2013
03.23

I haven’t seen all that many Ghibli movies, and the ones I have seen I’ve already forgotten. So forgive me if my agreeing with the majority that says Children Who Chase Lost Voices is a Ghibli-esque film comes off with some negative undertones.


The story centers around Asuna, a young girl that stumbles upon the secrets of another world when she is saved by a mysterious boy who fends off a rather fantastical-looking creature. As expected, she is soon caught up in the mystical world herself as she tags alongside her substitute teacher, Mr. Morisaki, as they make their way through the world of Agartha so that he may resurrect his dead wife.

I must say, while Asuna is established from the start as a very resourceful and strong heroine, to have the real plot kick in by having her be a traveling-buddy for her sub is rather odd. Not only are Morisaki’s intentions immoral (“unnatural?” Whatever word works for wishing to bring dead people back), but with exception to some backstory later in the film, we get little to no character building for his part. I’m just saying that for a film like this where the journey makes up a majority of the story, it’s a bit odd when those along for said journey don’t really interact all that well together… even in an “unlikely partnership” sense. While I’m on the topic, you’d think that considering the title of the movie, there’d be a larger cast of kid characters. I was personally hoping for at least something along the lines of The Goonies when I started watching and felt a bit disappointed when I found the title alone was a mislead.

That’s not to say that Lost Voices is a bad movie, though. It’s top notch animation and vibrant use of colors really makes the world of Agartha come to life. And from the bright clothing, scenery, and occasional out-of-place violent monsters, the animation really does a good job of further fleshing out the mystical world. It’s just that at least in the manner it was represented in, I really felt like I was watching something clearly out of my age demographic.

And, of course, there’s the standard abrupt ending that I should have come to expect from any and all movies directed by Makoto Shinkai. In some cases, leaving things open for the viewers to continue works, like in 5 Centimeters per Second. This was not one of those times. There were so many questions left unanswered as well as certain character arcs simply left hanging that I couldn’t help but think Shinkai just put too much faith in me to assume a happy ending for the cast, even though the final scene of the movie far from hinted at one (if anything, the final scene felt like a lead-in to some disturbing epilogue).

So taking the pretty animation, journey-centric story, and “don’t think about it” ending, I’m pretty much convinced Children Who Chase Lost Voices was Shinkai’s dabbling in the child demographic. It wasn’t really my thing, but I’m sure some kiddies were left with some long lasting disturbing memories of slain Agarthan monsters and… iunno, whatever else kids like that was in this movie.

2013
03.21

With two Makoto Shinkai works under my belt, I still wasn’t sure of the direction his movies were going. While both Voices of a Distant Star and The Place Promised in Our Early Days leaned more towards romantic dramas in sci-fi settings, I remained skeptical as to how many different takes of the same theme Shinkai could pull off. Thankfully, 5 Centimeters per Second breaks the mold of the previous two movies, if only slightly.


While 5 Centimeters Per Second was released a mere three years after The Place Promised in Our Early Days, production values seem significantly greater than Shinkai’s previous works. Rather than giving a sci-fi twist as was the norm with his previous movies, 5cm is set firmly in the real world, and its beautiful animation clearly takes note of such. With details from panning scenes of cherry blossoms, to the old washed out look of train stations, the movie takes commonplace Japanese settings and animates them in such a way that if it weren’t for the character designs, you would think you were watching a live action movie. Such attention to detail was a nice touch and better sets the groundwork for the story to take place.

The film is divided into three acts, each focusing on the daily life of Takaki, a young boy we follow from childhood to early adulthood. Similar to Voices of a Distant Star, 5cm does an excellent job of making the viewers care for Takaki while also raising the tension between his possible love interest through their not seeing each other for extended periods of time. And while we never learn all that much about him as a person, the fact that we as an audience witness key moments throughout his life is enough to form an attachment to him.

Now, at the expense of breaking the semi-coherent flow of this post, I have to mention that reviewing this movie without giving any spoilers is difficult, but I’ll try to be as vague as possible.

5cm is one of those movies that acts more as an experience than a movie in the traditional sense. That’s not to say it’s disgustingly avant-garde. On the contrary, its very real portrayal of its characters and the lives they carry on with forms for more than I could ask for from a story. As you go from act to act, you realize that the movie as a whole can’t have an end because life is just one of those things that is constantly happening around us—if not one person’s, then another’s (again, I swear the movie isn’t as artsy-fartsy as I’m making it seem).

