#1 Serving the villain?
Excel is a hyperactive young woman who lives in a small apartment and has to work various part-time jobs to make ends meet. However, she is also an officer of the secret organization ACROSS, an ideological group who wishes to seize control of the world in order to combat the rampant corruption in today’s society.
While Excel admits that she doesn’t quite understand the group’s objectives, she loyally serves them anyway due to her unrequited love for its handsome leader, Il Palazzo. A cynical genius who dresses like he’s a level 60 arcane wizard, Il Palazzo’s job is to command Excel, and later the newly-recruited Hyatt, as they set out on missions that must somehow help the group take control of F-City.
The leading question here is if Excel and Hyatt are serving a potential liberator of the people or a populist cult. Sure, there is a lot of talk about corruption, but as Excel and Hyatt attempt to battle starvation in their daily lives, they are also expected to donate money to fund ACROSS. Meanwhile, Il Palazzo seems uncaring and aloof towards his followers, and sometimes uses those very same funds to get himself some games to play or other entertainment. Especially his cruel treatment of Excel raises some questions.
The show is silly and episodic, but keeps building on this looming suspicion that ACROSS and Il Palazzo may not be as saintly as they present themselves. While I won’t spoil the outcome, the story goes for some interesting twists towards the end and I felt this got a great pay off.
#2 A parody of everything
Every episode of Excel Saga starts with the manga’s author giving his permission for the production team to mess with his story in a creative sketch. Usually, this means he’ll authorize them to turn the show into a parody of a specific genre.
One episode is a spoof on cheaply-made American action movies, which sees Excel trying to escape a guerilla camp in the jungle. Another will take on the form of a space battle show that can’t decide if it wants to be Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Express 999, Gunbuster, or Mobile Suit Gundam. The parodies are spot-on and constantly diverse, but also manages to feel like one cohesive story that all ties together in the end.
Humor is always going to be subjective and Excel Saga is not a show that ever gave me a laughing fit. However, I was having a smile on my face all throughout and I was constantly curious what the next episode might bring. With that said, I did choose to skip the recap episodes and a parody on super sentai shows, which I personally feel are really overdone.
#3 Dark side-stories
Most of the anime focuses on Excel and Hyatt as they loyally follow Il Palazzo’s orders, but it has a rich cast of side-characters that also have a lot going on and all tie back into the main story in surprising ways. A connecting theme here is that all the side-characters are suffering just as badly as our two protagonists.
Menchi is Excel’s dog, who lives in permanent fear after realizing that she is Excel’s food supply in case their finances take a sudden downturn. She keeps trying to escape the small apartment and start a new life, but her plans always end up sabotaged in cruel ways, after which Excel inevitably finds her again.
Pedro is a South-American immigrant worker that ends up dying in an Excel-related construction accident, after which his lingering spirit watches helplessly as his wife and son effortlessly move on after his demise. I swear every time you think the Pedro side-story is over they manage to pull a new twist that just makes his afterlife even sadder.
And besides these overarching side-stories, there is also the plot of the individual episodes. One that stood out in particular tells the story of a young assassin and the tragedy that led to her murderous career path. Not every episode has as strong a story, but many will have similarly grim subjects.
#4 Doing its own thing
Those who frequent my reviews may have noticed that I tend to favor shows that are more out there. Sure, I can name about a dozen comedy shows that gave me more laughs than Excel Saga did, but I still rate those shows lower because I respect how unique and personal Excel Saga feels.
Excel Saga had scenes that I wasn’t fond of, jokes that didn’t get a laugh, and it might even be insulting or uncomfortable at times. However, this is all in service of making it a show that feels many times more personal than a safe, cute girls comedy, or perhaps a wacky harem anime if we want to make it relevant to 1999. I feel the same about anime like Nichijou, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Panty & Stocking. So many of the ideas that went into it you’ll never see in anything else or executed as well as done in those shows, and all of them have a very specific “feel” to them.
It’s a shame Excel Saga came out as early as it did, because I feel it would have gained much more popularity if the online anime communities had grown to the size they would have around 2006 when Haruhi came out and took the anime world by storm. It also focuses mostly on older anime for its parodies, so while it’s very special to me, your mileage may vary depending on the era of anime you enjoy the most.
#5 The bonus episode
After the story is neatly concluded in episode 25, the folks at J.C. staff decided to make an additional 26th episode that was deliberately made to never air. It’s just slightly too long for a TV anime episode and ramps up the violent and sexual themes as far as they will go.
The story itself is a neat epilogue to the overall story. It’s a fun extra for those who really enjoyed the show and want to see what became of the characters afterwards, but the real reason to watch it is for the controversial factor. Blood flows like rivers, limbs get torn off, full frontal nudity, and an erotic conclusion to two questionable romantic sub-plots. The episode also specifically mocks broadcasting regulations and censorship, which I can really appreciate.