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Excel Saga

is a comedy manga series by Koushi Rikudou, and a TV anime series directed by Shinichi Watanabe. Both the anime and the manga are absurdist comedies following the attempts of Across, a "secret ideological organization," to conquer the city of Fukuoka as a first step towards world domination. Excel, the title character, is a key member of Across and ranks below only the organization's enigmatic leader, Ilpalazzo. In both the manga and anime, the city is defended by a shadowy government agency led by Dr. Kabapu, whose subordinates engage Excel and her junior officer, Hyatt, on several occasions.

The manga focuses on the development of its principal characters by means of satirizing life and culture in Japan: Rikudou notes that Excel Saga developed out of his earlier dojinshi comic Municipal Force Daitenzin as a way both to "laugh off" economic problems of the time and to explore Excel's character, which he felt he had neglected in Daitenzin. While the anime maintains much of the satire, it is more gag-based and self-referential, featuring animated representations of Rikudou, Watanabe, and other members of the production staff. It also relies more than the manga on parodies of popular Japanese works, including Dragon Ball, Super Sentai, Space Battleship Yamato, and Fist of the North Star. The English-language reception of the Excel Saga anime was generally positive, likening the humor in nature and quality to the works of Tex Avery and Monty Python. Nevertheless, many reviewers were dissatisfied with later episodes, and some censured the series for frequent references to obscure aspects of Japanese culture.

The Excel Saga manga began publication in Japan in the mid-1990s, serialized in Shōnen Gahosha's Young King OURs, and as of July 2007 eighteen collected volumes have been published. The TV adaptation was animated by J.C.Staff and produced by Victor Entertainment. TV Tokyo broadcast the series, beginning 1999-10-07, on Thursdays at 1:45 a.m. Japan Standard Time (16:45 UTC Wednesdays). Although twenty-six episodes were made, the last one was intentionally made too violent and obscene for public broadcast, and did not air in Japan. Several international editions of both media have been made, with the manga released in English, French, Spanish and Italian, and the anime in these languages and Portuguese.

Characters and plot

Both the manga and the anime follow the trials and tribulations of Across, a self-styled “secret ideological organization,” in its quest to conquer the world and rid it of corruption. Its leader, Lord Ilpalazzo, plans to begin with just one city: Fukuoka, Fukuoka, in the manga and "F City, F Prefecture" in the anime. He justifies this strategy by saying that conquering one city allows leeway for setbacks, and that the people of the world would not be ready for immediate unification. Defending the city are Dr. Kabapu and his Department of City Security, also known as the Municipal Force Daitenzin, a masked fighting force. While the manga and anime both principally revolve around this conflict, each medium features unique subplots. The manga is tightly tied to the main plot and explores the origins and natures of several main characters, especially Kabapu and Ilpalazzo. In contrast, the anime adds a side story mostly independent of the main plot, focusing on the ghost of Pedro (an immigrant construction worker), Nabeshin (the director's alter ego), and That Man, a villain introduced in later episodes.

Across

Excel is the hyperactive protagonist and title character, who approaches her work with abundant determination, but little foresight. Her mission is to further Across' city conquest, but her personal desire is to win Ilpalazzo's affection and praise. Despite being his most senior officer, she frequently finds herself out of the loop or passed over for promotion. Ilpalazzo, in contrast to Excel, is cold, reserved and calculating, but clearly has severe mental problems: he frequently suffers memory loss, hears voices, and sometimes manifests a different persona. He shows very little patience with Excel, frequently endangering her bodily well-being by dropping her down an oubliette (the principal running gag in Excel Saga) or otherwise punishing her (e.g. bazooka, MSG, etc). To accelerate his plans, Ilpalazzo soon hires a second agent, Hyatt, a demure and frail woman with a habit of suddenly dying and reviving in quick succession. Despite this limitation, she soon becomes Ilpalazzo's favorite, but Hyatt seems unaware of his favor and holds her senior in high regard. The two agents of Across keep a dog, named Menchi, as both a pet and "emergency food supply"—but although Excel and Hyatt often plan to “declare a state of emergency” and have Menchi as a meal, they never do so. In the manga, a third agent called Elgala joins Across. She proves to be a great source of frustration to Excel, mainly due to her insubordinate attitude, expensive tastes, and inability to keep her opinions to herself.

