Excel Saga, Vol. 24

By Rikdo Koshi. Released in Japan by Shonen Gahosha, serialized in the magazine Young King OURS. Released in North America by Viz.

Given everything that’s been happening over the last few volumes of Excel Saga, this volume might read at first glance like it’s a bit of a breather. Miwa barely appears, and the same can be said for Il Palazzo. A lot of time is spent trying to ‘fix’ Excel – or rather get her to realize the fix she’s in, but this doesn’t really happen either, mostly as relying on Elgala to bring this about is both hilarious and terrible. What we do see here, though, is a continuation of Rikdo’s ongoing deepening of the characterization. Excel, Hyatt, Misaki, Umi, Watanabe, and even Iwata get depth to them here that makes you sit back and think about just how screwed up their lives have become, and how it’s a lot less easy to accept that now that they’re not cartoon people who get blown up a lot but keep reviving.

For all that I didn’t care for the Teriha plotline, its effects continue to be felt by the group. Umi is still devastated by the disappearance of her friend, and a scene with Iwata (who, for once, gives helpful and useful advice – something he lampshades immediately) shows us how desperately she is clinging to Teriha, given the difficulty she has making friends. There’s a rather startling monologue where she notes that her mother initially thought she was a prodigy, but then she met Shiouji and figured out how far from his heights she was. It’s heartbreaking, in that, although it reminds is that Umi isn’t really dumb, just a klutz and a bit ditzy, there’s also the feeling that she could have been more – at such a young age, finding yourself so limited must be crushing, and I think it helps to explain a lot of her personality, as well as why she’s so devoted to Shiouji. I wonder if he ever thinks about any of this?

As for Iwata, he starts off with minimal memories of the last several years, but thanks to an outbreak of mysterious plot (was this Miwa? It doesn’t quite have the same feel), he seems to be back to himself, physically and mentally (albeit still in an indestructible robot body). In fact, as I noted above, he seems to be a bit less thoughtless and jerkass-ish than before, though that might change at any moment (his variable personality continues to be a sign that he may not live past the series). He’s also the one who knows immediately how to get through to Excel, something Elgala has to be coached to say: mention Umi. As for Misaki, she has less to do here, but is getting more distrustful of everything – and I can’t really blame her, given what’s going on with Iwata and what Shiouji isn’t really telling her. Her emotions are becoming more visible by the day.

Watanabe and Hyatt, meanwhile, seem to have resolved their own plot – and I say seemed because things could turn on a dime at any time. This does lend itself to one of the funnier bits of the volume, where Watanabe attempts to stalk Hyatt but keeps getting distracted by things that require a superhero – which, as Kabapu notes, sort of defeats the purpose of a secret identity, even if its intentions are ultimately good. As if to reward him for doing good deeds (as opposed to being the uncaring sleazy louse he’d morphed into during the Teriha arc), he actually does get to catch up with Hyatt and have a conversation with her. And… it doesn’t go his way, as expected. What surprised me was that Hyatt basically confirms here that she does have feelings for Watanabe, and does now remember him again. The only thing holding her back is her loyalty to Il Palazzo. Hyatt is by her nature one of the most opaque of the Excel Saga bunch, so it’s good to see her getting some depth as well.

And then there’s Excel. She now has an indestructible robot body as well – one that doesn’t even need to rest and power up, to Shiouji’s surprise – and can now finally keep up with Il Palazzo in every way. But it doesn’t seem quite enough, and even constantly heaping abuse on Elgala isn’t the same. It doesn’t help that both Iwata and Elgala remind her of Umi, that being the only thing that might distract her from ACROSS. Indeed, we get to see a rare shot of Excel acting tsundere, still attempting to deny that the Teriha memories are not quite as gone as she’s like them to be, and that she may need Umi’s friendship as much as Umi needed hers. (After all, Excel’s two closest female friends, Hyatt and Elgala, are not really all that close.) My favorite moment of the entire volume, though, was when she reported to Il Palazzo, making his only appearance in this scene. It’s arguable whether it’s really him, but let’s not go there right now. Instead of his usual abuse, he invites her to sit down by his side in the chair next to him. Hardly believing it, she does so – and the look on her face is possibly the cutest we’ve ever seen her, as Carl Horn remarks in his notes. For all that Excel’s devotion to Il Palazzo is used for humor, at its core is a deep, unconditional love. And it’s shown here at its purest, making you actually want to root for them to get together.