It’s in keeping that message along with its top-notch animation (even by today’s standards) that makes 5 Centimeters per Second an excellent movie, and my favorite of the Shinkai films I’ve seen.

2013
03.21

Homestuck [BlackCatula]

Okay, so…Homestuck.

You’ve heard the name. You’ve heard…things. 14-year-old kids talk excitedly about it in the back of the class as they fill binders full of their John/Dave yaois. Convention-goers mutter about people in gray makeup with candy-corn horns and police light-colored glasses roving around and forming photo groups. Bryan Lee O’Malley offhandedly mentions Scott Pilgrim and Homestuck in the same breath. But no one seems to be willing to try and explain what Homestuck even is, much less tell you if you’ll like it.

In the simplest of terms, Homestuck is an ongoing web comic that is infamous for it’s frequent updates (usually in small batches of 3 to 6 pages at a time, as often as every day). It’s about some kids who play a video game that triggers the end of the universe, and they have to play through the game’s story until the end, whereupon if they defeat the Big Bad, the universe will be saved. Simultaneously, in another galaxy, a group of aliens called “trolls” (first introduced under the guise of internet trolls) have also started a session of the game, and through the use of advanced technology make contact with the kids, ultimately to work together to understand why the game (and subsequently the universe) is broken.

To reiterate though, that’s the plot in only the simplest of terms. Homestuck has only been alive for a few years, following the popularity of creator Andrew Hussie’s other web comic foray, “Problem Sleuth”, but the comic already boasts nearly 8000 pages, 150 unique characters, and more tangents than your overdue trig homework. One reason the comic is so big is because many of the pages consist solely of a single panel with no text that can be read through rapidly. Other pages consist of a series of short animated gifs, intimidating walls of dialog, fully realized Flash animation sequences, and even fully playable Myst-style games loaded with extra dialog and easter eggs and crazy foreshadowing. The sheer size and scope of the comic, coupled with it’s enormous cast (that 150 is NOT including alternate “doomed” timeline selves, clones, robots, etc), is so deeply fleshed out that it can take any sane person months to catch up from the beginning, even with speed-reading, if any retention of continuity and cohesion is expected.

Seeing as this article is written for an animation blog though, I’m gonna talk mostly about the animation seen in Homestuck. The first thing that needs to be mentioned is Hussie’s simplistic, MSPaint-driven style. Characters are usually rendered with minimal detail, which ultimately makes animation and sprite reusability much easier. In both the gifs and the full Flash sequences, “noodle arms” are frequently employed (often very spastically), and most everybody’s skin is paste white (not Caucasian white, though there is an inside joke on that matter). Backgrounds and some foreground items (usually props or weapons) will sometimes use colorized clip art from various sources. What makes the animation quality though, is the way all of these sparse or “shortcut” methods are brought together to form an animated sequence.

All of the Flash sequences are accompanied by original, fan-composed or commissioned music, and are used as the basis for the direction of the animation. Sometimes, in the case of more intense or introspective moments, a more detailed art style is used as well. Overall though, the Flash animations are usually used for distinct action sequences, usually involving several different points of view or concurrent plotlines. A lot of quick cuts and flashing transitions will occur throughout them, and it’s strongly recommended that anyone prone to bouts of epilepsy stay away from Homestuck, because quick-flashing, vibrant colors are a series staple, especially where the animations are concerned.

Taking all of this into account, Homestuck boasts some of the most perfectly-timed and well-executed Flash sequences in recent memory. Most of them are used to magnify one small, critical piece of the plot, as opposed to expanding the plot as a whole. Each sequence can last anywhere from less than a minute to the grandiose “Cascade” sequence, which carries on for well past the 10-minute mark. The animation sequences are one of the biggest highlights of the comic, so much so that waiting for the next one can and has driven fans to various forms of stir-crazy insanity. Nearly every Flash animation ends in a way that only raises new questions, and they’re all but guaranteed to excite and confuse the poor reader/viewer with a new series of twisty details to flail over (a great example would be *SPOILERS* Dirk very suddenly losing his head *END SPOILERS* at the end of an animation in Act 6). http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6&p=007138

