Drawn in by one of the ubiquitous "I Kissed a Girl" AMVs, I came to Strawberry Panic! wondering why all those girls were making out with each other. I can't say that I left the series entirely sure of the characters' motivations, but I can say that I've come to love the silly, racy, melodramatic, and heartbreaking world of shoujo-ai anime. Despite its mediocre looks, occasionally vapid storytelling, and frustrating characters, I fell in love with this show. And then Hikari and Amane ruined everything.
Strawberry Panic! tells the interwoven story of two transfer students at a collection of three all-girls schools with mixed results. While the absurd frequency of lesbian relationships initially makes little sense, the cloistered feel of the campus and the purposeful omission of anything that could conclusively tie the story to a specific time eventually draw the viewer--and the protagonist, Nagisa--into this charming world.
Nagisa's story centers around her bizarre and tumultuous relationship with the upperclasswoman Shizuma, which reads more like a coy romance novel than a steamy bodice-ripper. Nagisa's uncertainty combines with her roommate's creepy infatuation (and steadfast friendship) to provide plenty of twists and turns from the younger girls' side of the plot; throw in the sempai's "tragic past" and the will-they-won't-they tension carries much of the series. While this narrative suffers a little from its younger lead's amorphous characterization, Shizuma turns out to be interesting enough to support the drama all by herself.
Sadly, the show also tells Hikari's story. Having transferred into St. Spica in the previous year, the blonde waif sings in the choir team with her roommate and best buddy, Yaya, and a younger girl Tsubomi. For some unfathomable reason these two girls dote on the oblivious and meek singer, who falls instead for St. Spica's "Prince" Amane. The juicier events playing out in this academy include school political intrigue, attempted rape, unrequited love, a tennis match, and amnesia. While all of these twists and turns should have made this drama more compelling, the lackluster protagonists hamstring much of the emotional content. Skittish and cowardly, the flaxen-haired lead allows all of this interesting plot to happen to her until the show's very end. Because Hikari refuses to seize her own destiny until the final moment, her ultimate resolution feels more like an intrusion on Nagisa's unresolved drama than the emotional culmination of a standalone love story.
Strawberry Panic!'s visuals suffer heavily from being only passing fair. Adding a touch of much needed believability, Nagisa, Tamao, Hikari and Yaya all look clearly younger than their sempais and obviously older than the featured kouhai characters, which sets the art design apart from many high school series. Of the characters, the main romantic leads deserve special attention. Amane's design emphasizes her "Prince" status. Tall and strong, she looks equally at home in the feminine St. Spica jacket and skirt or astride her white horse in full hero mode. Shizuma, on the other hand, left much to be desired. While the silver hair, gold eyes, and full figure communicate "beauty" adequately, I had trouble reading her bizarre magnetism from her character design. Given that she enthralls Nagisa on sight in their first encounter, the fact that I can't see a glimmer of what the younger girl sees makes it hard for me to buy into their plot line until Shizuma's character traits overcome her inadequate design.
Many of the scenes and characters also lack significant detail. The rich environments and charming school uniforms should provide ample opportunity for beautiful stills at least, but the line work doesn't rise to the occasion. The backgrounds similarly lack definition without achieving the impressionistic aesthetic that makes the static backdrops in series like Nodame Cantabile so attractive. While it's possible that the art design represents a deliberate choice to communicate "ephemeral", the accomplished effect reads more like "cheap".
Aside from one gratuitous moment of English, the voice acting is competent and emotive. Nakahara Mai manages the chipper Nagisa ably, but her usual partner (Mai-HiME, Mai-Otome) Shimizu Ai delivers the better performance as Tamao, owing mostly to her character's rich complexity, which offers more opportunities for subtlety. Yaya and Hikari's voice actors tackle the awkward challenge of pretending to be high school choir singers, each one delivering a solo song in a convincingly amateur manner without offending the ears.
The highlights of Strawberry Panic!'s aural component come from the music, however. The series sports two emotionally epic OPs (my favorite being the first opener, "Shoujo Miero Tsukamaete") paired with two playful ending themes sung by Tamao and Nagisa's seiyuus. While there is some dissonance between the EDs and the dramatic content of the series in the second half, I found that the closing songs added a needed air of levity--the situations are somewhat ridiculous and the series seems to know it. During the episodes, classical themes abound, with piano music punctuating the more important emotional moments, and not without reason. Shizuma and Nagisa share more than one moment at a piano and its mournful strains reflect back into the text of the story itself.
