Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt Review

You can always expect something out of the ordinary from the Gainax animation studio, something considerably different from the usual conventional Japanese anime plotting and big-eyed character designs. In the case of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, the references are more wesrtern, looking back over at the Cartoon Network style of animation - most obviously the Powerpuff Girls, which drew from Japanese anime-influenced character design and pacing and combined it with classic 50s animation stylisations - feeding it all back into a near indecipherable post-modern blend of US pop-culture movie cross-references and nods to anime conventions. Set the pace to near-manic and the volume to near-scream, throw in a lot of South Park-style swearing, violence, sexual references, gross-out humour and demon-slaying (the closest this series gets to conventional anime), and you have an anime series that will leave you semi-horrified, semi-amused, semi-disgusted and almost certainly staring at the screen in disbelief. Can you really get away with all this in a cartoon series?

How do you start to unravel a combination like that and render it into something that resembles a comprehensible review? Well, we'll roll it back to the Powerpuff Girls from Hell comparison in relation to Episode 1 of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt and see where it goes from there. Imagine that instead of three, there were two Powerpuff girls - the blond-haired one, Panty, is addicted to sex while her Goth sister Stocking is addicted to sugar. As potty-mouthed emissaries of God - angels, if you will - their duty is to defend Daten City from ghosts that regularly appear and cause havoc with the population, their missions delivered by God's messenger on earth, the booming voiced Afro-haired preacher Garterbelt, who has an insatiable urge for handsome young boys. They are rewarded with 'Heaven Coins' for their work, sexual services from a grateful public and the adoration of their geek-acquaintance (friend would be too strong a word), Brief. Panty and Stocking's method of dispatching ghosts is to whip off their named panty and stocking garments (providing Panty is actually wearing any panties at the time, and considering her bedroom activities, that's not very often), which convert into powerful weapons. In Episode 1 however, 'Excretion without Honour and Humanity' (a nod to Kinji Fukasaku), she is almost caught short by the fact that she is sitting on the toilet at the time when she is sucked into it, the victim of what can only politely be described as a giant crap-monster. Cue mass projectile vomiting from the general public as the stench of the "ghost" and what it's made of spreads across the city. Let's just say the "clean-up" of ghosts is often a messy business in this series.

Considering that this is actually only the first half of Episode 1 - as there are two exploits per episode - where do you go from this? Well, there are worse fluids exploding all over the place in Episode 3 when a Kleenex ghost appears, but you don't want to know about that at the moment - trust me. And then there's a snot overflow in Episode 5's 'Raiders of the Nasal Dark' when a nose-picking epidemic reaches blood-flowing proportions. Mind you, there's not much else that's terribly family-friendly to talk about elsewhere in the series' parody of Sex and the City either, when Panty is forced to track down every single copy of that early porno movie she naively (ha!) made, or the 'High School Nudical' episode, and we'll quickly pass over the episode where they invent Strip Roulette, or the one where they take on a zombie invasion using appliances from a Sex Shop in Episode 7. This is my favourite episode incidentally, as the second story does a great take on Tom Cruise "taming the c… " and include references to Ren & Stimpy (another influence), as the sisters are put on a TV trial show for killing a seemingly harmless ghost.

I think you get the general picture then of the concept and the content. It's mostly episodic, each episode trying to out-gross the last one and even if latter episodes get more abstract, there is a connecting theme and a couple of demon adversaries that pulls the series into something coherent. If they're not beating up seriously bad-ass ghosts though, Panty and Stocking are beating the crap out of each other and verbally tearing strips off each other to see who can come up with the most offensive insult. There are no holds barred here, particularly in the English language dub which by far outdoes the subtitles in the offensive language stakes. Really, some of the insults traded here are extraordinarily and perversely inventive and mind-bogglingly graphic in their descriptions. I was quite impressed with this. Full credit to the Funimation crew of script-writers (John Burgmeier and Jamie Marchi take a bow), and indeed the main voice-actors (Marchi and Monica Rial) who deliver this barrage of expletives unflinchingly, above and beyond the call of duty.

In addition to the evident parodies of popular Hollywood movies and US cartoons, there is also - since this is Gainax - quite a bit of parody of anime series, with one half-episode given over to a Transformers battle and obviously there's a nod to the conventions of fan-service anime here. It makes a change when there is actually a valid reason for showing the heroines' panties in a series, albeit that the reason is a blatant and gratuitous contrivance calculated to add to the levels of harmless offensiveness elsewhere. Mind you, I think that such anime series are already have this sense of self-awareness, so I'm not sure parodying it really serves any purpose other than for the amusement of the creators themselves. Speaking of which, all of this is animated in the most dynamic, manic, frenetic, energetic (and any other kind of kinetic descriptions you can think of) style, the Gainax studio - much like their FLCL series - never feeling constrained by the necessity of adhering to a single consistent animation style for more than a few seconds at a time, using whatever means is required to make the animation jump off the screen and whack you between the eyes. Also, with this crew, it's undoubtedly a means to keep things fresh and entertaining for themselves, the animators going as far as to create large physical models of the ghosts, which are filmed exploding spectacularly at the end of each episode.