Okay, so it’s questionably artistic and takes forever to read because of all the backstory and legend and world-building, but what makes Homestuck so amazing? What sets it apart from other web comics or animated things? The answer is in the characters. We meet the characters and see their interactions at first through a detached, game-based narrative, where the viewer seems to be the one putting in commands for John to do, then later we start seeing more a more dialog-driven approach, all of which is handled through color-coded chat logs between the characters. As anyone who spends a lot of time talking via IM to “internet friends” can tell you, this is a very easy way to learn how to connect and understand a person in a way that in-person contact cannot. Since we’re able to connect and understand the way these characters grow, we’re able to attach to them that much easier, which drives the way we feel about the events that go down in the story. We seem them struggle and learn and grow and make mistakes and suddenly the quest to complete the game becomes personal for us. It’s that character-driven story that makes Homestuck endearing.

Well, that and the fact that the frontman for ICP takes on a preisdential role, Betty Crocker is a power-hungry industrialist corporation driven by an alien sea witch, a guy with Kamina glasses slices a meteor in half with a katana, a black-robed servant stabs his queen and steals her magic ring then fuses with an immortal god-dog and sets out to cause all kinds of untold damage all because he didn’t want to wear a funny hat, and two enormous cosmic snakes have violent glowy starsex that ends in mpreg as a juggalo clown in purple pajamas with fake pixie wings watches from the background. That’s all kind of endearing too.

Ultimately, Homestuck is a thriving mass of constant world-building and character development, and the Flash animations are super impressive. Is it accessible or recommended for everyone? Absolutely not. It requires hard dedication and an ASS-TON of reading before you even really get into it. But it is one of the most important webcomics on the scene right now, and it is, after all, popular enough to overfund a Kickstarter for a video game spin-off by about $1.7 million OVER its intended goal, so it can’t be all that bad, can it?

…can it?

2013
03.19

I liked Voices of a Distant Star. It was the first Makoto Shinkai work I watched, and considering it was less than half an hour long, I think it was able to make the most of every minute it was allotted. Details and backstory that established the OVA’s world were given second seat to the characters due to its time constraints, and for the most part, I’d say it was the right call. The Place Promised in Our Early Days takes a similar concept, but in the wrong direction.

Doing a quick skim through posters of Shinkai’s works, The Place Promised in Our Early Days looked to be the most interesting of the bunch. Main couple playing the violin, an open meadow, complimentary colors, and a long yet intriguing title… I honestly thought this movie was going to be my favorite of the available Shinkai movies. And then I watched it.

Clocking in at around an hour and a half, the movie essentially took what made Voices of a Distant Star interesting, and made them not so interesting. In Voices, the intrigue of the short taking place on a fictional Earth in the midst of an intergalactic war was that the actual war itself was kept rather vague. It made for a foreboding type of feel, like you were always on your toes because you weren’t exactly sure what the war would mean for the main characters. The Place Promised in Our Early Days takes a similar approach to explaining the setting of its own world, except it just came off as an incredible slog to get through.

There’s something going on with Japan being separated and occupied by the US and “the Union”… something about a massive tower with a purpose that nobody’s exactly sure about… it’s all kept very vague, and even when things get clarified by the movie’s end, it’s not exactly done so for the best. While Voices was short enough that I was willing to accept any explanation (or lack thereof), Early Days is clearly long enough for a proper explanation to be given and thus better establish the story from the get-go, and yet for some reason, viewers are still left in the dark until the final act when I’m too bored to pay attention anymore.

The cast is equally boring to watch. You’re introduced to main guys Hiroki and Takuya in their early teens, with main girl Sayuri introduced shortly after. With there being two male leads, you’d think there’d be some kind of love triangle involved. However, Takuya ends up being yet another means to poorly explain the political problems their world is currently undergoing, while the real couple to root for without any doubts is Hiroki and Sayuri. You find that Hiroki and Takuya are building a plane, while Sayuri, being as useful as most love interests, is just there for the ride.

Three years pass, and the trio has gone their separate ways. And as current political events start to reach disastrous proportions, bits of science fiction begin to work their way into the story, only further complicating the plot. While all the political talk at least made an effort of giving a direction to the movie, most of that is undone when the sci-fi talk is introduced, leading to viewers asking just why certain things have to happen that way, and why characters act the way they do.

