My Review of Strawberry Panic!

Nagisa Aoi was just an ordinary girl. She wasn’t especially smart, she wasn’t especially pretty, she wasn’t especially noble… There was really nothing special about her. Then, one day, she transferred into Miator Academy, one of three all girl schools located at the top of Astraea hill, a sacred place where no males are allowed to enter. The three schools are affiliated, and they only accept female students from proper, upstanding families… Well, there’s one other possible qualifier, but we’ll talk more about that later. Students are expected to live on campus in two person dorm rooms, and as a right of passage, first year students are expected to act as maids for their elders. Luckily, Nagisa was able to avoid this fate, transferring to the school in her third year of education because of… Reasons… And it was at this school that the once ordinary Nagisa would become… Well, still an ordinary girl. There’s no evidence that that part of her is ever going to change. But somehow, despite this ugly duckling slowly growing into an average duck, there is one thing about her life that is about become extraordinary.

For you see, at these three schools way up on Astraea Hill, they elect more than just a student council… They also elect an Etoile, who represent the school in all of it’s glamour and prestige. For now, the Etoile is Shizuna, a tall mysterious girl with long white hair and a spirit that radiates with ennui and depression, and for seemingly no reason at all, she appears to have taken a very special interest in young Nagisa. From long measuring glances to sudden, uninvited embraces that come within a hair’s breadth of ending in a sultry kiss, the most beloved and respected student on campus has her empty eyes on Nagisa, and they’re filling up fast. Nagisa has no idea how she attracted this kind of romantic attention, but luckily for the older girl, she doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to try to lose it, either. As the two young ladies become closer, and the bond between them begins to form, they’ll find that the Astraea Hill School System is both a political and social minefield, full of backstabbing, sabotage and political intrigue. Will our perfectly ordinary heroine brave the dangers of Astraea Hill for the sake of a love that’s truly extraordinary, or will her destiny fall short in the end?

The Strawberry Panic anime was produced by Studio Madhouse to capitalize on the successful magazine run of a series of short stories, all focusing on different all-female romances taking place at the Astraea Hill Schools. Productions from Madhouse rarely ever have generous amounts of money poured into them, which can lead to even beloved classics like Trigun looking wonky half the time, but on the plus side, some shows can still flourish visually without a lot of financial backing, like the dialogue-heavy Death Note. Well, Strawberry Panic may have a lot of dialogue in it, but the nicest thing I can probably say about it is that it’s not the worst looking anime I’ve ever seen. They clearly tried their hardest with it, but there’s only so much a bare bones budget can do when it’s attached to a light, fluffy show that doesn’t have the benefit of heavy shadows or obscure angles to hide it’s flaws. I’m honestly not sure how good this show even COULD look, as it’s clearly the kind of show that Kyoto animation was born for.

Madhouse tries to hide the limitations of this show’s movements, and for the most part, it does manage to pull it off, relying on as many staticky conversations and panning shots as it possibly can, and it treads water at least well enough to… well, not enough that the shoestring budget goes unnoticed, but well enough that you can ignore it and focus on the story. Having said that, the very second the motion needs to pick up even the slightest bit, the returns can be flat out embarrassing. Characters walking often look like profile images bouncing up and down as they move across the background, a tragic horse accident in the latter episodes is clumsy enough to bring inappropriate roars of laughter to what’s supposed to be somber scene, and if you can tear yourself away from the beautiful piano melody in one particular scene, you’ll feel duped when you realize that you’re just looking at a panning shot where a couple of frozen characters just move their upper arms ever so slightly. You can’t even watch a character fall down the stairs on screen, no, there’s a very intentional cutaway.

It’s a nice looking show in terms of design, however, as every named character has a specific look that you probably won’t forget, even if you haven’t seen them or thought of them for extended stretches of episodes. In fact, I got so used to having their looks inform their identities that towards the end, I briefly mistook one of the main characters for being two separate girls all because her hair was sometimes down. Their designs are generic, but they’re at least different enough to distinguish one girl from another, and the use of different uniforms for each school also helped this to happen. Miator has black uniforms, Spica has white uniforms, and Lulim have yellow vests paired with checkered skirts, all three of these designs being popular ones from the history of high school anime. Oh, and of course, there are also maid outfits present. The backgrounds are serviceable enough, and although it doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, the architecture is also really pretty to look at. There’s also a lot of flowers… Yeah, I know, it’s a yuri, big surprise… But they’re not just border decoration, there’s a greenhouse full of them, and a lot of care clearly went into their rendering.

