Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt

Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt apparently resulted from a drunken retreat held by Hiroyuki Imaishi and some of his staff from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann after that airing of that show, in which they all swapped ideas for the new project they would work on, and decided upon a theme of “vulgar and indecent jokes.” “If we are going to do this,” Imaishi said, “we will try it thoroughly.” That’s an understatement.

Panty and Stocking, which at first glance seems like a TV-MA version of Powerpuff Girls, pulses with the same youthful spirit that made Gurren Lagann so electrifying. While the latter was an insanely over-the-top 52-episode anime that ended with a conflict of literally galactic proportions, Panty and Stocking discards the serious tone of epic drama in favor of all-out anarchic fun for its own sake.

The premise is that two fallen angel sisters, the titular Panty and Stocking, live in Daten City (a Japanese pun, sounding like datenshi, or “fallen angel), where they pass their time engaging in excess and debauchery, attempting to shirk their episodic duties of tracking down and killing “ghosts” which give them coins that will allow them to pay their way back into Heaven. Their weapons are magically transmuted from their undergarments, and the villanous ghosts are typically incarnations of such gross-out fare as boogers, vomit and shit.

On the surface, this sounds terrible, and if it were an average anime made by an average studio it undoubtedly would be. But Panty and Stocking is solid proof that you can’t judge a show by its premise any more than a book by its cover, and it represents a truth I’ve noticed before in art: style is usually far more important than substance.

And boy, does this show ooze style. First of all, there’s the obvious love for American cartoons on display, particularly Genndy Tartatovsky’s work. Imaishi and his team embrace the thick lines and boxy style of Dexter’s Lab and Powerpuff Girls, and even go so far as to introduce each episode with punny title cards reminiscent of those 15-minute Cartoon Network shows, referencing things such as Fight Club and High School Musical. The style quickly transcends this influence though, and is obviously fueled by a much higher budget than those shows were allowed. The show constantly bursts with explanatory images and stylized sound effect text, and breaks into both super-deformed segments which are hilarious in their even-further simplification of style and occasional “realistic style” segments which are alarmingly beautiful in contrast to the normally uncomplicated character designs.

The most obvious of these is the sisters’ magical girl transformation sequence in the first episode, which, after watching ten minutes of cartoony comedy, is jaw-dropping. Even though I feel like it loses some of its impact without the built-up contrast, I feel obligated to share it with the reader here in order to showcase its magnificence:

With pumping house music and stripper poles, this is the classic magical girl transformation taken to its logical conclusion. The interesting thing is, like everything else in this show, it doesn’t feel like a parody or a satire, and I don’t believe it’s intended to be. This sequence exists only for the glory of what it’s showcasing: the mesmerizing power of female beauty.

Most of Panty and Stocking is equally risque: the girls are paragons of anti-virtue, but in a charming way that makes it hard not to love them despite their rampant selfishness. Panty is an unrepentant slut who gets it on with some dude in nearly every episode, Stocking is a lazy sugar-addicted narcissist, and even their afro-priest mentor Garter has his vices on display in his attempts to ogle high school boys and to seduce Brief, the hapless tag-along nerd who the girls refer to as “Geek Boy,” and who Panty relentlessly taunts sexually.

A friend once told me of his theory that 90% of what makes a rap song good is the beat; the music behind the words. I think at least half of what makes Panty and Stocking so great is the involvement of superstar musician Taku Takahashi and his associates. Taku, known for his production work in M-flo and currently one of the greatest DJs and producers in Japan, offers a gleefully infectious compilation for the soundtrack of Panty and Stocking. The soundtrack, which came out at the end of December on CD, is perfect for a dance party, and showcases some great examples of Japan’s modern take on house music. Newcomer Teddy Loid offers up the most addictive tracks, including the “Fly Away” theme to Panty and Stocking’s transformation, and the theme of their demonic rivals, Scanty and Kneesocks, which steals the show with its gothic organs and devilishly delicious chorus.

Scanty and Kneesocks show up halfway through the show, and prove to be as devoted to “rules” (pronounced in delightfully refined r-rolling Engrish) as Panty and Stocking are to breaking them. While it’s cliche at this point in both East and West to juxtapose the roles of demonic and divine, the show doesn’t seem interested in explaining to us why the demon sisters are the authoritarian ones. It’s too busy serving up comical vignettes and incredibly frenetic battle sequences, like an insane scene with a pink roofless hummer driving through the entire roof of a black hummer limo while guns blaze and blades clash. The choice of simple, blocky designs gives Imaishi and his animators room for incredible fluidity and dynamism, and while it isn’t all intense action, there’s seldom a moment in the show that isn’t bursting with color and style.

The exception to this, and perhaps the most interesting episode I’ve seen so far was one where the title characters barely appear, and the animation style shifts to something more like the work of Studio 4C. Set in “Little Tokyo,” the episode chronicles a day in the life of an incompetent, graying salariman and his pathetic co-workers at a typical Japanese company. Everything about the episode is disgusting. The color palette is brown and muted, the characters all evoke the worst aspects of Japanese physical appearance, and the horrors of being stuck in a mundane soul-crushing job and watching your life and dreams drift away seem all too real. I actually began to feel physically ill watching this episode, and had to struggle to sit through it. Sure enough, the ghost at the end was a personification of vomit, summoned out of the pathetic salariman after his co-workers force him to drink a massive amount of beer at a company outing, which seems to be a common occurrence in Japan. Panty and Stocking arrive in this scene, maintaining their regular style and color and seeming like cartoon fairies in contrast with all the drabness. This is as close as the show gets to sermonizing: rather than explicitly telling us how destructive to the soul modern society can be, it builds up its fantastical world of color, light and unbridled creativity, and then drops us into the polar opposite so deeply that just a brief appearance from the heroines seems like a reprieve from the abyss.

If this show has any underlying purpose at all, it seems to be a strong assertion of the vitality of youth and the value of free artistic expression in the face of an increasingly dull, corporatized and locked-down world. This would go along well with the lack of trendy “moe” stereotypes in the show, and the fact that the fanservice feels more like a glorious party than it does like pandering to lonely geeks. The music, the characters’ attitudes and the overall presentation seem to send the message that the viewer is expected to be cool; hip to the artistic expression going on rather than eager to consume a packaged product.

For this reason, the show has been very divisive, with many internet commentators immediately hating the style and tone and others spouting hyperbole about how Panty and Stocking will “save anime.” I wouldn’t go that far, but this show is exactly the kind of thing that got me watching Japanese animation in the first place. It has more style and energy than it knows what to do with, and is clearly the work of artists who are far too good at what they’re doing to take themselves seriously.

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