I thought recently that I would take the time to review some older anime (as I am currently watching Ranma 1/2 during its new Blu-Ray re-release) and went through a collection of things I may have…borrowed…from the internet at a younger age. One such example was Strawberry Panic, a 2006 anime which was born from a series of manga and light novels (short, illustrated novels, aimed at middle and high schoolers.)
In short, Strawberry Panic, an anime from 2006, is about the emotional aspects of student relationships at an all-girl’s school, primarily their friendships and romances. And by romances, I mean with each other, because every single character is a lesbian.
If you’re a well-versed anime fan, you probably didn’t bat an eye at that last statement. If not, you may be disinterested, or possibly even offended. If so, go ahead and press that back button and read something else; I won’t be mad.
Now, American media, literature, movies, and TV shows, don’t at all shy away from teenage relationships, or even underage sex. But the premise here is, perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, but the sexual orientation of the characters is never questioned or even mentioned; it’s the de facto orientation, the status quo. Perhaps some are bisexual, or non-main characters straight, but it’s never mentioned, or even hinted at.
Perhaps it’s a take on how modern society assumes straight is “normal”!? No, no, I don’t think Strawberry Panic is meant to be that deep. But hey, if that’s what you see…
There is in fact not a single male character, although parents are referenced and in a couple episodes, the students are putting on a play of Carmen, and do mention and portray the male characters (at least one is shown, but as a simplified drawing with no eyes.) One of the main characters is mentioned as being betrothed in an arranged marriage since birth; it’s assumed that this is with a male, as that is usually the way of those things, but it’s never actually explicitly stated.
The thing that might make one squeamy, and understandably so, is that, this being about the romances of young girls, and also being anime, is there still…gulp…fanservice?
Yes. There is. But it’s honestly not that plentiful, and incredibly tame compared to practically every other instance I’ve seen.
There’s not much lingering for one on any given shot that could be construed as “fanservice.” Any nudity is usually implied, and when it’s actual nudity, none of the “naughty bits” are shown. There are a few times when it’s clear that the characters are going to have sex, but the scene changes as soon as we know. There isn’t even really any making out, just the occasional kiss. The only real lingering shots are on the character’s faces, especially with note to their eyes. Basically, the show tells you “this is about to happen,” and then changes the scene immediately. It’s dancing on the razor’s edge, but I think it does it well and I was never offended.
The series acknowledges the sexual aspect of their relationships, but focuses on the emotional aspects. (Of course, there is that beach episode that every anime has to have, but at least the main character had an important revelation.)
As an elaboration on the basic plot, it involves the interaction between students at three closely-related schools, St. Miator’s, St. Spica’s, and St. Lulim’s. Much of this interaction happens at the schools’ shared housing, so named Strawberry Dorms because of their overhead appearance as a rounded red triangle. The interactions are fairly complex: they include friendship, rivalry, and romance, but also deal with unrequited love, obsessive hatred, competition, ambitions (both social and personal), and great personal loss. The fact that this story is told using just over a dozen characters, most of which have very distinct and well-developed personalities lends credence to its goal as being a legitimate exploration of a unique environment.
The story revolves around Nagisa Aoi, a third-year transfer student (think like Harry Potter years, not grades) starting her term at St. Miator’s. She rooms with Tamao Suzumi, who is immediately smitten with Nagisa’s looks and impulsive, free-spirited personality. She plays it kind of heavy in the beginning but calms down considerably. The two quickly become best friends, but form the first part of the series’ love triangles.
Very early on, Nagisa catches the eye of Shizuma Hanazono, an important and well-respected woman on campus, and at first, Nagisa, clearly enamored of her, is nonetheless anxious of her. Shizuma’s aloofness and idle interest in other girls makes it quite some time before the two women start communicating, and even longer before they start opening up to each other. This is due to Nagisa’s youth, and Shizuma’s totally sad past that I totally won’t spoil unless you hover here.
