Dean Talks Anime:
Excel Saga and the Common Language of Humor
A review/opinion piece by Christopher Kinsey
Drama is easy, comedy is hard. Someone said that once, and it’s only half true. Humor is only hard when you overthink it and add layers of complexity. Humor is extra hard when there is a cultural barrier. My favorite anecdote on this subject came from the great Japanese game translation house known as Working Designs.
“It was always a challenge when translating the jokes in the game [Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete]. So much Japanese humor is pun based, and that won’t work for Americans since a literal translation will make no sense whatsoever. You’d have moments like ‘Oh did you say pickle? I thought you said baseball card!’ So it’s a huge task cleaning up all the dialog to make those little asides sensible. Luckily we have a lot of funny writers in our stable.” –Paraphrased from memory, please do not sue/comment on inaccuracies. This is inaccurate as all hell.
So much Japanese stuff is just puns it can literally be a version of hell to most people who write jokes for a living. Classics such as Crayon Shin-Chan did the honorable thing and just tossed the whole script in the trash and started anew. But there are a couple of other forms of comedy that both Japan and America enjoy to the fullest: Slapstick and Parody. The best example of this was the brilliant anime, Excel Saga.
Born of the mind of Koshi Rikdo, this series started as a Doujin called Municipal Force Daitenzinwhich bore a striking resemblance to the B-plot… But I’m getting ahead of myself. Excel Saga was the offspring of that, a retelling of the cut rate super sentai forces battling the cut rate evil empire of ACROSS. We follow this struggle from the viewpoint of Excel Excel, ACROSS henchling and all around empty headed part-time worker. She pledges herself to her leader, Il Palazzo, and all of his schemes to take over the world one step at a time. First stop, the city of F in the prefecture of F. Opposing our anti-heroine is the Department of City Security led by the particularly insane bureaucrat Dr. Kabapu and his legion of city workers who happen to live in the same run down crap apartment as Excel and the other sparse ACROSS forces.
The source manga is a much more straightforward piece about cut rate anime good vs evil tropes and still has a good sense of humor. Being a longer work it fleshes out the struggle of our two factions a lot as well as adds a lot more asides. There are lots of small critiques of Japanese society, but not on the level of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. However, the expanded cast listing and many opportunities to become a cyborg made this a fun read. What was really great about the Viz translation was the addendum in the back of the books. They translated and explained all the sound effects, then some of the more confusing cultural send ups and jokes. But it’s those very necessary addendums that make it hard for Excel Saga to have the accurate manga to TV transition that so many works have been enjoying recently.
But let’s face it, the real meat is the anime and it’s twistedly awesome afro-ed director, Shinichi Watanabe (Nabeshin). His previous works read like most animation directors at the turn of the century, a little bit of everything was under his belt from magical girl to old school giant robots. But when it was his turn to take full control of a series he made magic when he worked Rikdo over to make this series just a madcap romp throughout genre after genre of anime, movies, and even video games. It’s a goofy satire at times that revels in the creator/adaptor struggle that all media has from time to time.
This is achieved in two ways. First, the main plot of the manga is merely a skeleton for the episodic parodies contained therein. Every episode has one type of spoof and it sticks with it. Episode two is sci-fi, episode four is romantic comedy, episode sixteen is a send up of yuri themes anime, and so on. Secondly, the gags are always something the common man can relate to. Sometimes lowbrow, they are used in such a way that it just… twists the weird in order for you to take notice. Mentions for this method include adding in author and director character inserts that are always at odds on how to make the next episode, and the struggles of a South American construction worker named Pedro who inexplicably becomes romantically involved with the will of all the cosmos and at the same time is hunted by “That Man” and… and… OK, so when it gets weird it gets really weird to a point that you have to watch it to explain it. But that’s what makes it so good, it needs that visual medium to get the most out of it and Excel Saga has that in spades. It never shies away from poking fun at anyone, from the otaku watching to the executives in the boardroom to politicians or even annoying folks soliciting your front door. Nothing is sacred, and anything goes.
But there is something to be said for restraint. Excel Saga wrapped itself up nicely doing a balls to the wall meta-joke to wrap up the entire series and any little plot thread the viewer might bring up. Also lots of sex and violence for the sake of sex and violence. And it handled it pretty well, with great jabs at loli-coms and the like. It was so over the top (and frankly, hilarious) that it was quickly pulled from the original Japanese airing and could only be shown on DVD. And it was glorious! When the episodes hit the USA we laughed so hard at these antics. We weren’t used to genuinely funny anime; we were used to the ham handling of far too many cultural jokes and puns. The packaging didn’t hurt either. ADV knew how to market back in the day. The DVDs came with “Feelies” (Or Omake if you didn’t grow up in the era of text based adventure games) such as:
- A do-it-yourself ACROSS membership card
- A modern poster of Dr. Kabapu proclaiming “Kill Yourself for Justice!”
- A build your own tapping sumo game
- Make-A-Face game
- Super Fun board game
- Postcard (Boo!Hiss!)
“But Deeeean, creative omake is haaaaard!”
Each one also featured some original art by Rikdo about a major moment seen in the anime, but not the manga. On top of all that ADV put in a lot of fun facts about the anime’s development or just some explanations of the more “In” jokes making it a really accessible experience. They would later use this Pop-Up-Video technology to put in “Jiggle Counters” in other anime offerings, but let’s focus on the good for now.
After killing it at least two continents thanks to in part landing smack dab in a time when Adult Swim was good; Nabeshin put forth another crazy anime. Excel Saga’s spiritual sister, Puni Puni Poemy. Yes, it’s a small OVA based on a single small running joke. But let’s be frank, the director had more jokes to do so he panned it out into two more episodes of the series. And honestly, that’s all it is. It’s just crude joke after an offhand commentary on the business afteretc.etc, etc… It got tiring fast. From the assassins who attack with their extended spikey testicles to the oblivious yuri relationship, it just flings the gags at you with the patented passive-aggressive idle commentary against the anime industry and the world in general.
Not saying shotgun comedy can’t produce a rise now and again. We all go back to movies like Airplane because there is just so much to take in with each viewing; you can find new things to laugh at over and over again. PuniPuniPoemy has that kind of mentality; you have to really dig in there to find all the gags. The unfortunate side effect of being humor made for another culture you migh have to dig deeper to find meaning in the jokes. True, that happened in Excel Saga to a degree, but it gave you time to recover between gags. It’s a little better with English dubbing, but mostly due to the fact jokes pretty much have to be changed to match lip flaps and the like. On the other hand I find the dub voice of our heroine, Poemy, to be the most grating of all the hyperactive squeaky female voices ever. You pick your poison.
But to me, this hyper active and overzealous style got used up with the final “Too hot for TV” episode of Excel Saga. Yeah, there were some fresh jokes in the series, but at the pace and even more nonsensical setting, Puni Puni Poemy just feels forced rather than the fluid duel storylines of its mother/sister show. But while it’s not my cup of tea, this anime needs to be seen just for the sheer amounts of insanity it constantly barfs at you. And Japan is into some weird stuff, to be sure, but to see it packaged in such a way that the rest of the world can relate is a rare thing indeed.
-Chris Kinsey is an ACROSS regional manager for the Mid-Atlantic area but can never get any of those sweet free key chains he was promised no matter how many grocery store entrances he’s kicked out of.