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Twenty Years Later: Excel Saga

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“Excel’s in a secret organization. She wants to impress her boss by conquering the city. And every episode of her show, Excel Saga, is a mega-random mash-up of stuff that rules. It’s like a sci-fi movie full of drunken kittens. It’s like a romantic comedy about zombies that drive laser motorcycles made of flaming glitter. And when you smoosh it all together? BOOM. Excel Saga!” – Funimation

Once upon a time, a long time ago when anime was still wild and untamed in the west, there was a short period of time where anything from Japan was special. Absurdist comedy wasn’t rampant at the US at the time, with the Adult Swim programming block in its infancy, and Japan’s unique brand of weird was lauded. A twenty-six episode series from Japan, based on a manga that nobody had heard of, gained infamy for its insane energy, insane dub, and wacky hi-jinks.

The plot is simple enough. There’s a secret organization called ACROSS which is headed by a man who goes by the name Il Palazzo. He wants to take over the world because he views it as corrupt. But first, he has to take over Japan, and that means by starting with the city of F. (Fukuoka.) To help him accomplish this goal he enlists two young women, who go by the names Excel and Hyatt. (Clearly pseudonyms…. clearly…) and a dog who they name Menchi (Mincemeat.)

Facing off against these evildoers (?) are the City (Environmental) Security  Bureau. The civil servants who work under a man known as Kabapu are forced to become costumed warriors to take on Across, but all they want is a raise.

What follows is a mile-a-minute tour de force of parody, gags, slapstick, nonsense, screaming, blood-coughing, romance, more violence, and more screaming.

Victor Entertainment licensed the manga for an anime, getting director Shinichi Watanabe to adapt the series. Rather than attempting to make a straight forward adaptation of the ongoing manga, he instead amped up the story. He tossed himself in as the character of Nabeshin (turning himself into convention staple), introduced a plot device called the “great will of the macrocosm” and turned a background character named Pedro into a main player. 

Pedro noooooo

His changes to the story for the medium of animation were mostly successful.

The show wouldn’t have gained such notoriety if it weren’t for both the Japanese and English voice casts giving a 110%. Excel herself was voiced in Japan by Kotono Mitsuishi (best known for Sailor Moon.) The rather shrill, mile-a-minute tirade of dialog the erstwhile Excel delivers falls on the aloof ears of her employer Il Palazzo, voiced in Japanese by prolific voice actor Takehito Koyasu. 

Perhaps because Mitsuishi voiced Mink of Dragon Half, ADV looked to their own Mink voice actress for the similar role. Jessica Calvello famously put on one of the highest energy voice performances of all time and overdid it so much she had to bow out from the role due to vocal damage halfway through the series. Larissa Walcott stepped in to take over the role for the second half of the series, providing an equally high energy performance. No matter what language or who is playing Excel, she gets more than a little grating after about five minutes. There is so much dialog and half of it is unintelligible most of the time. Barely controlled chaos is the best way to describe it.

Rounding out the English cast is a who’s who of now veteran voice acting names. Monica Rial plays the demure Hyatt, Jason Douglas a haughty Il Palazzo, and a whole bunch of other fine folks as everyone else. It’s a strong dub, especially for the time it came out. It does feel a bit dated now in its over-the-top performances and mixing.

Perhaps the most infamous thing about the anime of Excel Saga was it’s episode 26, a direct-to-video extra episode purposefully made extra sexy and violent. It’s crass, it’s lewd, it’s pointless but so on brand. Rikdo Koshi was known for making smutty doujinshi and released several Excel Saga themed ones so it’s only fitting.

While the manga began in 1996, the anime was created only a few years into what went on to become a 27 volume, 15-year run. That meant that not only did the anime only roughly follow the plot of the manga, but it also had to do its own thing. Not even all of the characters who would be essential to the plot of the manga had debuted by the time the anime was created! (For example, there’s a third ACROSS member named Elgala who was introduced in volume 8.) While the manga is social satire, the anime went hard into parody, making each episode a blatant genre switch, seemingly with the blessing of Rikdo Koshi.

The manga initially sold very well in the US, as it should have because the anime was driving sales. However, by the time Viz caught up with the Japanese release sales slowed down. Then Viz really slowed the release down, from two volumes a year to one to the point where Viz finished releasing the series 3 years after Japan did! Which is a cosmic shame because Carl Gustav Horn did something special with that series. Its translation ranks among the best in English manga, with extensive humorous and informative liner notes, fan art publication, and spent years bumming around an obscure internet forum full of a small number of fans.

Excel Saga was a staple of anime fan catalogs in the early to mid-2000s but by the time ADV ceased to be ADV, and Funimation licensed rescued the series, it was old hat. Despite some interested parties (Toonami’s Jason DeMarco once mentioned he wanted to air it but couldn’t license it because of unknown reasons) it never got much exposure outside of the anime fandom. Even Nabeshin’s fame has seemingly run its course. For a forerunner of a lot of what would come later, it’s sliding into obscurity. 

While it’s damn near impossible to find a complete run of the manga in English, with Viz letting the series lapse out-of-print and never releasing it digitally (which is a goddamn shame, because it’s much better than the anime,) the show is somehow still available streaming and on DVD from the current license holder Funimation, 20 years later.

Hail Il Palazzo!