Excel Saga Vol. #1 - Mania.com

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Mania Grade: A

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  • Audio Rating: B+
  • Video Rating: A-
  • Packaging Rating: C+
  • Menus Rating: C/A-
  • Extras Rating: A
  • Age Rating: 13 & Up
  • Region: 1 - North America
  • Released By: ADV Films
  • MSRP: 29.99
  • Running time: 125
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
  • Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
  • Series: Excel Saga

Excel Saga Vol. #1

By paul     June 08, 2002
Release Date: June 11, 2002

The Review!
Excel Saga has been perhaps the single-most controversial and eagerly-anticipated title on the Anime on DVD forums since the original announcement of its licensing. Fan demands got so bad that representatives of ADV threatened to delay the disc if people continued to ask about it. Several years later, the first disc in this series is available, and I am happy to report that it is just about everything we could have hoped for, and quite a bit more!

Excel Saga includes stereo mixes of both the original Japanese-language version and the new – and quite admirable – English-language version. As the show was originally destined for late-night television, the original version isn't terribly aggressive, but both tracks sound great, clear and solid.

The video continues ADV's trend of excellent transfers of medium-budget TV series. M.O.F.C. continues to prove themselves one of the best encoders of animated material. For a show with so many visual jokes and subtle references, the high quality of the video helps viewers catch little details that might be obscure in a lesser transfer.

The packaging is one of the few areas of ADV's production I really have issue with. They do a lot of things right, such as including a volume number on the spine, (Why is this so hard for so many companies?) and a humorous, full-color Hyatt manga panel (in Japanese) on the insert. But at the same time, I really feel like they missed an opportunity to create something brilliant. Excel Saga's running joke is how they parody anime, manga, video games, and Japanese culture in general, as well as Hollywood and classic movies. ADV's packaging reminds you that the contents of the show are weird or zany no less than 5 times on the cover. It might have been funnier to have toned down the "by the way, did we mention how WACKY this show is" blurbage and use a high-quality parody cover instead. Each cover could have satirized a different anime or movie genre. Oh, well. The rest of this release is so good, it's hard to complain.

The set also includes a blank ACROSS membership card so you can join Ilpalazzo in his quest to take over F city. The card isn't quite as high quality as Pioneer's membership cards for Gatekeepers, but it's still an amusing pack-in reminiscent of the gags included with Infocom adventure games.

The main menu is designed like Ilpalazzo's hand-held video game, and submenus are arranged like game setting screens. I give the main menu a "C" because it is rather abstrusely arranged with the buttons labeled "P", "LA", "SS", and "EX". Though I was able to figure it out, I sat there for a few seconds wondering what to do, as the buttons do not stand out enough to encourage navigation.

Submenus are simply brilliant (hence the "A-" grade), quick to navigate, easy to read, and full of visual and aural gags and clues. One really nice touch is how each episode on the scene selection menu uses music specific to that episode. It is such an obvious design, but one rarely used on anime DVDs.

I'll include special mention here, but ADV has created what just might be the most entertaining piracy warning I've ever seen, edging out the irreverent Kid Rhino warning.

Oh, Excel Saga extras! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Two different sets of openings and closings (one clean, the other with the original Japanese text), the animation commissioned for the Japanese piracy warnings, production sketches, and trailers. But the crown jewel is the ADVid Notes, which provide the viewer with information about the pop-culture references and in-jokes about the show in a Pop-Up Video style format. Excel Saga spoofs and satirizes so many different sources, that even the most knowledgeable anime fan will likely learn something from these notes.

(Please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers.)

Excel Saga is anime gone otaku.

There really is no simple way to describe it, but to say that it is anime for fans who have seen everything. It is meta-anime.

Take a somewhat mediocre manga series about a would-be world tyrant with a short attention span and a spastic, but devoted sidekick, and use it as a platform for a broad, inclusive comedy about anime and pop-culture. The running joke here is that the characters know they are actors on a stage, even as they go about their business.

Anime has broken the "fourth wall" before, famously in such popular anime as Otaku no Video and Golden Boy and omake from various series. But never before has a show been so obsessed with its own genre trappings. Even the two masterminds behind the series, manga author Koshi Rikdo, and series director Shinichi Watanabe appear as regular members of the supporting cast – Rikdo as an inarticulate nerd, and Watanabe as a sleek action hero. Moreover, Rikdo himself must appear at the outset of each episode to apologize to the manga fans for the changes made to the story.

But what is the show actually about? Well, despite the wacky randomness of the setup, the basic plot is actually quite simple. The show basically revolves around Excel, a recent high-school graduate with dreams of working with, and seducing, Ilpalazzo, the man she loves. Unfortunately, Ilpalazzo is obsessed with taking over the world, or at least the less ambitious job of taking over his home city. Well, obsessed isn't really the right word, since his attention span is shorter than a chewing gum commercial, and his day-to-day involvement with ACROSS is often interrupted with reading celebrity gossip magazines, learning to play the guitar, and playing video games. What's worse for poor Excel, is that even though she is the only dedicated member of ACROSS, Ilpalazzo rarely acknowledges her existence, much less her contributions to the cause.

Each episode shows Ilpalazzo conspiring to take over the city, but Excel often uncovers an even deeper conspiracy threatening the city (alien invaders, corrupt politicians, secret paramilitary organizations) and unwittingly thwarts them, saving the city, and possibly the entire Earth. Along the way, the cast is expanded with Hyatt, an anemic space princess who passes out at the most inconvenient times; Menchi, Excel's pet dog and emergency food supply; Watanabe, Iwata, and Sumiyoshi, the Otaku Three and Excel's neighbors; and the Will of the Universe, a glowing nebula which acts as the deus ex machina when the story gets too far away from the script. Running parallel to Excel's saga is the story of Pedro, a Latin American immigrant, working in Japan to provide for his family, who dies during a freak accident (involving Excel, don't ya know?) and wanders the Earth as a ghost.

The brilliance of Excel Saga, though, comes from the way in which it effectively skewers the anime genre. Although episode 1 serves mostly to set up the characters, episode 2 takes its cues from space operas and über-cute animal shows. Episode 3 is a military action-drama with some great Leiji Matsumoto references. Episode 4 spoofs dating simulators and most shonen love anime. Episode 5 is a great homage to the wildly popular government and salaryman comics, most of which never get exposure outside of Japan.

But the whole show would fall apart under the weight of its own randomness, if it weren't for Shinichi Watanabe's crack direction. What makes Excel Saga work is that the creators are strict believers in Chekov's Gun. "If you introduce a gun in Act I, you damn well better use it by the end of Act III." For all the randomness that gets injected in the show, it all comes back around again. The sheer density of visual information means that the show requires close viewing, and possibly re-viewing, but it pays off in the long run. Characters, scenes, lines of dialogue that seem to be meaningless or random come back into play later, often many episodes down the line.

The hypertextual nature of the show means that average anime watchers (or even non-anime watchers) will be frequently lost, or even bored, during Excel Saga, but taken as a running joke -slash- love letter to jaded otaku, Excel Saga is a work without equal. That it can sustain the joke for 26 episodes, never losing its careful balance between satire and reverence, is the reason that fans all over the world adore it. ADV's excellent production, and especially the ADVid Notes, means that even a casual watcher can, and should, give the show a try.

Hail Excel!

Review Equipment
Panasonic Panablack TV, Codefree Panasonic RP56 DVD player, Sony ProLogic receiver, Yamaha and Pioneer speakers, Monster cable. (Secondary equipment, Pioneer 105s DVD-ROM, ATi Rage Fury Pro, ViewSonic A90f, PowerDVD 3.0)


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