As I mentioned before, whatever beauty the visuals may lack is made up for tenfold with the soundtrack. The instrumentation is mostly comprised of violin, piano and cello, and while the standard slice-of-life music that occurs while nothing’s really going on can be a bit on the underwhelming side, there’s a lot of melancholy and pain in this anime, and the music translates this beautifully. There are a couple of classical songs that are played when Shizuna and Nagisa are bonding over the piano, the instantly recognizable but still very well-chosen Moonlight sonata and Maiden’s Prayer. As for the original music, Yoshihisa Hirano put together a powerful score that almost manages to lend gravity to the melodramatic nature of the series. There are several emotionally gripping moments that work hand in hand with the score to rip your tear ducts out through your throat, But at the same time, honestly, there are several moments in this show that are so uncomfortable that the music will wind up being the only thing you WANT to remember them for. Kaori’s theme tends to be a popular favorite, but I strongly prefer the tension present in Unmei and Fui ni Semararete.

The aversion to movement is unfortunately carried through to the first opening, which appears to do the bare minimum on a visual scale, showing the different characters in leisurely glamour shots, reacting to the camera before the next character can get their spotlight. The song, Shoujo Meiro de Tsukamaete by Aki Misato, is a fine song on it;s own, a little on the generic side but still well orchestrated and catchy. It’s a good enough op, but it;s also a really predictable one, so I’m glad the second opening threw all of this convention out the window. It’s called Kuchibiru Daydream, once again by Aki Misato, but it comes off as a lot more lively and inspired, with more force and flow behind the vocals. The imagery in this opening is also a massive improvement, as it still kinda reeks of budget restrictions, but it’s able to do a lot more with it on account of the fact that it TRIES to do a lot more with it. This mirrors the level of effort present in the anime, which started off a little lackluster before picking up steam towards the second half.

The endings, surprisingly enough are mostly live action. You don’t see that very often nowadays, and for good reason, but these ones actually do manage to skew past the awkwardness thanks to the chemistry of the two ladies on screen, Mai Nakahara and Ai Shimizu. They also happen to be the singers of Secret Dolls, which has a distinctive goth-rock feel to it. Makes sense, I guess, since they’re both all dressed up in goth-loli costumes, which I would consider overkill if it didn’t fit the doll theme so well. They sell the yearning between them mostly through facial expressions and clever directing, and finish by sealing the song with a kiss. The same two singers reprise their roles for the second ending song, Ichigo Tsumi monogatari, which is… A thing. A really weird thing. It goes off in an entirely different direction with creepy singing paper cut-out CGI, and that’s all fine compared to the fact that the energy and set design remind me of Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi, which is one of those things nothing should ever remind me of . So yeah, the second opening and the first closing were really great.

And since there’s no English dub, I guess we should get right into the writing, huh? Well, I do have a few comments about the Japanese sub, even though I’m woefully underqualified to judge Japanese acting. First of all, there are a lot of times where the lip flaps didn’t match the voice of the people speaking, which is a mistake I thought only dubs could make, and it’s a shame that I was only able to watch it with subtitles, because I had trouble keeping up with the dialogue whenever my eyes started to involuntarily close over how bored I was. Oh yeah, we’re starting on this note; There are a few things Strawberry Panic is known for, and I’m pretty sure one of them is just how much of a train wreck the story and plot are. That is, when there’s even story and plot present. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to some meek little redhead with so special or distinguishable characteristics in a cast that’s already bloated from the start, and while it feels like you’re supposed to care about her, you’re never told or shown why she’s worth that kind of attention.

The only interesting thing we learn about her… Possibly ever, now that I think about it… Is that she has the ability to uncontrollably run through forests like she’s a WWE wrestler waiting to encounter a rope to bounce off of. Aside from Shizuna’s abrupt attraction to her, nothing else of consequence happens for a very long time. We’re dropped into a story that has at least a dozen characters, little to no attempts at world-building, and a bunch of creepy non-consensual almost-kisses being our only clue as to what or who we’re supposed to care about. I would honestly recommend keeping a pillow handy during the first six episodes, and on and off after that, just in case you decide that a dream might be more interesting than what’s going on onscreen. It meanders through fields of inconsequential fluff before it ever approaches anything resembling a point, wasting time on characters who wind up getting shoved to the side anyway, including almost everybody from the Lulim school, like a loli with a teddy bear, a pair of useless girls who I just wound up calling Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and one named Chikaru who I wish was important, because she feels really likeable.