By the end of the movie, the plot has become a convoluted mess that even the somewhat endearing-ness of the movies’ main couple and at times poignant soundtrack can’t fix.

2013
03.18

I’ve honestly never heard of Makoto Shinkai before the trailer for The Garden of Words came out, but the overall style and drama the trailer hinted at was enough to pique my interests. And whaddya know, a couple weeks later, crunchyroll just so happened to be streaming his better known movies for public visual consumption. How convenient.

One of the first Japanese dramas I ever looked into in some form was Saikano: The Last Love Song on This Little Planet. I didn’t read past the first half of the series for one reason or another, but my lasting impressions of the series remain as follows: unnecessary sex, and a war-time situation that’s never really explained all that much in favor of focusing on the main couple. Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star is pretty much that latter part, except done in such a way that I actually don’t mind it.


The OVA tells the story of Mikako, a young girl taken to fight some far-off war in a giant robot (y’know, typical anime stuff) and Noboru, the boy she leaves behind. The only means of communication with each other while Mikako’s off fighting aliens and the like in space is via texting. But the real problem comes when the time it takes for texts to reach each other increases the farther out Mikako travels.

The whole idea of kids being sent to fight aliens in a galactic war of some sort has been done to death, even by the time this OVA came out, but it’s able to give a certain twist that I at least find significant enough for it to stand out on its own right. Clocking in at only 25 minutes, Voices of a Distant Star doesn’t exactly have all the time in the world to flesh out the details of what this galactic war entails and why kids have to fight in it, and it’s clearly aware of such. Sure, it’ll give some brief moments of exposition here and there, but there seems to be an intentional lack of focus given towards such information simply because we as the viewers don’t have to know every nook and cranny reason behind things.

But that’s not to say the film makes any sacrifices for the sake of time. If anything, it handles its story-telling and pacing in such a way that you feel you’re not short-changed or densely uh… “over-changed” either.

Sure, you’re given the futuristic setting of intergalactic war, but the real heart of the story comes in the form of Mikako and Noboru’s interactions. As the two send each other messages literally traveling light-years to reach their recipient, there’s a certain level of anxiety the characters have that I’m sure most are familiar with. Letter-exchanging in general seems to be a lost art form, especially by today’s standards, so to be witness to these two children struggling to find just the right words to tell the other about their mundane day-in-the-life is endearing, to say the least. And to have such happen while the elephant in the room that is the alien war is only vaguely mentioned in their letters makes the characters that much more relatable. Regardless of time and setting, I think we can all agree that during times of war, people do their best to try and think of something less depressing when conversing with others, even if it comes in a form as simple as saying what you’ve been up to lately. It’s that level of relatability that really makes this OVA.

2013
03.16

“This is how you know you’re living in the future: when the pornography bears no earthly resemblance to sex as even the filthiest of us know it. You may as well be renting DVDs of aliens fucking.”
— Warren Ellis

Art by Micki!

I could never get with all that Tale of the Fisherman’s Wife shit. I mean, if you want to see a giant octopus penetrate a woman (or man… or dog), that’s cool; not my thing, though. But that’s the lighthearted stuff, the videos readily available for all the world to see. Spend a couple of days perusing Japan’s animated pornography output and you’ll find babies being raped to death, maggots crawling into and (literally) eating a woman’s vagina, spiders laying eggs in a woman’s anus, and other such delights. Does sex cease being erotic when it’s rape, and when said rapist is a giant wasp? I suppose that’s for you to decide, but yes. Yes it does.

My recent experiences viewing hentai with the other thaumatropes (strictly for scientific purposes… no, really. I’m serious.), while nowhere near as disturbing as the aforementioned scenarios, have led me to draw conclusions about Japanese cartoon porn that are none too flattering. The five artistic endeavors in which we partook – Oni Chichi, Shounen Maid Kuro-kun, Enzai, Aki Sora, and Pigeon Blood – each contained at least one notable, erection-deflating problem. For the sake of my sanity, I will list but a single issue per anime; these are child rape, child rape, child rape, underage incest, and vagina mouth, respectively.

