Review: “Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt” DVD Box Set: Subversively Sardonic But Egregious In English
The last decade of anime has been dominated by one trend above all others.
I could spend some lines describing what exactly that means, but I think this is easier: Moe is the opposite of character like Fujiko Mine from Lupin The 3rd and Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop. Instead of a strong, adult female lead who is defined by their imperfections, moe characters are Mary Sues, at least from the character development side. They are bland, sweet and, most importantly to the moe fandom, pure. In fact, the obsession with character purity has reached such a comical crescendo amongst Japanese otaku that the mere implication that a character has had a boyfriend results in fans posting pictures of themselves burning their manga and mutilating their figurines.
Yeah, not everyone is that psychotic in the fandom, but pandering to that attitude seemed to be the trend du jour of the 00s in one way or the other. What started with magical girls then became maids, which finally fell into the most honest approach: shows about high school girls aimed at 20-something male otaku. To be fair, some of those shows are hilarious, but that’s just the point: the good ones aren’t objectifying the characters, or at least that isn’t the thrust of the show. But a lot of the rest of this decade’s otaku favorites have just been glorified pandering to the purity obsessed.
Enter Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. Well, more specifically Panty and Stocking. In what may be the most obviously piece of subversion of expectations ever, we get two heroines who are literally angels, but who act like anything but. Rather than live boring lives filled with boring clichés, Panty proactively is looking to sleep with every hot guy in the city, while Stocking may be the living embodiment of the sin of gluttony, if only in regards to sweets. If Jay-Z was looking to kill auto-tune, Gainax is looking to kill moe with Panty and Stocking. They’re strong, independent and fierce women, and they are designed to be as dislikable as they are endearing. It’s a paradox, but it’s one that works wonderfully.
The show’s format is familiar yet fresh. Familiar, in as much as it’s two 11-minute shorts per episode like most modern US animated series, but fresh since most anime either go into full-on vignettes, like Azumanga Daioh and Nichijou, or stick to 22-minute episodes and some degree of continuity. The structure is fairly formulaic–it’s a monster-of-the-week action comedy in the tradition of The Powerpuff Girls with a few diversions–but the end result is ridiculously fun and novel.
This is because Gainax has taken a no-holds-barred approach; unlike the recent Fujiko Mine-centric Lupin series which was a classy show with a strong and sexy female lead, Panty and Stocking revels in being as base, classless and disgusting as possible, then contrasting that with just enough strands of development and caustic subtext to give attentive viewers a clue that it’s not just sex and violence. Sure, every bodily fluid imaginable makes an appearance, and no taboo exists. In fact, the idea of nymphomaniac angels seems down right reverent compared to the bondage-obsessed, possible-boy-molester priest Garterbelt, or to scenes wherein sperm are depicted as soldiers storming a beach only to be stopped by a kleenex. Even the relatively sane characters, like the Ghostbusters homage/otaku-virgin Brief, are ultimately a jab at the audience with some of those punches even applicable to fans of the show such as myself. Yet, it is making a point by laying this irreverence out on the table. Panty and Stocking aims to incessantly troll its viewers, and given just how polarizing it is, I’d say that no-holds barred approach has worked. However, the end result is more Sonic Youth than G.G. Allin: Panty and Stocking is grotesque noise and fury with a point.
Panty and Stocking is a reaction to the past decade on multiple levels. Every character in your cast is designed to pander to your male audience? Too bad, it ecstatically spits in the face of all the trends, from the visual design to the character traits. Even the soundtrack is a pulsating slice of Hard House and EDM: not your usual anime music at all. The result should seem desperate and fake if not outright stupid. Nope. Gainax punches in with a comedy that respects their legacy of fusing base humor and perfect parody with sharp subtext and jabs at their peers. It’s easily in the same league as Abenobashi Mahou Shotengai and even the notorious Ebichu, so while it’s built on shock humor, it’s using it to make a point about cultural and societal trends. Namely, otaku should expect more from anime than two-dimensional characters, or at the very least, the two dimensions can from a different pair of linear planes than cute and pure. It may not say anything better about humanity, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say show is slightly misogynist if not generally misanthropic, but the fact that it even brings those questions up is a huge shift from its contemporaries.