While unimaginative and underdeveloped, the cast's verve and humor carry the show. Supporting the mewling Hikari and princely Amane, the student cast of St. Spica reads like it has been plucked from any standard boarding-school teen novella. Momo and Kaname provide buckets of intrigue and racy fan-service while the St. Spica student council president plots to win the upcoming Etoile election for her school. Their scheming combines with the more delicate machinations and desires of the sexy and outgoing Yaya and her tsundere sidekick, Tsubomi, to round out the complex love polygon that dominates Hikari's storyline.
However, even the strong side characters can't compensate for the weakness of the romantic leads. Amane's regal manner comes across more as wooden than anything else and her infatuation with the doe-eyed singer seems to appear out of nowhere. Hikari, for her part, doesn't offer the viewer any justification for her sempai's affection. The younger girl spends the majority of her time on screen praying, apologizing, or running away from people. While pretty, the younger lead has none of her roommate's sex appeal and looks uncomfortable nearly the entire time. In the end, the viewer has to wonder why the perfectly well-adjusted and attractive Yaya and Tsubomi find her appealing.
In St. Miatre, Shizuma smolders with pent up sexual energy and exudes a kind of imperious grace that hides her vulnerabilities until the series' second half. Likewise, the cheery and gung-ho Nagisa perfectly balances optimism and mischief, complimenting her interaction with the mercurial Shizuma and wily Tamao. The most delightful character in the show, Nagisa's blue-haired best friend swings wildly from supportive companion to chillingly possessive guardian, all while maintaining the same demeanor. Instead of hampering her believability, the moments where she airs out her creepy obsession with the new transfer student give Tamao an endearing emotional honesty that sets her apart from the gaggle of self-denying ladies that comprise the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, this more complex group sees precious little development and the characters end--save for the two leads--in either much the same place they entered or with their own personal issues unresolved.
Despite their tangential relationship to the main plot lines, the cast from St. Le Rim contains the series' dark horse, Chikaru, who acts like a big sister to all of the younger students with whom she interacts. Cute, insightful, and fun, Chikaru provides answers, shoulders to cry on, and costumes (costumes!) on demand, but never upstages the important on-screen action. The remaining girls fill their important comic relief and plot-related roles without trying the viewers' patience. The fact that all of these characters seem to have little history or life outside of school actually plays to the show's benefit; focusing on the events within the school almost exclusively heightens the slightly fantastic air that pervades the series and goes a long way toward casting Astrea Hill as another world. In this context, the casual treatment of lesbian relationships starts to seem less preposterous as the show moves forward.
While not a masterpiece, Strawberry Panic! provides a good deal of humor, drama, and delectable girl-on-girl fan service. As a first foray into the world of shoujo-ai, this show gives the viewer a balanced overview of themes available in the genre and uses its fairly breathless pacing to keep things interesting. The experienced fan will likely find that this series feels a little shorter than other yuri offerings because the story covers a fair amount of ground during its run instead of lingering on each small interpersonal incident. Hikari and Amane nearly ruin Nagisa and Shizuma's interesting little romance, the weak animation makes it hard sometimes to appreciate all of the melodrama on display, and the anime ends in only partial resolution, but overall it manages to rise above its considerable shortcomings. You might want to kill Hikari by the end, but if you enjoy watching girls break other girls' hearts, then you will find this show a pleasant diversion.
On Astraea Hill stand 3 prestigious female-only academies known as St. Miatre, Spica, and LeRim; and though the schools are separate, they share a single campus and dormitory. Nagisa Aoi is a 10th grader who has decided to transfer to St. Miatre's Girls' Academy. Though her transition has been smooth so far, while exploring the campus Aoi inadvertently falls down a hill, sees the beautiful Shimuza, and promptly (not to mention embarrassingly) faints. Nagisa continues to see Shimuza out and about, but soon discovers that she is the "Etoile" -- a well respected girl within all of the schools. With Shizuma taking a liking to the new transfer student Nagisa, secrets of Shizuma's past will unravel over the coming school year.
These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.