Department of City Security

Paralleling Ilpalazzo's Across is Kabapu's Department of City Security. Kabapu himself occupies a position of inscrutable power in the city, and is able to bend its political establishment to his will. Despite his power, he is an object of ridicule among most of his subordinates due to his appearance, mannerisms, and seeming disregard for lives and laws. Unfazed by this, he informs the six members of the Department that they are to assume the role of the Daitenzin, a sentai fighting force. One Daitenzin is Tooru Watanabe, who pins his hopes for a romantic relationship with Hyatt on his position in the civil service but grows despondent as the nature of his employment becomes clear. Another is Daimaru Sumiyoshi, who is a voice of reason in the Department and is represented as communicating through free-floating text. The third, Norikuni Iwata, is generally disliked for his boorishness but tolerated by his co-workers. Misaki Matsuya, the fourth, is an attractive but ruthless young woman who provides much of the group's leadership. The final Daitenzin are two android bomb-disposal experts called Ropponmatsu Unit 1 and Ropponmatsu Unit 2. Other associates of the Department are Kabapu's assistant Ms. Momochi, and the lolita complex-stricken Gojo Shioji, designer of the Ropponmatsus.

Other characters

In addition to the main cast, Excel Saga features a wide array of secondary characters, and among the most important are the anime's Nabeshin and the Great Will of the Macrocosm. These two have the power to alter or "reset" the storyline, and Excel and others often appeal for them to do so. Other cast additions in the anime include Pedro and his son Sandora, who both suffer cruel turns of fate and eventually become Nabeshin's students. Their objective is to defeat That Man, who desires to become a god by seducing the Great Will and Pedro's "Sexy Wife." Another prominent force introduced by the anime are the Puchuus, a race of insidiously cute aliens competing with Across for world conquest. Dr. Sekifumi Iwata (who the manga reveals is a cousin of the Daitenzin Norikuni Iwata) and his associate, Nurse Shiki Fukuya, provide some comedic interludes in the anime but make more substantial appearances in the manga. Finally, Rikudou spends several chapters of the manga introducing and developing other members of the Iwata, Sumiyoshi and Shioji families. Particularly notable is Shioji's mother Miwa Rengaya, whom Kabapu views as key to finding Shioji's mysteriously vanished father, Tenmangu Shioji.

Notable differences

Apart from the presence or absence of certain characters, the circumstances of many others differ markedly between the two media. For instance, episode two of the anime presents Hyatt as being a Martian princess with some sort of relationship with the Puchuus and Nabeshin, making her induction into Across seem almost an accident. Volume one of the manga, however, shows her being hired after submitting an application and being interviewed by Ilpalazzo. The two media also differ markedly in the natures of Across and the Ropponmatsus. Ilpalazzo and his followers are all there is of Across as of volume fourteen of the manga, but in the anime they form only one branch of the organization: above them are Headquarters, including That Man and his fellow members of the Across Six. Finally, the Ropponmatsus are depicted in the anime as distinct entities working together, whereas in the manga only one is active at any given time, since they have to share a unique "Ropponmatsu core."

Storylines

The manga focuses on the various missions Ilpalazzo's agents undertake as a part of their city conquest, the exploits of the Department and its members, and sometimes a study of an individual character. Beginning with volume nine, Excel and her comrades repeatedly attempt to make appeals directly to the people of Fukuoka, leading to inconclusive confrontations with the Daitenzin. Ilpalazzo, however, personally reveals Across' existence and intentions to the citizens of Fukuoka in volume thirteen. In volume fourteen, the agents' cover is blown, ultimately leading to Hyatt's capture, and, through various twists Excel and Elgala being held in an immigration detention center. In volume fifteen, Ilpalazzo intervenes directly to help his officers, regroups, confronts Kabapu, and spearheads the new, commercial phase of his city-conquest. The manga contains two notable subplots closely related to the main storyline: the first explores the origins of Kabapu and Ilpalazzo as well as Ilpalazzo's mental state. The second, which begins in volume twelve, concerns mysteries surrounding Shioji's parents, notably his mother's behavior and his father's disappearance.