We now know that Excel Saga will end with Vol. 27. Luckily, Viz has sped up its release to twice a year again (probably as they now know it’s ending), so Vol. 25 will be out this April. Excel Saga has its faults, of course. The plot can get very confusing even if you do have the photographic memory required to deal with all the various subplots. And Rikdo’s fanservice fetish, now allowed to flourish after the series became a hit, can get very annoying to those who recall he used to draw girls with normal, if busty, proportions, and clothing that was a bit more modest. But there’s still no other manga series out there that has me as invested in its outcome as this (and yes, I have the last three in Japanese, but it’s not the SAME). Join me in April as I prepare to overanalyze Vol. 25 as well! And thanks to Carl Horn and Viz for continuing it to completion!

Excel Saga, Vol. 23

By Rikdo Koshi. Released in Japan by Shonen Gahosha, serialized in the magazine Young King OURS. Released in North America by Viz.

As you can see by the fact that that header says ‘serialized’ rather than ‘serialization ongoing’, Excel Saga has finally come to an end in Japan, with Vol. 27 being the last. Sadly, this does not mean that the volumes will be going on a faster schedule anytime soon – Carl Horn ends the volume by saying we will likely see Vol. 24 in 2013. On the bright side, at least it’s still not cancelled! Given this economy, we can all be grateful for that. Of course, as the plot gets more convoluted and some of the past volumes get harder to find, it can be difficult to work out exactly what’s going on. This is a manga series that requires a great deal of paying attention to get the most out of it. So what happens here?

Given Misaki’s on the cover, let’s start with her. When we last left her in Vol. 22, she was somewhat shaken up by Iwata being in Nishiki’s body, but more by the fact that Iwata was near death. That’s temporarily halted here, but not for long – we think things are back to normal, but halfway through the volume Iwata’s brain has regressed to the point where he’s forgotten everything after meeting Misaki in college. This shakes her up badly – by now most folks are aware that she’s in love with Iwata, but given her personality – and Iwata’s – it still comes as a shock every time we see it shown. So much so that she is willing to betray a newly formed allegiance.

Back to the first chapter of the book, and we are rather surprised to see Misaki and Excel genuinely teaming up, especially after last time when Misaki basically admitted her true desire was to stay out of things and just be left alone. Unfortunately, what’s going on with Iwata – and its connection to Excel – means that really isn’t an option anymore. Seeing them briefly working together is awesome – they are both in their own ways the most sensible and competent members of their respective groups – and it’s a shame we couldn’t see more of it.

We can’t see more of it because of what happened with Excel and Isshiki (Ropponmatsu 1 for those playing at home). To be fair to Rikdo, he did not pull this out of thin air. Much of the plot of the previous two volumes has been setting us up for what we see here. Excel’s amazing strength is shown in Vol. 20 in her fight with Isshiki, and we also see how consciousnesses can translate into other robot bodies when Iwata does it. That said, Excel definitely does not seem to be a robot. Despite having robot strength, and apparently robot invulnerability. Misaki hitting her with the laser whip was startling, but she had to know for sure. And that’s BEFORE Excel swapped bodies with Isshiki.

This is, as Shiouji tells Elgala, very dangerous. They’ve no idea how it happened, and no idea how to recreate or stop it. Meanwhile, Excel’s ACTUAL body does not have an Isshiki mind in it – it’s just sitting there slowly dying. And so Misaki is forced to ally with Elgala. This is much less of a powerful alliance. Elgala is very strong for a human, and is incredibly resilient for one too, but the fact is that compared to Excel she is simply not a superhuman. She’s also an idiot – yes, even compared to Excel. On the plus side, she’s a member of ACROSS. That’s about all the pluses. Her reasoning with Excel fails to take into account Excel’s devotion to Il Palazzo – one made even stronger by her immortal robot body.

As for other characters, it was rather surprising to see Hyatt not only remember Watanabe, but even seem to remember affection for him. Hyatt will, let’s face it, always be the most opaque cast member (And I include Miwa in that group) – and it’s not surprising that she vanishes from the second half of the manga. However, seeing this suggests that perhaps there is something more to her than just falling over and dying, and Watanbe brings it out… somehow. As for Watanabe, those weary of his descent into sleazy pervdom will be relieved to note that he reverts after this confrontation to his old Miss Ayasugi-loving self. Who is still a wuss, but the alternative was not to most people’s liking.

(BTW, Carl Horn confuses ‘True End’ with ‘Good End’. Watanabe thinks he’s getting the True End as he’s going to DIE, but still happy knowing he was loved/remembered. True endings tend to be bittersweet. Higurashi is a good example – the original games, manga and anime had a ‘Good End’, but the PS2 game version had a ‘True End’, which did not save everyone. True endings are generally deeper and more realistic, but of course less happy.)

