Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt: Style Over Substance Done Right
“Gag series” (a sub-genre of the coined genre “widget series” on TV Tropes) are not new to anime or even American animation. In fact, there’s even a whole page listing anime that are light on plot (usually a nonlinear plot) and heavy on comedy without regards for a traditional narrative structure containing a beginning and an end. For a Gainax comedy (the studio infamous for their nonsensical endings unrelated to the larger plot such as those in Neon Genesis Evangelion and FLCL), a savvy viewer should have already been prepared for such unorthodox storytelling. However, while there are dozens of comedy anime like the slapstick Nichijou and the dramedy Gintama out there that revel in absurdist humor (a form of humor more traditionally rooted in Japanese culture), Panty & Stocking takes pride in its own ridiculous universe and its ludicrous logic instead of having the kind of self-aware, fourth-wall breaking, “winking at the camera” kind of guilt comedies like Gintama would express towards its own silliness. This is especially evident by the final episode when the voice of reason “geek boy”, Brief ”Briefers” Rock, asks how the two titular characters could be so flippant about everything, to which the angelic duo answers, “We’re always serious,” “Dead serious when it comes to screwing around.” In spite of its ostentatious crudity, especially when it comes to the more promiscuous “Panty” of the protagonist duo, the show implies that it’s a representation of the freedom to do whatever it wants, not bounded by boring ol’ rules. This is pretty clear when you realized that the main antagonists of the show, two devil sister counterparts to the titular angel siblings, “Scanty” and “Kneesocks”, have a serious passion for enforcing the rules.
Created by the same staff team that brought you the over-the-top Gurren Lagann, the 2010 anime Panty & Stocking was conceived over the staff’s vacation trip, with Hiromi Wakabayashi (who came up with the initial idea) comparing it to the likes of Comedy Central’s Drawn Together, a 2004 American cartoon that also crudely parodied several styles of American traditional animation like Betty Boop and Disney princesses. The main premise the anime is loosely built on involves two “fallen angels” who have to work their way back to heaven by killing vengeful “ghosts” in exchange for Heaven Coins. Once they’ve earned enough coins, their return is assured. Thus, we get a monster-of-the-week cartoon bearing much similarities to The Powerpuff Girls, including the design of the main characters and the opening narration of every episode describing the setting of the show, “Daten City”. However, unlike PPG (or even many gag anime for that matter), P&S tells you right from the start that it’s not meant for children’s consumption (with or without parental guidance), as its first episode, Excretion Without Honor and Humanity, involves the angels fighting… a poop monster. Born out of everyone’s feces. Yeah, it’s that kind of show. The aptly named “Giant Brown” is also the first of the “Excrement Trinity” where disgusting human waste matter are involved, alongside snot monster “Ugly Snot” in Raiders of the Nasal Dark and vomit monster “Boogey Pukey” in Vomiting Point.
Befitting such vulgar content are the two angel protagonists of the anime hardly behave in any angelic manner at all, with the blonde Panty being more interested in sleeping with men all day long and the blue-haired Stocking more interested in stuffing her face with confectionaries. From episode 6 onwards, the anime would start to move away from its monster-of-the-week format to focus more on the rivalry between the two angels and the aforementioned devil sisters. This is where, I feel, the anime starts to fall into a more formulaic pattern that undercuts its initial novelty. In my opinion, P&S are best when they don’t have any traditional plot going on in an episode at all. This is best shown through their visual variety. While most episodes bear a similar minimalist animation style in the vein of PPG, the series can have a wide range of settings and storylines, though still largely rooted in the comedy genre. For example, one episode like Death Race 2010 is an entire chase sequence stretched out to an episode, but another like Pulp Addiction is bookended by a black-and-white sequence featuring the Normandy landings from Saving Private Ryan… except the soldiers are all personifications of sperms trying to eject. Needless to say, entire location sets the audience might be familiar with could be switched every episode, with Vomiting Point taking place in the more grounded “Little Tokyo”, mirroring Daten City the way “Citiesville” mirrored Townsville in PPG’s Town and Out. In fact, instead of its usual PPG style, that particular episode features an entirely different animation style that resembles Satoshi Kon’s artstyle (the guy that brought you Paprika and Perfect Blue). P&S is simply at its most interesting that way, showing a different style of cartoon storytelling every episode when you’re expecting something familiar.
