I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned Excel Saga on this blog before, but if I haven’t, it’s worth a plug. It’s probably best to start describing this show with a comparison an equal number of you will be familiar with. I was watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold for a while, back when it first started being broadcast. I was overjoyed that someone had finally given the Caped Crusader a hug and told him that he doesn’t have to be down all the time. Brave and the Bold, you see, is one of the wackiest superhero cartoons in existence. It managed to make Aquaman into a righteous and awesome combat King who takes to every problem as though it’s a fight. And to every fight as though it’s the best thing in the world. Plots involved Aquaman and The Atom going inside Batman to fight a tiny group of invaders while Batman’s batmobile turned into a bat-giant mecha and he fought a gigantic version of the same invaders. In a word, Batman: The Brave and the Bold is wacky.
Or at least, it was, until about thirteen episodes in, when a two-parter took Bats to an alternate dimension where heroes were villains and villains were heroes. It was still outlandish, but you could feel the series stop being wacky at some level. Plots became serious, slavery was brought up–it’s still no Dark Knight ripoff, all angsty and off-key, but it was missing the same wack. Excel Saga, for most of its run, has been the same way. It set itself up early on as a Japanese, animated and televised equivalent to Airplaine!, where every week, they would parody a different genre of Japanese media. And for the most part, this is what Excel Saga does very very well. The version I’m watching has these neat little pop-ups, reminiscent of Pop-Up Video, that fill you in on all the Japanese trivia you’ve missed by living in North America. See fig. 1 for a moderate example. While this is distracting by its very nature, it feels like the kind of manic, enjoyable distraction that suits the rapidfire delivery and off-the-wall tone of this series.
Most of all, it helps Excel Saga in a very vital way: it’s wacky. A series that parodies a different genre every week will be wacky, inevitably, but this is also the kind of series to play rape and frequent death for laughs. Slapstick knows no gender, and this series knows no moral bounds to comedy. We were introduced to a mad scientist recently who makes robots. His robots are pretty true to life, aside from being very very heavy, having only one name and looking a bit funny. This doctor also has a thing for pre-school or elementary school age girls. Not sexually, mind. He just really, really likes them. He’s always shown with ever escalating numbers of small girls around him, for no particular reason, and is introduced at a playground, staring at five-year-olds, playing. Which is hilarious, because it follows no moral boundary.
However, recently, Excel Saga has been getting seemingly less wacky. And I know that just like saying a series where Bats and Aquaman team up with Doctor Adam Strange across the galaxy is less wacky, saying a show where a girl has a rocket fly out of her knee is less wacky makes no sense. It’s one of two things: either I’m accustomed to the level of wackiness that we’ve grown so far and maintaining the status quo feels less wacky or maybe it’s that the series has legitimately slowed down some in its back half, when it got a plot. In any case, the last episode of this series is titled “Going Too Far” and was made to be too obscene to broadcast on Japanese TV. So it picks up again.
The other new series I’m primarily watching, aside from Black Lagoon, is Welcome to the NHK. Black Lagoon is a pretty fun show about modern day pirates that I’ve got about 4 episodes in to at the moment, and so far, it’s pretty good, dirty, immoral fun. Brilliantly animated, heavy on the action and easy on the eyes, Black Lagoon is a great B+ at the moment, and may work its way to an A- in time. Welcome to the NHK, on the other hand, alternates between breathtaking, surreal dream sequences and painfully awkwardly animated mouthwags. The character animation is often subpar, yet it’s times more engaging. Why is that?
Welcome to the NHK is about a dude who fancies himself a hikikomori, a particular brand of shut-in for the uninformed. In Japan, when young people succumb to social anxiety, quit the work force and go without education, employment or training, they often seclude themselves. These young shut-ins are called hikikomori, literally “I’m not looking up the literal definition, I just handed it to you”. Funny, how linguistics work like that. This dude has been living on his own in his apartment for the last several years, steadily losing his grip on the world and convinced that everyone outside hates him. He sees his life as a gigantic conspiracy against him to make him into a shut-in, starting with the NHK.
The NHK is a broadcast network in Japan, primarily known for broadcasting high quality animated entertainment. He draws the connection between anime, otaku (Japanese fanboys who forgo social interaction or any meaningful contact for their obsessions) and hikikomori. He thus sees that network as the primary conspirator against him in his life. Until one day, a cute girl with an umbrella (or is that a parasol) tells him that she wants to rescue him from his hikikomori condition and lifestyle and some really well-pitched black humour ensues. For instance, he tells her that he’s a game designer. All bullcrap, sure, but then he has to design a game with his next door neighbour. Something cheap to produce, yet still capable of being high quality. A sex game.