Throughout most of the anime, Across and the Daitenzin interact either indirectly or at arms-length. Like early chapters of the manga, many episodes focus on a particular training or preparatory mission assigned by Ilpalazzo or Kabapu to their subordinates. The anime also follows the attempts of Pedro to regain his life and to avenge himself on That Man. This subplot is reviewed and enlarged in episode eighteen, which reveals that the Great Will of the Macrocosm and Pedro's "Sexy Wife" are in fact one being, and that Pedro and Sandora are both destined to become Nabeshin's students and to confront That Man. There is only modest continuity between episodes—each being "a parody of a different genre." Nevertheless, episodes twenty-two through twenty-five "scrape together all of the disparate story elements into something resembling a plot," culminating in Pedro's final confrontation with That Man and the battle for F City between Across and the Daitenzin.

Manga origins and source material

Rikudou notes that Excel Saga, the manga, developed from Municipal Force Daitenzin, a dojinshi he had started during his school days. A motivation for the change to Excel Saga was a desire to better develop Excel's character, which he felt remained "undigested" in Daitenzin. Also influential was the state of the world economy at the time, which he describes as "depressed, [with] a pessimistic view of life." He thus wrote Excel Saga as a way "to laugh off that view." The manga draws mainly from common aspects of Japanese life, from major issues such as troubles in the labor market, the state of health-care, political corruption, and gender equality, to more mundane concerns such as office relations, the hanami flower-viewing custom, and neighborhood trash collection days.

Rikudou also heavily references his hometown of Fukuoka by inserting local sayings "here and there," and by naming many of his characters after landmarks or areas in the city. The Daitenzin as a group are named after Fukuoka's downtown, the Tenjin district, their codenames deriving from department stores and other establishments in the district, and their surnames from neighborhoods around the city. (Sources differ on the codenames "Excel," "Ilpalazzo," and "Hyatt": VIZ claims they originate from hotels in Fukuoka, whereas ADV claims hotels in Tokyo as the source.)

The character Elgala is named after the Fukuoka Elgala Hall, and Across itself derives its name from the city's ACROS Building. In contrast, Kabapu is named after not a landmark but the mascot of the 1989 Asia-Pacific Expo, held in Fukuoka to celebrate the centennial of the city's Meiji-era charter. Despite drawing from many sources, the manga contains only modest amounts of outright parody: Kabapu's organization is a take on the sentai genre, and Sekifumi Iwata, the womanizing and medically incompetent doctor, is a spoof of Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack.

Anime adaptation

Development

According to Rikudou, Victor Entertainment solicited Shōnen Gahosha about adapting Excel Saga into an anime, and the two companies approached him. He agreed, but asked that the anime have a different storyline from the manga, which was and remains on-going. Rikudou says he is very pleased with the adaptation and that he sees "much appeal in the anime world." Shinichi Watanabe, the director, was for his part surprised to learn that he was specifically requested by Yousuke Kuroda, one of the show's writers. He adds that his first thought on looking at Rikudou's material was, "Wow, there's so much here that can't be broadcast on TV." To balance the removal of Rikudou's original material, Watanabe added his own alter ego, Nabeshin, and expanded several elements, including Pedro and the Great Will. He says that the Great Will in the manga was "conveyed just as words," and he himself developed its appearance, eventually settling on the "swirling, talking cosmos." He also increased Pedro's role in the story from a single frame in the manga. Watanabe says he was pleased with that aspect of his work, noting that "Pedro's situation was considered unsuitable for broadcast in Japan." Victor Entertainment's Shigeru Kitayama explains that Pedro's role was "a bit dicey" because it could have been interpreted "that foreign workers are looked down upon. Nevertheless, Watanabe made it a mission in doing Excel Saga "to find the borderline when things got too much" for TV Tokyo.