Visually, it’s also without boundaries. Gainax decided to make it a love letter to US animation, beautifully referencing and then expanding on the flash, cel-CG and thick outlines of the UPA-revival style. It’s Samurai Jack’s angles with the Powerpuff Girls’ backgrounds and storyboarding, but all amped to some hyperactive, insane extreme with a few moments of pitch perfect traditional-anime cheesecake animation and design as well. Making things that much more jarring yet referential and fun, the monster-of-the-week usually ends up as a live-action foam model that is blown up, just like in a super-sentai show. The finale episode even takes the live-action into borderline Terry Gilliam/Monty Python animation which is frankly awesome. The animators knowingly use the most blatant and tacky of cheats at every turn, yet punch in with fantastic action and fluid animation at other moments. The only anime that is remotely comparable is Dead Leaves, and like Dead Leaves, the animation is so visceral at points that it’s overwhelming. It’s incredibly methodical in its visual madness, if only because as a whole, it all hangs together beautifully.
However, the release itself isn’t immaculate. Yes, the show itself, from its radical animation to its fantastically catchy soundtrack is an A+. Unfortunately, the dub is blunt and clumsy while trying to “amp up” the language to match the visuals and themes. The English vocal performances and voice cast are both fine, but the English dub script is contrived at points, and it never seems to find its groove. It sells the dramatic moments, but the added and modified jokes often just fall flat, especially relative to some of the fantastic work FUNi did with Shin-Chan. At a mental level, I have to wonder if it’s actually an issue of the signifiers in play. While the bawdy material has a witty subtext in Japanese, perhaps even a more straightforward script would read as played out in English where adult-animation-as-middle-finger-to-societal norms is the norm rather than a unique statement. Still, the sheer number of modifications in the dub script to everything barring the plot points makes me unsure as to whether it’s just language shift muddling the impact. I even wonder if that script is part of why [adult swim] is cagey about running the show. I also feel that the actual audio production is a bit weak or quiet.
To be fair, FUNimation often deviates a quite bit from the Japanese mix, but unlike shows where they go for a more cinematic, rich soundscape, Panty and Stocking just seems off, not artsy. Maybe on a 5.1 system it works better, but if you’re just pumping it through your TV’s speakers or some headphones, the Japanese 2.0 mix just sounds better. It’s been forever since I’ve strongly had to recommend one audio track over the other, but unless you’re just putting this on in the background (and really, you’re not doing the visuals justice if you do,) you should absolutely watch Panty and Stocking subbed.
To make matters worse, it is a DVD-only release. Truthfully, the lack of Blu-Ray shouldn’t be a showstopper since Panty and Stocking was only animated in 480p anyway (though, the explosions were shot on RED Cameras, so maybe those moments could look great,) but it’s an omission in a combo-release era (albeit one forced on FUNimation by their Japanese counterparts as a way of combating reverse importation) and really, an official, well-done upscale would probably look best. It’s also a bit annoying that the list price wasn’t adjusted to reflect the lack of Blu-Ray. It’s not entirely barebones: they do throw in a few promo postcards, there some bonus shorts (which are even more warped and sick than the main show actually) and there are some behind-the-scenes featurettes, but it still feels too little given the lack of Blu-Ray. I know the omission of Blu-Ray is part of getting the show out faster, but this guarantees a reissue at some point, and it sucks getting a release knowing you may double-dip.
My verdict? Unless you’re a real cinephile, are easily offended, or are under the age of 17, I’d definitely recommend this release of Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. We won’t see another insane romp like this out of Gainax for quite a while, and by then, it’ll be decimating a new bucket of tropes in a new way. This is a knife in the back of a given era and a love-letter to another side of that era, making this show one of a kind. That said, if you are patient, wait a year or so for a Blu-Ray release. It’s worth it, and I’d bet it ends up as part of a less expensive dual-format reissue anyway.