To exemplify why such nonadherence to a traditional plot works effectively, one simply has to look at the popular Gintama. But while I’ve mentioned Gintama a number of times in this review so far, P&S’ resemblances are more similar to a more obscure title known as Excel Saga, of which its full title is Quack Experimental Anime Excel Saga, a name that speaks for itself just how nontraditional its structure is. Much like P&S, it also has a blonde airhead girl and a more subdued blue-haired girl as its main protagonists, including a pet dog mascot like Chuck in P&S as well. More strikingly similar, however, is its unique shift of genre every, single, episode, ranging from sci-fi alien invasion to romantic comedy and even American animation like Wonder Woman and Disney cartoons. P&S kinda treads this genre-bending territory as well, but more so towards its later-half like the aforementioned Vomiting Point, Trans-homers (a Transformers parody down to Optimus and Megatron changing to Rodimus and Galvatron respectively), …Of the Dead (a zombie episode), 1 Angry Ghost (a courtroom drama episode) and even Ghost: The Phantom of Daten City, which contained far more emotional elements by the end than one would initially expect (Stocking dating a self-centered ghost with a phallic head and extreme body odor).
In fact, it’s because of its unique structure (which I loved about Excel Saga) that made me a bit surprised about P&S’ mixed reviews from critics, most notably Anime News Network which calls it “unremittingly revolting,” “generally not funny,” and having style over substance. Honestly speaking, I don’t usually enjoy style over substance either, with myself not being a huge fan of Kill la Kill, but I feel like there’s just something refreshing beyond P&S’ obvious shock humor. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not a deep show by any stretch of the imagination, but I always have a fondness for “meta shows” that play around with the genre in creative ways, pushing the boundaries of what you could shove into a series without traditional structures. With episodes like Chuck to the Future (a mostly dialogueless three-parter with Chuck the dog as the main star), Help! We Are Angels (a literal music video referencing various American musicians) and Nothing to Room (a single-shot episode with Panty and Stocking sitting on a couch waiting for dinner), there’s just enough range in flavor to satisfy someone like me who actively seeks out original and novel ways to tell a story. That anarchic spirit of both the anime and its titular characters hearken back to the kind of post-modernist shows I grew up with in the ’90s (and even shows I didn’t grow up with like The Simpsons and South Park), daring to poke fun in shameless ways just to see what works and what doesn’t. And for P&S, most of the time, it works surprisingly well right until the end, often intriguing me with some new surprise each episode.
If there is ever a gripe, as there always are since nothing is perfect, it’s not even really a gripe at all but more of a disappointment: the series is only 13 episodes long with no sequel. Practically speaking, this is sensible because you can only do so much to parody different genres before it becomes stale (Excel Saga somewhat suffers from this with its 26 episodes, and The Simpsons shows that too much of a good thing can sour the taste). But as someone who had such a great time watching this… my god, I just can’t help but crave for more. Unlike the many serious anime I’ve reviewed, P&S has a carefree nature that makes me appreciate American animations like PPG and the many Nickelodeon and even Disney Channel cartoons, that frivolous spirit to just give the audience a good time for the fun of it without imparting any serious morals or didacticism. It feels like a welcoming break not having to point out what political or social commentary the episodes might have contained in this review, or what real life issues they might have addressed, and just to have a jolly fun time with its colorful narrative styles and TerryLoid’s electronica tracks that grant every episode full of life and energy.
Final Rating: 9.3/10