In contrast to the manga, the anime draws from and lampoons many different genres and specific works. For instance, although the sentai genre is more frequently mocked, Fist of the North Star and the works of Leiji Matsumoto each receive an episode's worth of parody, while Aliens, Gundam, Rose of Versailles, Dragon Ball, and Sailor Moon all are lampooned in extended sequences. Although Watanabe feels fans of these works were "really happy" with Excel Saga's parodies, Kitayama notes that the creators of the works "certainly got mad." Puni Puni Poemy, an OVA in which the director reprises his role as Nabeshin, is referenced in several episodes. A running, metafictional gag is the show's pre-title "authorization scenes," in which an animated representation of Rikudou gives or is forced to give permission for the episode's experiments, which are usually declared failures just before the end credits. In later episodes, the author and director come to blows over plot and character development in what one reviewer calls a "knowing satire on the real-life struggles that often arise between writer and director. The vocal cast includes several prominent voice actors, such as Kotono Mitsuishi as Excel, Takehito Koyasu as Ilpalazzo, and Satsuki Yukino as Ropponmatsu Unit 1. Rikudou recalls that he was "wired up" to see his favorite voice actors and actresses read lines of his work in front of him. Despite this, he was unprepared for hearing Excel's voice the first time, and found it an uncomfortable experience. Watanabe himself was impressed with Mitsuishi's rapid delivery of her lines, saying that "she really pushed herself to the limit and beyond." He also says, "at times she was too fast, and there was plenty of time left to [match the lip-synch]" (insertion in the original). In such cases, either he would add new material or have Mitsuishi ad-lib.

Music

In addition to providing overall production for the series, Victor Entertainment also produced the music of Excel Saga, which was composed and arranged by Toshio Masuda, and directed by Keiichi Nozaki. Director Shinichi Watanabe wrote the lyrics for the opening and closing themes, which were performed by the "Excel♥Girls" (Yumiko Kobayashi and Mikako Takahashi), and he claims to have written the opening's lyrics "on the train, five minutes before the deadline."

The opening theme, , consists of the singers speculating on the nature of love, in what one reviewer calls "a dead-on parody of J-pop bubblegum tripe." The closing theme, , presents Menchi, limelit, singing alone while being prepared for cooking. Her barks are rendered in Japanese by a female translator inset lower in the screen. Watanabe says that he had hoped to have the ending theme consist entirely of barks but felt "the music industry would not accept it." The standard opening and closing themes, an extended version of the closing theme, and other tracks were released in two soundtracks by Geneon.

"Going Too Far"

The twenty-sixth episode, "Going Too Far," never aired in Excel Saga's original run on TV Tokyo because it was purposefully too violent and obscene for broadcast in Japan. The opening sequence is altered to contain pixelated nudity and more blood, and the closing presents the translator on fours, wearing a collar, and singing the "Bolero," as Menchi translates into her own language. The episode itself, in addition to much more violence, blood, and gore, includes situations containing nudity, lesbianism, apparent paedophilia, soaplands, and a love hotel—in several instances involving minors. The episode obliquely refers to the 1995 sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway by including sarin attacks as a method of exterminating enemies. The director himself remarks that it "felt good to go past the limits of a TV series," although he thinks it "is not something that you should do too often." On Thursday 25 March 2007, "Going Too Far" was aired Uncut on the UK channel Rapture at the original time of the previous episodes, 8:30pm. It was also aired, in the show's regular 10 PM time-slot, by SIC Radical in Portugal. It was also aired on the 13th January in the show's regular 2 PM time slot on AXN's Zona Animax, also in Portugal, without any alterations in the animation, and it still airs the same way in Animax Portugal.

International versions

As of January 2007, eleven volumes of the manga have been translated into Italian by Dynit, seven into French by Kabuto, and fifteen into English by VIZ Media; the sixteenth is available as of September 2007. Each volume of the English edition includes a section called "Oubliette," which consists of a "sound effects guide" and notes by the editor and translator. Since its August 2003 release in North America, Excel Saga has been among of the 100 top-selling graphic novels on eight occasions.

