drew. And that’s not even the end of it! Film references and in-jokes abound, a combination of appropriation, inspiration and examination that forms the apex around which Excel Saga’s true brilliance revolves.

I, Deni Stoner, hereby give my permission for Excel Saga to be enjoyed as the madly self-referential, extremely hilarious, immensely clever, genre-parodying entertainment that it is!!

9 Madcap Anime Anti-Stereotypes out of 10.
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