It makes sense when you think about it, sure. Half the time, what you see in hentai is exactly the kind of sex people can’t or won’t do in live action porn. And it’s animated, so obviously no one is actually getting hurt (though I do wonder how a rape victim would react to seeing Oni Chichi or Enzai). But these are still ideas studios came up with, animated, and had customers lining up to pay for [“lol, buying porn” — ed.]. Fun fact: thousands of people are fapping to pretend children getting pretend raped right now. You’re welcome.

Bear in mind that this article isn’t intended as an indictment of your fetishes, whatever they may be. I’m not that much of an asshole, and almost everyone enjoys some unintelligibly kinky stuff. As long as it stays within the realm of fantasy, you can jerk to whatever you want, no matter how depraved! Regardless, the general concept behind stuff like Kuro-kun disturbs me greatly; though to be fair, there exists nothing in hentai as horrible as actual child porn or “crush” (don’t Google that). But please don’t try to tell me that forced shit eating or nipple fisting or whatever is some sort of sacred cow, because I will laugh at you.

What's behind door number 1? ...You don't want to know.

Something important to remember about hentai videos is that 99% of them are both badly drawn and badly animated, reminiscent of those “vintage” 70’s pornos with the weird haircuts and sub-snuff film video quality. You know, the ones more likely to remind you of how John Holmes was basically a serial killer than make you pop a boner. And because Custer’s Revenge proved that there’s nothing hotter than a bunch of pixels going at it, there’s almost always a cavalcade of distortion blocks obscuring the genitalia. Such malarkey must be rectified with utmost haste, as this heinous censorship is clearly defying the rights of any and all of Japan’s talented artistic provocateurs.

Today, we will be discussing two of the previously mentioned “masterpieces” – Shounen Maid Kuro-kun and Pigeon Blood. I shall begin with the former, as despite the fact that it’s literally about child rape, it’s far less insane than the latter. That said, I feel like I should be put on some sort of list after watching Kuro-kun. Really, the only thing keeping this movie from being branded illegal, then subsequently stuffed with FBI tracking devices and shared through Limewire is the fact that it’s animated. As far as I can recall, the plot of this anime is that some orphan kid (Kuro) was sad and lonely, so an older dude who looks like Bakura from Yu-Gi-Oh! (Miisu) pretended to be his friend so he could repeatedly rape him and turn him into his sex slave personal maid. Kuro is a pretty terrible maid, though; I mean, he only spends maybe 20 seconds of the episode actually cleaning anything! The rest of the time he’s bathing or being molested and/or fucked. Such gross incompetence is inexcusable – if I was Miisu, I’d have fired him after the first day.

The cute, inseparable pair get into such wacky hijinks as tying Kuro to a gynecological chair then penetrating his puckered little boy asshole and watching Kuro get clean in the bathtub through its glass bottom. There’s this one really cool part where Kuro is covered in food and Miisu uses a banana peel to jerk him off. Then, he covers his anus in butter and fucks him. I had to pause the film at this point, as I was outright disgusted by their terrible table manners. Seriously, these guys are old enough to know better than to play with their food during dinner! This is absolutely disgraceful considering the wealth from which Miisu descends; he’s no proper gentlemen, I tell you what.

Three guesses what the pudding's resting on top of.

The movie seems to end with Kuro beginning to enjoy his sexual slavery, which is probably a turn-off for the kind of people who’d actually want to watch this in the first place. So yeah, F- there, fellas… I figured the studio that made other shota yaoi “classics” like Boku no Pico would have known better. The lack of sexy grandpas disappointed me as well, making Kuro-kun far inferior to Pico on the GILF front. But yeah, if you like seeing small children get sexually violated against their will, you’ll love Kuro-kun. (Yo, Kitty Media or whoever, if you pick this shit up for western distribution, you can use that quote on the cover art free of charge!)

Next, we have Pigeon Blood, a lovely harem comedy starring a confused young man and his posse of two moe girls, a domineering latex-clad woman, and a mature office lady with glasses. They’re always getting into fun shenanigans like filling a girl’s bowels with a mysterious white substance and kicking her in the stomach until she sprays liquid shit everywhere. The plot revolves around turning one of the girls, Rita, into the ultimate slave, capable of enduring the most humiliating stuff and winning them some sort of contest. It’s kind of like The iDOLM@STER if the iDOLM@STER girls enjoyed jamming needles into each others’ clitorises (clitori?). The “protagonist” of this two-part epic is named Chris, which is totally awesome, because it enables me to easily insert myself into the action and imagine that I am some creepy pale bastard who likes forcing people to drink their own piss after extracting it with a catheter.