Kabapu really doesn’t do much here, but we do get more Miwa. She’s clearly our end villain by now, and the one in control at ACROSS. Well, most of the time – it hasn’t been clear for AGES when anyone is dealing with the real Il Palazzo. For example, the Il Palazzo Elgala and Hyatt report to seems unaware that there was a robot President Excel at all. And Miwa walks right up to him at one point – is that the hologram? Is Il Palazzo like Isshiki? Or, more likely, is Il Palazzo like Excel? (We’ve seen flashbacks of the two of them in their previous lives.) I wonder if his consciousness can jump bodies? As for Miwa, we don’t know precisely what she wants just yet, but I’m betting having Excel in Isshiki’s body is good for her and bad for everyone else.

And so we leave off for another year – at a fairly annoying cliffhanger, it must be said. (Though really, wait till Vol. 26 – that’ll really make you scream.) Is Excel aware she may be working for the enemy? Where is the real Il Palazzo? Will Iwata regain his old goofy self? Can Misaki admit her feelings for him at all? Is Miwa really her husband in disguise, as all of Excel Saga fandom seems to think? What is Kabapu going to do? Can Watanabe ever truly reunite with Hyatt? And is Elgala going to say hilarious yet dumb things?

We won’t find out any of those for at least another year. Though I’m guessing the Elgala one will be true if nothing else. This volume was great. So much hot, thick plot pushing into my brain – ACK! Must stop that! Keeping my brain free of plot is what Il Palazzo desires!

Excel Saga Volume 22

By Rikdo Koshi. Released in Japan by Shonen Gahosha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Young King OURS. Released in North America by Viz.

Yes, at last, we are CAUGHT UP with Viz’s serialization of Excel Saga! Do you know what this means? It means you won’t get to see me talk about it till April 2012, as Excel Saga is down to a yearly release. Ah well. In the meantime, we have the action-packed Volume 22! And I’m not joking, after the seeming stasis of the Teriha arc and its aftermath, things all seem to be coming together here, and everyone clashes against each other.

First off, to resolve the minor cliffhanger from last volume, Il Palazzo appears on Excel’s homebrew computer to tell her and Elgala to keep doing what they’re doing and do not attempt contact. Excel finds this suspicious, but sends Hyatt (who is not ‘on individual assignment’ back to him while she and Elgala reconnoiter. Excel is really dealing with a lot here – she’s slowly getting her Teriha memories back, she’s realizing that Il Palazzo has been compromised and can’t necessarily be trusted, and she knows that telling Elgala this would be a mistake. So she puts a straw dummy of herself at the riverbank, and goes off on her own to sneak into Professor Shiouji’s home base. Honestly, throughout this volume Excel shows impressive ability to think and plan. After everything she’s been through, it’s nice to see her get focused.

Of course, that’s not to say she’s suddenly competent. She does get into the base, through a combination of luck and her repressed memories. Once there she runs into Iwata, who is somewhat taken aback to find that Teriha is now attacking him. The two of them get into a fight as Misaki, Watanabe and Sumiyoshi also appear. Sadly, Iwata then recalls fighting Excel’s doppelganger last volume and tries to use robot strength to knock Excel out. It works all too well, and now they have to deal with a captured fugitive.

Excel being Excel, she goes back and forth between berating her captors and demanding food. Well, she has been living as a fugitive for a while. They bring her food, and she eats about 12 bento boxes worth. Misaki even notes that she’s not worried that it’s poisoned, which Excel responds to with “You couldn’t put enough in here to kill me.” Probably true, but it’s rare for Excel to be aware of her own superhuman attributes. She then gets into a long discussion with Misaki about their respective organizations, which ends up telling us more about Misaki than it does Excel. Excel is in her ‘for the greater glory of ACROSS’ mode, while Misaki is at her cynical best, noting she doesn’t care who rules the world as long as she is left alone. Her image on Page 53 is actually rather scary in its combination of threat and disinterest.

They would like Excel to just go home, but the trouble is they aren’t sure how she got in – and neither is she, since she did it mostly on instinct. She does decide to escape from the bed they currently have her handcuffed to, and gets out of her room by simply ripping out the computer lock with her bare hands. Sadly, this also sets off the big alarms all over the base, and gets Dr. Kabapu down there – who most certainly is NOT for letting her go. As all this is happening, Il Palazzo (or more likely Miwa) sends RopponExcel (called Isshiki throughout, aka ‘First’) to capture our Excel. Everyone converges in a hallway, and the two Excels, now that there isn’t a bomb about to go off, have the big confrontation Elgala expected in Volume 20. Excel has mad kung-fu skills. Isshiki has a hand laser that can sedate into unconsciousness. Round 1 goes to Isshiki.

