Long about the early 2010s, a blast of anime insanity arced across the Pacific which you might not have caught the first time. Small wonder, as it only lasted thirteen episodes. First it aired between October and December of 2010 on Japan’s Nippon Television, then its English dub was turned loose by Funimation Entertainment in 2012. Since then it has decidedly not garnered a cult following, and yet few viewers would argue that it had no right to exist.
That’s why we’re bringing it up today to introduce the topic of this anime sermon:
Does crude humor belong in anime?
We sometimes have to talk about where the medium as an art form is headed, because all mediums as an art form come to this crossroad eventually. Discussing this is good for us, like eating our arugula, and it helps us feel grownup about watching cartoons.
Every medium has to do this once in awhile.
That’s part 1 of 2 of episode 6, by the way. You can find the entire series on Funimation’s own website, free to view with login. There’s also a DVD / BR release and a manga adaptation kicking around out there.
We are going to try to describe Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, AKA PASWG. So it’s been called “adult Powerpuff Girls,” reminiscent of the Flash-SVG drawing style of Cartoon Network’s canon. Or you could describe it as “the anime South Park.” The show’s own creators point to Drawn Together, the even more-ground-breaking (but about equally forgotten) Comedy Central series, as the chief inspiration. As you might guess from the comparisons, PAWSG culturally belongs 99% to the West, acting as a Japanese parody of what American cartoons are like, with only a few disrespectful cringes to its own genre. In fact, it is the only show in recent memory of which is said that the English translation is better than the Japanese.
Trust us, we’re not here to knock the show, we’re here to tell you why it’s important. But we have to acknowledge that Anime News Network ranked PASWG “unremittingly revolting; generally not funny.” Ostensibly, PASWG is about the “Anarchy Sisters,” two “fallen angels” who act as heroines ridding Daten City of sooty black ghost monsters, while also daylighting as “typical” high school girls. Their superpowers are the ability to turn their lingerie into weapons. They’re dispatched to ghost-fighting assignments by a priest, Father Garterbelt.
But nuts to all that. As you can clearly see, the show is actually about mainlining crude, tasteless, vulgar humor at a bonkers pace in a hurricane of non-sequitur chaos. Like we say, small wonder it died after 13 episodes, because it’s a miracle if you can keep this frantic energy up that long. The show is not good; it is exhausting to watch.
Yet it is entertaining as an exercise. It’s a challenge to watch it in short bursts, as you can stand it, straining your ears to pick up the occasional hilarious line of dialogue blowing by in the tsunami of foulmouthed outrage. Behold the spectacle of raunchy scene after raunchy scene, topping itself repeatedly while you tumble back in shocked hysterics. “They didn’t just go there?” Yes, they did. And they’ll go here, too.
Some episodes are more worth a watch, because the series runs out of garbage and has to resign itself to start telling a few actual stories for a change. Once in awhile the series switches art styles and pays homage to other anime legends or even free-for-all pop culture tropes. The style is crude, deliberately crude, in drawing, vocals, dialogue, and story. Other adjectives bandied about the show are “tasteless, crass, offensive, filthy, gross,” and “obscene.” Even the theme music is an abomination of the worst of autotuned J-pop.
So why are we talking about it? Because it’s one of those experimental shows you have to produce once in awhile to test the boundaries and see what people are ready to let you get away with. Without these exercises, we would have no South Park, no Simpsons, no Rick ‘n’ Morty. We would also have no barometer to test the deep end of the Internet fanfiction pool, and no, do not Google Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt fanfiction. We did it for you, just to save you the trouble and provide you a direct link, in case you want to experience having your brain chew itself free of your spinal column in the hopes of escaping the pain.
But we need shows like this!
Refer back to the creators, who took inspiration from Drawn Together. This Comedy Central clunker started with a clever premise: Take deliberate parodies of several stock animation character archetypes and stuff them into a cartoon reality show environment based on the Big Brother franchise.