Aww, they're drinking it like little kittens.

One of the most interesting things about Pigeon Blood is that, for some reason, it was allowed to be released uncensored. Maybe it’s because the production values are absolutely terrible (it looks like an early 90’s anime, and that’s being generous), guaranteeing that almost no one will get aroused by it, but still… why this of all hentai? The climactic reveal in the second episode is that one of the characters – she probably has a real name, but we just called her Ninja Maid – has a vagina mouth. I don’t mean that as some metaphor because she gets fucked in the mouth a lot, I mean that she actually has a fully-detailed vagina for a mouth. It excretes fluid when she gets horny and everything. Needless to say, this anime instantly became the most disturbing Call of Cthulhu adaptation ever.

The animators utilizing the newfound freedom of uncensored sexual organs to literally give someone a vagina mouth is the hentai equivalent of using a $100,000 budget to finance a four hour porn flick consisting solely of closeup shots of someone rubbing their taint while Tim Curry reads Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the background. Wait, that actually sounds kind of awesome. Anyway, this is probably the reason why Japan never lets pornographers release their films without that mosaic shit; because they end up abusing this privilege to create such monstrosities as Pigeon Blood.

"I'm makin' art here, baby!"

At one point early on, the phrase “Frankenstein’s monster of shemale cocks” becomes an objective description. It’s about 20 inches long, and a third of it is just white cloth stapled to the actual penis. One of the other girls had two dicks, but that was less weird for some reason. Just seemed par for the course by that point, y’know? And when your second episode begins with CGI diarrhea splattering all over the camera and ends with a large group of muscle-bound “jizz slaves” gang-raping an underage-looking girl who fucks them so hard that they actually die, you have to ask yourself… who, exactly, is your target audience? The nightmare-inducing stupidity of the sexual content when coupled with the godawful production values ensures that there are maybe ten people on the entire planet who’d want to watch this anime unironically, half of whom are probably in prison right now.

So yeah, about those jizz slaves. They’re, like, six feet tall, wear gimp masks, have humongous muscles, and all look like clones of each other. They also have around five seconds of sexual stamina apiece, and growl like wild animals as they sink their meat into Rita’s holes. They cum everywhere – literally – and all of them die bloody deaths by the time the credits roll. As if you needed another reason to purposefully avoid this hentai, right? Wanking to this catastrophe is like masturbating to the horses in My Little Pony… you just don’t do it. If you do do it, please don’t tell me. Really, don’t. It’s worth noting that this anime is actually based on a visual novel, which – from what I can tell – doesn’t contain diarrhea, jizz slaves, or a vagina mouth. It does, however, feature a baby getting beaten to death by the dominatrix. So, you know, yeah. One step forward, two steps back. At the same time, though, I’m pretty sure the baby scene is actually supposed to be horrifying and wasn’t intended as erotic. But what do I know? Either way, I don’t think anyone involved with Pigeon Blood was mentally sound at the time of its production.

OH GOD, SAVE ME CRAZY BUS

Ladies and gentlemen, hentai. This is what porn has become. I hope you’re fucking happy.

2013
03.05

I’ve never made any pretenses about what my favorite manga is. And no one else has ever made any pretenses about the fact that there are only maybe ten people in the US who read it.

It's this one, for those keeping score.

Excel Saga is a black comedy about relatively normal people who unwittingly become involved in a low-impact battle for world city domination. It features absolutely no cutesy aliens or reset button shenanigans, and relies more on wry wit than silly slapstick for humor. More likely to delve into socio-political satire than loudly spew random references to obscure anime, this manga defies expectations by being, well, intelligent. More often than not, it can be seen as high comedy, with jokes that are actually quite subtle and layered compared to what one might expect from glancing at the colorful costumes or watching JC Staff’s 1999 anime “adaptation”. In fact, only a couple of episodes from the famously zany anime even vaguely resemble the manga in anything other than character names and basic art design.