Nagisa and Tamao make good friends with several other young women and many of them are caught up in their own love triangles. Hikari Konohona is a quiet, reserved girl at St. Spica and is drawn to Amane Ohtori, whom she sees first as “an angel.” Amane, the star and “Prince” of Spica, is drawn to Hikari’s “voice of an angel.” Yaya Nanto is a loud, boisterous, but depressed girl; Hikari’s roommate, best friend, protector, and victim of unrequited love to Hikari. Chikaru Minamoto of St. Lulim’s is a happy youth who does her best to help everyone she can.
Kaname Kenjo and Momomi Kiyashiki are the closest the series has to villains, although the only action they are trying to take is to bring down Amane, who Kaname feels she has always lost to. However, the means they take are often horrible and usually involve Hikari, who is portrayed as excessively innocent and thus brutally victimized by them. Incidentally, Kaname and Momomi are the only couple regularly shown about to have sex. Given the way the other relationships are portrayed, I imagine that this is to show that their emotional relationship is stunted.
There are several other characters but these seem to be the most important, other than Miyuki Rokujo, student council president and aide to Shizuma’s status as Etoile, a student-elected position that’s held in higher esteem than student council. While it’s never explained what exactly her responsibilities are outside of tending to the greenhouse and presiding over council meetings, it apparently involves a lot of paperwork. They have a complex relationship as long-time friends, with a difficult working relationship, and a connection through a shared tragedy that I may have mentioned, as well as Miyuki’s impending arranged marriage.
The series culminates with…well, you can probably guess, but I’m not going to tell you.
As far as I can tell, there is no English dub, and though there is an official sub, I haven’t seen it. The Doremi fan sub is quite good, however, and leaves in the honoriffic suffixes to the character’s names. With this many different years of students, student council, and the Etoile position, the -chans, -sans, and -samas really help define how the characters perceive one another, socially, something that would be completely lost in an English language dub.
It took me a few episodes to get into it, but in the end I admit I really enjoyed it. It was certainly something different. It is somewhat childish at times, though. Whenever a relationship is confirmed in public, there’s a crowd of girls to swoon and cheer, and some of the character’s small voices will either fill you with adoration or irritation. The setups are too obvious at times. There is a lot of crying, but given the amount of heartbreak, it’s usually warranted. I don’t really hold any of these things against it, however.
There are a lot of slow scenery shots with piano accompaniment. They are clearly to set up mood, but sometimes I felt they were used too much or used excessively. For atmosphere, though, it definitely works. This is a show where certain plot elements move VERY SLOWLY (although, that seems to be the point,) so building atmosphere does raise the stakes and heighten interest in what’s going to happen next.
There really aren’t that many outright jokes, but the ones there are, are usually pretty good. My favorite visual gag is when Chiyo Tsukidate randomly strikes her head VERY HARD against a table. Chikaru’s various clubs are quite amusing as well, as are many of the girls’ antics in general.
The character design was mostly appealing to me. It reminds me of the work Clamp did on Code Geass—tall, thin, lithe bodies, far-too-thin-legs (unfortunately)—but thankfully, minus that series’ exaggerated bust lines. Every effort was made to make the characters (except Amane and Kaname) intensely feminine, and great care was given to make each face distinct. Perhaps the most attention was to the character’s eyes; each character’s are different, very emotive, and they’re often used to show rather than tell emotional and mental states. Overall, the art and animation are very well done, especially in consistency, although Nagisa, Yaya, and Hikari seem to be…rather more developed in…certain scenes.
In the end, I found the series adorable, a bit provocative (emotionally as well as visually,) and interesting in its presumed environment. It could have come off as lecherous, but it didn’t, in my opinion. The viewer need never question the premise, because the characters never do. I don’t know if any of the friendships or relationships are grounded in fact because I happen to have never been a woman OR a lesbian, but I think speculative fiction can have its place outside just the love of a concept. It can, perhaps, help us view a human issue from a new perspective. I won’t say that Strawberry Panic was ever intended with such a grandiose vision, but some may see something there. I also won’t say the show is for everyone, far from it; but I liked it well enough.