ADV Films produced the English-language version of the anime (including the final episode) and released it on DVD in North America and the United Kingdom. Anime Network later broadcast the series in the former, and Rapture TV will air it beginning January 3, 2007 in the latter. The English adaptation initially starred Jessica Calvello, with Larissa Wolcott taking over the role after episode thirteen after Calvello had damaged her voice during production. The ADV release features interview transcripts, games, and "Vid-Notes" as commentary. It is distributed in Australia by Madman Entertainment. A French edition of the anime was distributed by Dybex, starring Pascale Duchemin as the voice of Excel. From November 2004 onwards, it was broadcast daily in France by Canal+ in the program La Kaz. "Going Too Far," titled "On dépasse les limites," aired on December 30, 2004, but at 1:00 a.m. out of content considerations. An Italian version starring Federica De Bortoli was produced by Dynit and shown on MTV Italy. Much like elsewhere, the twenty-sixth episode, titled “Strafare,” never aired and was available only on VHS. In Latin America, Animax broadcast Excel Saga dubbed in Portuguese and Spanish. The Portuguese version was by produced by Álamo and starred Letícia Quinto. Rebeca Aponte led in Estudios Lain's Spanish adaptation.

Reception

The English-language reviews of the Excel Saga anime were broadly positive and even enthusiastic. Mike Crandol of Anime News Network puts it in the same class as Airplane!, National Lampoon, Tex Avery, and Monty Python, adding that 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." Serdar Yegulalp at TheGline says it succeeds both as "a brutally savage parody of every conceivable anime genre and convention, and as the kind of post-modern self-criticism found in the works of Takashi Miike, Thornton Wilder, Pirandello" (emphasis in the original). A contrary opinion is expressed by Joel Pearce from DVD Verdict, who says the series is "occasionally clever and funny," but that "much of it is gratingly obnoxious." A concern several reviewers express is that the quantity of obscure jokes and cultural references might limit the show's appeal. Many reviewers express displeasure with middle and later episodes, saying they were "more of the same," that they had "stale" humor, that they were "tiresome," or even "painfully unfunny." Episodes fourteen through sixteen, starring the Ropponmatsus, bear the brunt of this criticism, but several reviewers consider episode seventeen, "Animation USA," to be one of the best.

Reviewers also agree that the series suffers from too much "filler" in its later episodes, with Crandol describing the show as "spinning its wheels." The production staff's reliance on a second summary episode—recapping the Pedro-Nabeshin subplot—particularly displeased reviewers. Crandol alone seems to have enjoyed it, calling the episode "delightfully stupid" and one of the series' "most entertaining installments." Yegulalp reserves his harshest words for the unaired "Going Too Far," calling it "pure, idiotic, wretched excess." He goes on to say that the episode has "the feeling of trying to deliberately enrage the audience by resorting to the only tactics left: genuinely offensive subject matter." Joel Cunningham at Digitally Obsessed disagrees, saying that the episode succeeds just in time, "with one of the series' funnier sight gags," and Anime Boredom's John Huxley considers it "too light hearted to take offense" and "a complete success."

The series generally receives high marks for technical aspects. Cunningham feels the animation is "flat-out gorgeous," but Crandol considers it merely above average. In the latter's opinion, its quality wanes as the series progresses and increasingly relies on super-deforming the characters for comedic effect. ADV's release earned praise for the quality of the video transfer and the DVD extras (particularly the Vid-Notes). Reviewers especially appreciated the English voice acting: Crandol calls it "brilliant," and several note that Calvello and Wolcott were each able to capture Mitsuishi's Excel. Pearce, in contrast, found the English cast to be "pretty bad" and its Excel to be "dental drill" shrill.

Akadot's reviewer of the manga writes that "some of the strange events go on a little too long and do not have the impact that they do animated," but that Rikudou's Excel Saga is "graced with fantastic visuals and a hilarious story," and that the English edition is "a masterpiece of the translator's skill." Barb Lien-Cooper from Comic World News concurs that the manga cannot keep pace with the anime, but she finds Excel herself to be wittier in the manga and that the manga's plots "make more sense" than the anime's. A reviewer of the French edition also praises Rikudou's work, noting that it is an "…easy read without problems of clarity.

Notes and references

External links

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