That anime built up expectations for Viz’s initial 2003 release of the manga… and thus was the death of Excel Saga‘s English-speaking fanbase. Many people who’d love the manga probably hated the anime (so they never read it), and many people who loved the anime probably hated the manga (so they dropped it early on). Meanwhile, author Rikdo Koshi’s high-level writing style resulted in subpar, unfunny scanlations of only the earliest volumes, invariably causing those who’d rather try before they buy to opt out on purchasing Excel Saga. The manga was DOA in non-Japanese territories simply because it didn’t have an audience.

The gears grinded even further to a halt when two crucial installments, books 7 and 8, went out of print. Because very few libraries actually stocked volumes of Excel Saga, scans were basically nonexistent, and these particular installments went for $50+ at internet storefronts, this prevented many potential fans who missed out on the anime’s hype train from getting into the series at all. They’ve finally resurfaced as digital copies on Viz’s online manga outlet, but that was only after more than five years passed in which the market for new releases of Excel Saga was open almost exclusively to existing fans. This coupled with a new release schedule entailing only one volume per year ensured the fanbase’s stagnation and eventual placement on life support. However, all of the aforementioned factors most likely mean that Viz was losing money every time they released a new Excel Saga book, so they’re to be commended for never dropping the series in the first place.

Speaking of Viz, their localization of Excel Saga is absolutely brilliant, to the point where I couldn’t imagine reading anyone else’s translation. Rarely can this be said about any product released by a major distribution company, but it truly reads like a labor of love. So much care and effort is put into each and every line of dialogue – especially in later volumes – that I wouldn’t be surprised if the translation team was actually just Rikdo in disguise. The skillful English localization ensures that the humor almost never misses a beat, and showcases the excellent writing talent of both the original author and the guys/gals at Viz.

While the surprisingly complex science fiction storyline and still relevant, culture-defying satire serve as a nice backdrop for Excel Saga‘s humor, the characters and their relationships are the true heart of this series. Unlike many manga these days, the cast consists almost entirely of adults, each of them highly flawed, but all of them extremely endearing. Every character is unique, and receives an impressive amount of development over the course of Excel Saga’s 15 year run. While a lesser writer would struggle to make these people come across as relatable in spite of their quirks, Rikdo seems to pull this off almost effortlessly.

As a basic example, take Iwata; he has terrible luck and isn’t very smart, but everything about him is just so earnest. His unflinching optimism and determination are not only respectable, they’re downright loveable. In any other manga, he’d be the butt of every joke, receiving constant abuse for daring to speak his mind. But aside from a few situations that might actually be intended to parody such stereotypical slapstick, he’s mostly just portrayed as one of the guys. Or, how about Elgala; she comes from a family of wealth, thinks too highly of herself, and often speaks her innermost thoughts aloud. So obviously you’re supposed to hate her, right? Wrong. There are many occasions where she does nice things for others with no personal gain, and under it all, it really seems that she’s just a little insecure because she desperately wants to be liked. For the most part, she’s portrayed as good-natured but socially maladjusted rather than obnoxious and mean-spirited. In turn, her banter with Excel is frequently loaded with genuine wit and good humor, making them a hilarious comedic duo on par with many of fiction’s best.

In spite of having a title character, Excel Saga doesn’t solely focus on one person or group of people. It’s an ensemble cast through and through, and there are  many chapters in which Excel doesn’t even appear at all. While some have complained about the slow pacing of the story, I consider the plot little more than an excuse for these characters to exist and have meaningful interactions with each other. The leisurely pace allows for more development and more banter: the meat and potatoes of this series. You’ll grow attached to nearly every cast member, and Rikdo seems to understand how to avoid overusing any single one of them.

Another high point of this manga is how it treats its female characters. Now sure, it has its fair share of sexed-up fanservice shots in the latter half of the story, but the women in Excel Saga are portrayed as strong, intelligent (relatively speaking, of course), independent, and often more capable than the men. It does this without resorting to making the male characters utterly useless emotion buckets (as in, say, Mirai Nikki), and comes across as a natural portrayal of human beings, regardless of perceived notions about sex and gender. It’s ironic that one of the few manga to actually do this properly is a comedy written by a dude who got his start doing porn, while many of the more serious and dramatic series out there continue to fall prey to the same insulting tropes and stereotypes.

