When a city is in trouble, sometimes all you can hope to do is kneel down and pray to be saved by an angel. Be careful what you wish for though, particularly if you're one of the inhabitants of Daten City.
Placed somewhere between Heaven and Hell (aren't we all?), Daten City is lucky enough to have not one but two angels protecting them from the malicious "Ghosts" which roam the streets - ghosts created from the spirits of those who have endured a particularly unfortunate demise. However, these sisters are like no angels you've ever seen before - Panty and Stocking seem more likely to fall from the set of South Park than the gates of Heaven. Even their surname seems oddly misplaced - how many angels sign their surname "Anarchy"? One is a nymphomaniac, the other obsessed with sweets, but both of them are sufficiently foul-mouthed and coarse to make a sailor blush. This pairing is overseen by their guardian, the devout priest known as Garterbelt - although even his commitments aren't entirely religious in nature...
It's probably a good job that Panty and Stocking aren't shrinking violets, as the Ghosts they come across aren't exactly the most pleasant of sorts, springing up from the sewers to snatch humans who outstay their welcome on the toilet or bathing the city in a sea of vomit to ensure that there's no shortage of scatological concerns for the sisters. As the series progresses, life only becomes more difficult with the arrival of a pair of demon-sisters, Scanty and Kneesocks, who are out to enact a sinister plot on behalf of their boss that ultimately threatens everything the Anarchy Sisters hold dear.
Despite this talk of an over-arching story, don't get too wrapped up in thoughts of deep plot-driven stories - Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is undoubtedly a comedy through and through, and its primary purpose is always to provoke laughter from the viewer (or at least a guilty snigger). Most episodes are typically split in half, delivering two quick-fire tales of our "angelic" sisters taking on a ghost of the demon sisters in their own inimitable style - a blaze of swearing, stupidity and slick action. The whole affair is backed up with a gleeful slew of references to western pop culture, and more specifically western cinema - each episode title riffs on a western movie, while some of the best segments of the series deliver a spoof-cum-love-letter of the Transformers or provide their own MTV-style music video packed with references to iconic music videos which take in everything from Oasis to The Sex Pistols.
If one thing shines through the entire production, it's that its staff had a massive amount of fun working on it. The show's unique animation style, with its Powerpuff Girls-esque aesthetic, really gives everyone involved free reign to go all-out and dare to be different - witness the experimental "Chuck to the Future" segments, or the blending of Daten City's over-the-top anti-heroines against a strikingly gritty change of art style in the latter half of the show's fifth episode. Never mind being an anime fan, if you're a fan of animation in any form this is a series that you really should sit down to watch as it leverages the freedom afforded its production staff to be daring and think outside of the box; even when its sticking to the show's "standard" style, the initially simplistic design frequently gives way to some fantastically fluid scenes and breath-taking moments of action as Panty and Stocking tackle whatever crosses their paths.
This free reign also extends to the show's writing - in an industry that has become increasingly sterile and wrapped up in its obsession with depicting "pure" female characters or leaning toward sedate slice-of-life stories, Panty & Stocking is a breath of fresh air as its flawed main characters swear and sleep their way around the show's scenarios while sticking a middle finger up to everything that anime has become. Naturally, its coarse humour and reliance on sex, swearing, bogey and poop jokes won't be for everyone - indeed, its comedy can be hit and miss - but the show still knows how and when to be riotously funny when it gets things right, and it similarly knows how to pull a fast one on the viewer by including a couple of surprisingly touching tales of love in the midst of all the mayhem.
If only this sense of restraint and subtlety hadn't been completely lost on those involved in the show's English dub, which is not far short of an embarrassment. Where the original Japanese script is smattered with swear words and double entendres, the US dub is packed to the rafters with coarse dialogue and sexual innuendo, all delivered with exuberance and at high volume. At times it works, and there are some wonderfully snappy one-liners, put-downs and come-backs delivered by its smartly cast VAs, but ultimately it seems to have missed one very important point - that the more you swear, the less effective it becomes at conveying... well, anything really. By the end of the first episode I was all-but tearing my hair out as the dub smothered almost everything that is good about the source material. If you want to understand why this series is popular, you're well-advised to stick with the original Japanese language track, even if this DVD's subtitles actually go to the other extreme of toning down the swearing present in the original audio.
While we're talking about audio, a special mention has to go to Panty & Stocking's soundtrack, which is simply incredible - perhaps the clear western influence is what makes it so fascinating, but every single track throughout the series is a triumph, walking a deliciious fine-line between complementing the on-screen action and being so good it stands out on its own merits. By the end of the series, it is physically impossible not to sing along to "Fly Away" whenever it appears to accompany Panty and Stocking's beautifully lewd transformation sequences, or bob your head to the delicious "Fallen Angel". Someone needs to bring this soundtrack to the UK, be it physically or via iTunes, and they need to do it now.
Spread across three DVDs, this UK release of Panty & Stocking is certainly no slouch in terms of extra material - as well as providing the "Sanitary Box" short OVA episode (which is hilarious and subversive in its own right), we're treated to a collection of all of the end of episode explosions created using actual papier-mâché models of Ghosts and some suitably strong pyrotechnics, a feature showing how these segments were made, and a "Loftplus" TV panel show which chats with the show's Japanese creators and voice actresses. Throw in your traditional clean opening and ending credit sequences, and you have one of the most comprehensive collections of extras we've seen in years.
Even though Kadokawa, the show's licensor, has denied the west a Blu-Ray release for the time being, this UK DVD release looks pretty good for the most part - clean, colourful and never detracting from the show's aesthetic values.
If only we could be this unequivocally full of praise for the mastering of the third and final DVD, but it appears that something of a disaster has befallen Manga Entertainment's release here, as episodes eleven, twelve and thirteen all cut off before the episode actually finishes. This leaves us missing around twenty to thirty seconds of those instalments, which is particularly disastrous in the case of the show's final episode as there's a cheeky post-credits twist which is inadvertently cut from the release almost entirely. Much as we praise Manga Entertainment for launching this series in the UK so soon after the US release, the lack of quality control that allowed such a massive mistake to slip through the net is completely unacceptable to the point where we'd recommend holding off on buying the series at this point in time. At the time of writing, we've passed our experience of these issues back to the distributor and are waiting for their response - hopefully they'll do the right thing and offer a replacement programme for this fundamentally sub-par third disc.
Putting that hugely disappointing mastering error to one side for a moment though, let's finish on a high note by talking about the series itself - a colourful, brash and bold effort that is vibrant with the love and enjoyment of its creators. The comedy most certainly won't be for everyone, but there's no denying that this is a brave attempt at turning the arguably stagnant anime industry on its head by infusing it with many of the elements that have made western cartoons aimed at adults so successful. Coupled with a clear understanding of the popularity of fan-generated media on social networks and still retaining some uniquely Japanese sensibilities, it's a triumph.
For this spirit of artistic yet anarchic adventure, and creating a show that will have fans recounting their "favourite bits" for years to come, Panty & Stocking is one of 2012's must-see anime releases in the UK.
NOTE: After posting this review, the original UK release of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt was recalled and replaced with a new version which fixed the mastering issues noted above. A revised review using that updated release can be found over here.