There is a point, of course, but it takes an inexcusably long time to get there, and even then, there are problems present. The actual meat of the story is the romance between Shizuna and Nagisa, and while you’re never really given a clear reason as to why Nagisa would develop feelings for the older girl, Shizuna’s attraction to her is VERY well defined, and while I won’t spoil it here, it carries an admittedly compelling layer of conflict and tragedy to the idea of the two of them being together. Besides, while Nagisa’s feelings may be undefined, they still feel more than real enough to make the audience genuinely care where their romance goes. They’re not the only major romance, though, as there’s another sub-plot involving an equestrian and a young blonde student, and it starts out okay… It’s really sweet and heartwarming at first, then it dives into a bit more drama as it evolves into a love triangle, but it all goes south as the two villain characters standing in their way get drawn in, making it a love pentagon, with enough going on in it to make it feel beyond convoluted, and that’s BEFORE the hokey-as-fuck amnesia plot twist.

Honestly, thinking back, I’m tempted to say that Shizuna is the only character in the cast who really feels developed and fleshed out by the end. We know what happened to her, why it happened, how it started, how it made her the person she is, and how it motivated her actions in the present, and there’s a lot of room to interpret whether she’s a selfish character, a sympathetic character, or both. For the most part, everybody else has personalities that have been defined just enough to differentiate them from each other, but their personalities are almost entirely informed by their role in the story and their interactions with others. With the exception of a few girls from Lulim, you won’t have any trouble remembering who’s who, but you’ll have a hard time caring for any of them, aside from the two main couples and maybe Nagisa’s roommate, but that’s a hard maybe. You’ll probably wind up hating the little girl with the teddy bear… Well, a lot of people seem to, I personally just ignored her… And there are a few characters who, after they’ve disappeared for a while, might just coax a “Hey, I remember you!” out of you when they appear again.

But you know what? There was one story arc where everyone generally came out looking good. Yeah, some of the best moments in the series take place when Shizuna and Nagisa are alone(depending on your tolerance for questionable levels of consent), but the one arc that really worked as an ensemble was when the three schools decided to put on a play. They pick the European classic Carmen, and just about everybody plays a fun role in this arc. Egos are challenged in the cast listing, Nagisa gets a little extra depth, the villains get to be nasty for what feels like no real reason, there’s intrigue and last minute improvisation, beautiful costumes… The problem is that it only lasts two episodes, despite spanning a period of several weeks. In a smarter anime, they’d have expanded this arc to at least a quarter of the show, using it as a backdrop to other less consequential stories, tying them into it so that there’d be something to look forward to through other boring or forgettable moments.

But they don’t do that here… Strawberry Panic never comes near the level of effort or inspiration that it would take to come up with a solution like that. Well, fine, you wanna get lazy? There’s another solution they could have tried… Cut the length of the series down to 13 episodes. There’s a ton of material they could have cut, and I’m sorry to say, as pleasant as it was in the beginning, the entire Hikari/Amane/Yaya thing could have gone bye-bye along with it. I mean, seriously, would anyone miss that sub-plot? They could have cut the story down to just focusing on one school, Miator, and still had enough time to develop Nagisa and the few supporting characters around her more properly. The problem is, and I can’t believe more people haven’t noticed this, is because this isn’t a show you’re supposed to think about. You’re supposed to be drawn into the emotion and the romantic and political intrigue, because if you stop to think about what you’re watching for one second, you’ll realize that very little of what you’re seeing makes even a lick of sense.

For example, I can’t be the only one who found the Etoile system to be confusing as fuck. Let’s see if I’ve got this right… It’s an elected position where you’re basically an ornament, meant to uphold the beauty and nobility ideals of the school, and you’re not the Student council president, even though you have to sign a lot of undefined papers. You apparently keep this position until you graduate, which can take up to six years… If you follow the plot closely, Shizuna’s been doing it about three years… And it’s vital that you have two of them, but if you lose one for whatever reason, they just carry on without making any attempt to replace her. Oh, and you can be from different grades, so what happens when one graduates and the other hasn’t yet? And are you supposed to be a couple with your partner? If not, why would you have to run away and abandon the election just to be with the person you love? And why do the people in charge tell prospective candidates that they don’t have a choice when they clearly do? And why is it okay for one school to not submit any candidates? Is any of this explained in the source material?