Most importantly, Rikdo never forgets to make his characters fun to read about. Excel is instantly likeable as a protagonist – her self-motivation, strong work ethic, and crazy imagination all come together to create someone who can make readers laugh, but still want to root for. There’s also Dr. Kabapu, a man both highly corrupt and equally well-meaning, the lovelorn Watanabe, whose portrayal is disturbingly realistic in spite of its absurdism, Professor Shiouji (pedophilia jokes have never been more tasteful or hilarious), and many more. Overall, the characters in Excel Saga rarely seem two-dimensional, and in spite of their flaws, it feels like you’re mostly reading about legitimately good people. Because of this, laughs don’t ever seem forced or uncomfortable, even given Excel Saga‘s penchant for dark humor.

There are lots of words in Excel Saga. Indeed, the dialogue usually takes up just as much of any given page as the art; however, it’s rarely expository, nor does it imply that Rikdo needs an editor or wants to write a novel. Much of the humor in this manga is conveyed through dialogue, and the characters are very chatty. The large amount of dialogue is – honestly – welcome since it’s so well written, but Fukuoka’s inhabitants aren’t just talking to hear themselves talk; a reason for the long-winded conversations is almost always evident. And it’s a win/win scenario regardless: more dialogue = more humor + more character development = better humor + better characters. I’m not sure that equation is mathematically sound, but I passed algebra with a C-, so it doesn’t matter. Eventually, you’ll learn to differentiate between the cast members based on the way they speak alone – each person has their own distinct voice, as in real life.

One of my favorite things about this series (and any great comedy, really) is that the characters don’t realize how what they’re doing and saying is funny. For instance, when Excel comes up with crazy conspiracy theories, she does it with a straight face, truly believing that ridiculous Illuminati garble makes more sense than the notion that she could have brought something negative upon herself. Too often writers fall into the trap of letting their characters in on the joke, which almost always severely reduces the effect of the humor. And while the dialogue is witty to a fault, it never feels like it’s trying too hard to be “smart”, it flows very naturally throughout. It’s difficult to explain, but Rikdo just understands the inner workings of comedy. The timing is always spot on, and every volume contains at least a few very subtle jokes that require multiple passes to grasp – a little reward for the dedicated reader.

As for the art, it starts out fairly basic, but the later volumes are very nice to look at. The progression from the first book to the final one is almost seamless when you’re reading it, but it’s changed and developed a lot since 1996. As of today, Rikdo’s style is awesome and unmistakeable, seemingly taking heavy inspiration from both eastern and western comics/cartoons. He also draws some of the best facial expressions I’ve ever seen; sometimes the artwork makes me laugh even harder than the dialogue.

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Admittedly, Excel Saga is a slow burn, so not all of this is evident from the get-go. The first chapter in particular is a poor indicator of the excellence to come, meaning the free sample provided on Viz’s digital manga service may, unfortunately, do more to drive people away from the series than draw them to it. It’s not until a few volumes in (#5 for most people) that you’re likely to get hooked, but if you’re like me, you certainly will. That said, the first couple of books are actually much funnier after you’ve read the later ones, so while they may seem a bit slow or ordinary the first time through, they’re quite good in hindsight.

Excel Saga is hilarious, attractive, and unique. It has all the makings of a comic that could be – and should be – hugely popular, but it’s doomed to wallow in obscurity forever because of the circumstances surrounding its release outside of Japan. Sure, the story can be unintelligible at times if you aren’t willing to re-read previous volumes before jumping into the newest one, and the humor does fall flat on the rare occasion that it delves into more stereotypical gag manga territory, but it’s something I wish everyone would read, and I know no one does.

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You can buy digital copies of volumes 1-19 (as of the time of this writing) here: http://www.vizmanga.com/excel-saga (woo, third time linking this!)
Volumes 1-24 also exist in print, though good luck finding a copy of 7 or 8 that isn’t overpriced.
Volume 25 will be released on April 9th, presumably both print and digital.

EDIT: It seems that Viz may have decided to drop the license for Excel Saga immediately after releasing the 27th and final volume. Because of this, the digital releases can no longer be purchased from Viz Manga, and the series is now difficult to get into once again.