High concept then Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is not. Transgressive, irreverent, referential parody, imaginatively designed, racing along at breakneck speed, with stunning and experimental animation techniques and a vocabulary consisting of the most imaginative and foul of expletives and insults, it is however a lot of fun. It's a bit manic, a bit gross, a bit 'is-that-really-what-I-think-it-is?' and a bit 'did-they-really-say-what-I-think-they-said?', but mostly it's a whole lot of 'how-they-hell-did-they-get-away-with-a-15-certificate-for-this!'

Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is released by Manga Entertainment as a three-disc DVD set, containing thirteen episodes and numerous extra features. There is no UK Blu-ray release (although there appears to be a Region-A locked USA release of the series). The discs are each dual-layer DVD9, in PAL format and encoded for Region 2. The 15-certification incidentally only applies to two of the discs, while one is given an 18-certificate, the "Tom Cruise" use of the c-word bewilderingly seeming to be deemed more offensive than anything else in the series.

Spread across three dual-layer discs, the A/V specifications of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt are - with one significant caveat** - of an exceptionally high standard. I'd find it hard to believe that it could look or sound much better in High Definition. The image is clear and colourful, with clean solid lines. If there are any minor technical issues, you're not going to notice them in a series that moves as fast as this one, and the transfer handles the movements incredibly well. It's perfectly fluid and stable, exhibiting no flicker or interlacing artefacts. English subtitles are in a white font, which is probably the only tasteful thing about this set.

**It should be noted that there is a problem with the last three episodes in the series - 11 through to 13 - where the final few seconds that wrap the episode and the closing titles are missing, the incomplete episodes ending somewhat abruptly,. There's probably little that is important to the episodes missing here, but it is a significant fault nonetheless, particularly since they are at the end of a developing storyline.

The audio tracks are Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 and English Dolby Digital 5.1. Both perform very well, but the biggest dilemma you're going to have here is in the choice between the original Japanese language track with subtitles or the English dub. The Japanese voice acting is just that little bit better in characterisation, not quite as high-pitched squeally as the American voice actors (PAL speed-up probably doesn't help). On the other hand the English language dub is pretty good in its own terms, and when a series has so much going on visually as this one does (sound effects and on-screen text notably are in English throughout), you really don't want to be distracted down to reading subtitles at the bottom of the screen unless it's really necessary. The deciding factor for me settling for the English dub is in it hilarious use of profanity that goes way beyond what is translated for the subtitles. There's no contest. Ideally, you should watch it at least twice, once with the Japanese track and once with the English track. If you're enough of an anime geek, you can then also watch a third time with the English dub with the English subtitles just to compare the differences between them. Yes, I did try this myself.

There are a lot of extra features here, much more than is usual for an anime series, and much more than the typical textless opening and closing credits.

Disc One contains an Explosion Collection featuring 21 minutes (seriously) of exploding models filmed in multiple angles of the ghosts' destruction at the end of every episode. Not only that, but the Extra Explosions feature is a full 40-minute documentary of the setting up and filming of these explosions. These guys are nuts. Sanitary Box contains eight extra one-minute mini Panty & Stocking episodes.

Disc Two contain nearly 15 minutes of Promo teasers and trailers, most of them pretty much the same, the quick editing and soundtrack guaranteed to leave your head spinning if you watch them all at once. There are Clean End credits and a Clean Opening, and five minutes of Outtakes from the US dubbing team. I'm sure there were much more trying to keep up with the pace of the series. Hearing them swear during takes isn't so much of a novelty this time around when it's all through the series anyway. Loft Plus 1 is an edited-down 24 minute anime show that interviews director Hiroyuki Imaishi and sound director Yoshikazu Iwanami, with contributions from the Japanese voice actors for Panty and Stocking, who do a live reading. There's also a live commentary from the animation crew for the final episode in the second part of this show. There's not much serious discussion of influences and techniques here, it's just the Gainax team having fun.

There are no extra features on Disc Three.

As inventive and capable of surprising as Japanese anime can be, along comes another Gainax series that refreshingly shakes up all your preconceptions. There's little to compare with the first season of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt and little to prepare you for the shock to the senses and the shock to delicate sensibilities that this outrageously offensive series, reveling in its juvenility, will inflict upon an unsuspecting public. Hyperbole aside though, the first season of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is aimed at a specific target audience of film and anime fans who are only likely to be offended if their favourite series is mercilessly parodied, but the majority of people will see this for the kind of entertaining fun that can be created by the greatest talented geeks in the anime business showing what they can do when they are given the freedom to do so. I hope someone gives them whatever they need to make another season, or even better, gives them the freedom to move on and do something else new and refreshing.

The DVD set from Manga Entertainment ought to have been judged as simply superb, the audio-visual specifications of a very high standard, the English reversioning by Funimation lovingly taken above and beyond the call of duty, with the set additionally packed with uncommonly interesting and worthwhile features for an anime series. Unfortunately an error with the last three episodes spoils the presentation somewhat, but not enough to take away from the enjoyment to be found elsewhere.

Editor's note: Manga have issued a statement on the error with this DVD release outlining their plans to re-issue the set by the end of September. There will be no disc replacement programme, so you may prefer to wait for the fixed version if you feel the error will spoil your viewing.

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