That should have been a hit, and yet it wasn’t, because it wasn’t intended to be one. It was a scratch monkey, a pilot for a concept. Here’s a review of the Drawn Together movie, which mostly sums up the general reaction to the series:
Don’t get us wrong, there’s some good to be found in Drawn Together, too. Some targets, such as Spongebob Squarepants or Disney animated princesses, need to be taken down a notch or three. A re-spun Betty Boop, as a broken alcoholic slattern, might have made an interesting one-shot concept stand-alone. But on the whole, while fans cherish the few bright spots, the series didn’t live up to its potential. Neither does PASWG.
Shows which are broad parodies of their genre or base culture tend to be this way, because they’re actually based on the laziest of ideas: We will take this thing and make fun of it just to see if people are sick of it yet. You can tell a thing is fading from popularity when its deconstruction can dump on it and the parody becomes more popular than the original target of that parody. There’s no reason to waste real effort on a test run.
Get ready for media history vertigo…
To show how far back this kind of genre sendup goes, here’s one of the Internet’s perennial favorites: Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown:
You see how old this trick is? You could have patched this short take right into PASWG and not noticed the seam. This is a short from 1986, an exercise by Jim Reardon, who would later go on to The Simpsons. At the time, Peanuts TV specials were the milk of human kindness for everyone’s childhood, so the parody was too dark and edgy for public view. But now we enjoy it more, because the Peanuts franchise is long-ago played out, left behind in a simpler, more-innocent past. Even then, this parody gets old exactly 3 minutes into its 3:19 runtime.
We mentioned The Simpsons back there. The Simpsons does its own parody in its show-within-a-show, Itchy and Scratchy. It’s a parody of the Tom & Jerry franchise and other cartoons based on nothing but conflict, expressing itself in violent acts. By setting itself up as more highbrow fare than Tom & Jerry, The Simpsons can afford to take cheap jabs at earlier cartoon culture – again at a show whose popularity had long since faded.
Likewise, crude humor in animation itself, to make it more “adult” (though usually it has the opposite effect) has been with us since animation. For a couple examples already explored at one of your humble author’s other gigs: It’s what Fritz the Cat tried to do (and failed miserably) and what Down and Dirty Duck did (and succeeded, although it was actually more of a vehicle for music act Flo&Eddy). For an almost-animated example, brace yourself for maximum cringe (NSFW coming right up) and confront the existence of puppet porn… parody. Oh that one hurt!
An often cited axoim in comedy is “comedy = tragedy + time.” We only feel comfortable mocking something when it’s over and done with. As long as it’s a fresh part of cultural memory, there will be people yelling “Dude, not funny!” Granted for some people, even something brand new is a good target, but that’s a small audience who will tune in to the stinger on Saturday Night Live for the political joke of the moment. Example: Western satire animation like Family Guy and Bojack Horseman is in its peak popularity right now; you won’t gain much ground poking fun at these shows. But who still has any respect left for Sailor Moon? 5% of you? Fine, 5% of you shouldn’t watch this trailer for Puni Puni Poemii:
“Respect” is the key word here. You can do a parody in an affectionate spirit as well, of course, that gets its own trope. But for the most part, “imitation – respect = parody.” And respect is a tricky concept. I mentioned Betty Boop as an acceptable target back there. Well, you would not believe now that Betty Boop, when she first came out, was actually a huge scandal! Screen censorship and moral guardians demanded she be reigned in, because she was originally lewd and crude – for the standards of her day. In other words – wait for it – Betty Boop was a “cartoon for adults” in the early 20th century!
See how the circle comes around?
Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is the kind of show that’s a necessary maintenance errand every culture has to carry out periodically. It helps the creators blow off steam, which keeps them off the streets. It gives the culture a necessary roasting, to keep it from getting too full of itself. Most importantly, it’s a pit stop for a genre or medium. It asks the question: “Are people sick of this thing yet? Are they so sick of it that they’ll cheer seeing it blown up?”
If not, we reel the parody back in and let the genre continue. Otherwise, it might be time to rethink the genre or simply move along to the next thing.
That’s how culture evolves. You know, for cultural progress? That thing we used to do before the Internet came along?
What, too soon?