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Panty and Stocking are nasty angels who were banished from the pearly gates for being foul-mouthed bad girls! Now they spend their days hunting ghosts in the lecherous abyss between Heaven and Earth. Panty likes sex, Stocking likes sweets, and their afro-sporting main man Garterbelt has a fetish we can't mention...
Anime being the collaborative effort it is, certain animation studios tend to foster a particular outlook and make their name based on the creative talent they attract, and perhaps the most adept at turning studio into brand are Gainax. From their early 1980s origins as independent animators, the company's roster of talent has managed to produce some all-time great animation – the lavish spaceflight fantasy Wings of Honneamise, the Gunbuster and FLCL OVAs, the slyly self-mythologising Otaku no Video, and best known of all, the epochal Neon Genesis Evangelion, a series that would still be inspiring and dividing fans two decades after its release even without its current ongoing remake. Always happy to pepper their works with references and in-jokes, Gainax have done more than most to create not just modern anime, but modern anime fandom, for good or ill.
While their best works – and I'd argue that the shows mentioned above are some of the greatest anime of the past thirty years – are touched with eccentric genius, they've also produced their share of mediocrities: Corpse Princess, This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, Mahoromatic and many more range from passable to dismal. Riding high on the success of the rumbustious, wilfully old-fashioned robot series Gurren-Lagann, Gainax let GL and Dead Leaves director Hiroyuki Imaishi and many talented animators loose on Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, a much-hyped paean to Western animation. So which side of the Gainax quality line does it fall?
Before coming to that, it's best to issue a warning: Imaishi and company have decided to abandon their inhibitions in making this series and are determined that you, the viewer, should have to do the same. From the opening installment 'Excretion Without Honor and Humanity', the lewd and gluttonous angels and their borderline-paedophilic overseer inhabit a world of bodily functions and fluids run riot, with no biological or sexual atrocity left unexplored. This description makes Panty & Stocking sound rather more transgressive than it deserves: the notion of a naughty adult take on kid's cartoons is hardly new, and indeed is the lifeblood of the American animated series the show avidly references: Invader Zim, South Park and Ren & Stimpy, all rolled on for cameos of one sort or another, have all but exhausted this avenue. Fortunately the two-part episode format used for all but three episodes means that most of the scatological scenarios are over before their momentum fails, but the unwaveringly juvenile tone may try many viewers' patience.
Taken as a whole, Panty & Stocking seems to succeed best at its extremes not of shock value but of invention: a sojourn in the humdrum life of a deadbeat office worker is animated with unusual restraint and realism, while a detour into the mind of ceaselessly annoying mascot Chuck pushes its Lynchian stylings for all it's worth. At the other extreme, the first encounter with the angels' demonic opponents Scanty and Kneesocks leads to an extended fight sequence animated with verve unequalled elsewhere, and the series' thin plot culminates in a doozy of a finale that deliberately evokes the apocalyptic climaxes of FLCL and Gurren-Lagann, leading to a wicked cliffhanger that rounds off the series with style. As might be expected for a series with so many Western elements, Panty & Stocking plays very well in English and the dub from Funimation piles on the profanity, the witty script and numerous asides greatly adding to the enjoyment.
So uneven is Panty & Stocking that it's tempting to see it as a curious microcosm of Gainax's body of work: touched with genius at times, tiresomely mediocre at others. One thing seems likely: with nearly three years elapsed since the show's end and Imaishi, together with many of the studio's most talented animators, departed for new ventures, the 'second season' promised at the end will never come to pass. As a probable memento to the kind of invention Gainax are famous for – and which, given their brain drain to other studios and some unmemorable recent productions, may have finally come to an end – it's frustrating, yet fun.