Isshiki, before this, also managed to break Iwata (yes, again) in two. This does not, however, prevent Kabapu from using his body as a puppet to attack Teriha. Given that Iwata is unconscious and therefore can’t actually be stupid, this fight is far more even than many other fights involving Isshiki. Kabapu destroys her hand laser; Isshiki then destroys his control (and it is revealed that yes, it’s Miwa rahter than Il Palazzo who’s calling the shots for Isshiki). Intriguingly, Kabapu notes that Isshiki is EQUAL to Iwata in power, not surpassing him. Then the fight is promptly finished by Excel herself, who is still groggy but is awake, kung-fu fighting, fast as lightning, and REALLY REALLY ANGRY. She kicks Iwata (controlled by Kabapu) into a pile, grabs Isshiki, and screams into her face, demanding to know where Il Palazzo is. There’s a short crackle, and just like in Volume 9 (remember Volume 9?), Isshiki shorts out in contact with Excel and folds like a ton of bricks. Excel, while noting that she’s still really heavy, then PICKS HER UP OVER ONE SHOULDER and asks Misaki where the exit is. And then exits, as security’s basically completely shot anyway. I merely note once more that when Excel is not paying attention to her limitations, she is astounding, given Isshiki weighs about one ton.

So now Excel is back on the riverbank, with Elgala. But as a bonus, she also has Isshiki, who is following Excel’s orders, although Excel still can’t get any information out of her. Elgala is hopelessly lost when having to deal with two Excels, and one of my favorite lines has her asking Isshiki to say “I am an imposter” after everything she says. Excel, though, is not just standing there having Isshiki catch fish and cook for them because she’s good at it (though she is). She’s trying to draw the enemy out. And when this happens, she sends Elgala out to deal with them. Sadly, it’s only Professor Shiouji, who is totally unimpressed with Elgala’s supposed stick-fighting skills. He asks Elgala to tell Excel that he, like Misaki, is not her enemy, but not her ally either – and that Umi is totally innocent in all of this.

As this is going on, Hyatt’s corpse floats down the river, leaving a red tide in its wake. Upon revival, she notes that the ACROSS base was deserted. So our heroines are all back together again. (We also have the funniest part of the volume here, when Elgala is overexcited and Excel hands her what she thinks is water – only to find it’s a cup of Hyatt’s blood. She promptly hallucinates the Sanzu River, with her dead form crossing it in a small boat to get to the afterlife. Upon returning to reality, she notes “Senior Hyatt, yours is a dark eucharist.”) (Oh, Happy Easter, by the way!)

Now Excel is positive that Miwa is their enemy, but needs more information. So after ‘pretending’ to have a fight to throw off their observers (which just causes Hyatt to collapse in a bloody heap in confusion), she and Elgala proceed to ambush Misaki, hogtie her, and toss her into their wheelbarrow (wow, it’s REALLY been a while since we’ve seen the wheelbarrow). Misaki is very angry about this, for several reasons: 1) She would have talked to them anyway, no need for kidnapping; 2) not knowing what was going on, she set off her alarm so that Iwata and the others are coming for her, and 3) she doesn’t have much to tell them anyway. She says Miwa’s a free-agent, and more self-centered than evil. Iwata then comes to get her… in the body of Nishiki, as he’s now body-hopped again. While Excel and Elgala escape, Misaki deals with this new crisis. Shiouji has no idea how he jumps bodies, his own body is slowly dying without his consciousness in it, and he doesn’t know how to fix it. Last time Misaki punched him – this time, she tries kissing him (in Nishiki’s body – Ropponmatsu 2, for those playing at home), a full page-and-a-half kiss of awesome. It works, though Misaki is starting to fray at the edges a bit with everything going on.

As is Watanabe, as the cliffhanger has him power up his suit when he sees Hyatt, his one true love, lying dead in the arms of “Excel”, aka Isshiki. Watanabe’s been ‘dissolutely evil’ for some time now, but it appears his feeling for “Miss Ayasugi” have not dimmed. Cliffhanger!

This volume was fantastic, showcasing Excel at her finest, giving Misaki and company lots to do, and having Elgala carry the bulk of the humor at her expense. All this and liner notes by Carl Horn! Do yourself a favor and buy Excel Saga. It’ll make many folks very happy.