On top of that, I had trouble understanding why every girl we meet who has even the most slightly established sexuality is a lesbian. Yeah, okay, it’s a story about lesbians, but the context it creates feels really weird, like the story exists in some post-apocalyptic society where men have gone extinct. It kind of feels like it was influenced by the Japanese Romantic Friendship custom, where adolescent young women are able and even encouraged to engage in close, emotionally strong bonds with one another, although such bonds are strictly platonic, and they’re expected to leave it all behind when they grow up so they can marry and reproduce. One show that took a harsh metaphorical look at these customs was From the New World, which took Romantic Friendships and evolved them into more sexual territory, but Panic takes it into a different direction, treating these bonds as actual romance… The difference being that unlike New World, Panic ignores the effect these relationships might have long term. Nobody ever brings up what their futures will be like once they graduate and reenter Japan’s heavily patriarchal society, which almost makes the series feel vapid. It has no stakes.  I was honestly confused by the conflict in the final episode, which made no sense from too many angles to count.

No, I know exactly what they were going for with this… It’s an escapist fantasy. You know, the kind of story where the reader can experience a situation or lifestyle that would be impossible or really troublesome in real life. It’s unrealistic by design. This series was written for the viewer to escape into a world full of beautiful girls who want nothing more than other beautiful girls, with no conflict outside of their romantic woes and social standings. Now, is that a bad thing? Honestly, it depends on who the fantasy is designed for. A lot of lesbian media is intentionally designed to exploit queer people for the sake of fetishizing them for the enjoyment of straight males(To be fair, yaoi’s market is just as bad), and that was my initial impression of the series. Of course, there was also the possibility that the lesbian fantasy in this show was created as an escape FOR lesbians, especially when you consider just how badly oppressed they are in Japan NOW, let alone in 2006 when this series was released. It’s an important distinction to make in cases like this… Who’s it for?  On the one hand, it creates an environment where same-sex relationships are the norm, and are explicitly romantic in nature, which sounds nice, but it also refuses to acknowledge said relationships ever leaving the school, which leans more heavily towards the idea of homosexuality being a phase you grow out of, which is more of a patriarchal idea.

To try and answer this dilemma, I took to social media, and asked for anybody who’s seen the series to let me know what they thought of it, along with their gender and sexual preferences. I didn’t get a lot of responses, which isn’t very surprising when you consider how personal a question that is, but what was surprising was that the few responses I did get were from queer women who had generally favorable opinions of it. They were well aware that the show had issues, and that it’s problematic in spots and a little dumb, but they all said that when they watched it as teenagers… Remember, this show is now 11 years old… It helped them come to terms with their sexualities, and even taught them that it was possible, even okay, for a woman to have romantic feelings for another woman. They even said that the material that was obviously meant for titillation was just as enjoyable for them as it was for presumed straight male viewers, barring the few non-consensual moments. Admittedly, my sample size was small, but it was still very revealing in terms of what it means to the people I thought it was just exploiting. It’s not much, but it does earn the series a little redemption in my book.

Strawberry Panic is available from Anime works, a division of Media blasters. The 5 disk thin pack has unfortunately doubled in average price since it was released five years ago, but used copies on Ebay can be found at a reasonable price. The original novels are available stateside from Seven Seas, and the original manga is available from the same company.

While the process of reviewing this title has been enlightening, my opinion on it has remained largely unchanged. I still consider it a train wreck, full of random fluff, way more characters than it could handle, and an ending that was entirely unsatisfying and wound up raising far more questions than it answered. Having said all that, I do understand that it has an important place in LGBT anime. It doesn’t tackle the struggle to define ones’ self, as Utena did, and it doesn’t satirize the oppressive patriarchal society of Japan the way Yurikuma Arashi eventually would, but it does manage to present the idea of same sex romance in a somewhat progressive way, and I can’t really fault it for that. It presents an escapist fantasy where queer women both younger and older can set aside the idea of forbidden love and guilt so they can just feel normal in a world that’s constantly telling them they’re not. I still can’t justifiably call it a good show, but at the very least, I do now know that there are people out there that I can confidently recommend it to, even if that demographic is a small one. I give Strawberry Panic a 4/10.  

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