Strawberry Panic Anime Review
US Release By
Yuri High-School Romance
26 25-minute Episodes
2006-04-03 - 2006-09-25
What's In It
- Flowery Catholic Girls' Schools
- Maria Watches Over Us Ripoffs
- Random French
- Rampant Lesbianism
- Schoolyard Backstabbing
- Tragic Romance
- Womanizing Women
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 2 (moderate)
- Sex: 3 (significant)
- Language: 1 (mild)
Energetic 16-year-old Nagisa Aoi is a new transfer student at the prestigious St. Miator Girl's Academy. She, like the other students, lives in the Astrea dormitory, which is shared by the sister schools of St. Spica and St. LuRim and has been affectionately nicknamed Strawberry due to its triangular shape.
Things never go smoothly for transfer students, though; while Nagisa gets along well with her very affectionate roommate Tamao, the elegant and popular senior Shizuma seems to have taken an interest in her. Not only is Shizuma known as a serial heartbreaker on campus, but she is the Etoile--the elected student representative of the three combined schools. Now Nagisa has to cope with making new friends, Shizuma's advances, the resulting rumors, getting caught up on her French, and skulduggery regarding who will participate in the coming year's Etoile election.
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Given all the Maria Watches Over Us similarities, you have to assume that somebody watched that show and decided to do an all-in yuri romance remake. The result is Strawberry Panic; aside from being so blatantly derivative that it could practically qualify as a parody, and suffering from bargain-basement animation, the series wastes so much time on boring filler and frustratingly glacial, borderline-incoherent character development that it's rather shocking when a handful of episodes--the solid-backstory episode 19 in particular--do something genuinely romantic, or at least interesting. The nail in the coffin is the lack of chemistry in the central couple, which could have compensated for a lot but just isn't there. At least the end is relatively satisfying, and, despite the vague first half, the romance is concrete and quite physical.
Only the most diehard yuri fans are likely to make it past the first few episodes of Strawberry Panic, and those who do stick with it will only be rewarded with the occasional bit of decent romance buried in a mire of bland mediocrity.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Strawberry Panic is a blatant Maria Watches Over Us clone that goes all-in on the yuri romance. Sadly, it suffers from a severe lack of chemistry and muddles through so much boring filler, frustratingly glacial plot, and incoherent character drama that it's outright shocking when, now and then, it does something interesting enough to make me honestly wish that the rest wasn't such a mess.
Theory vs. Execution
The series is supposed to be about Shizuma, a girl suffering from a past tragedy who has become a callous serial heartbreaker to cope, and the possibility that spunky Nagisa, her latest conquest, might be the one to capture her heart and save her from herself.
I say "supposed to" because the first half does such a poor job with foreshadowing and dramatic set-up that it's really not clear what's going on until the show finally comes out with the backstory in the incongruently interesting episode 19, which is the main reason I couldn't write the whole thing off. I could see, in retrospect, what it had been attempting, but the overall narrative is so clumsy that none of it meant anything until it was too late.1
The most fundamental problem, however, is chemistry. Or, rather, lack thereof.
A romance is all about chemistry. With it, the viewer can forgive almost any weakness in the rest of the production. Without it, the viewer just won't feel the story and relationship, no matter how good everything else is.
Shizuma and Nagisa, whose relationship the whole thing is built on, just don't have any chemistry. There's finally a bit of a spark near the end, but that's far too little, way too late. The sappy secondary couple (a more stock pairing of fragile flower Hikari and masculine bifauxnen-type Amane) is slightly better, but they're in the unenviable position of having to compensate for more or less everything else in the series.
Strawberry Panic starts off as flowery, overblown girls' school stuff with overtones of uncomfortable sexuality, then settles down for about ten episodes of what amounts to boring filler as it tries--unsuccessfully--to establish the characters. Near the midpoint it abruptly ratchets up the drama and finally starts getting somewhere interesting, but fails completely to capitalize on that, floundering around in frustratingly slow, poorly realized drama for another half-dozen episodes.
Then, in episode 19, it demonstrates what it could have done. That pure-backstory episode of sweetly tragic yuri romance did more to hook my interest and make me feel something about the characters than the entire series up to that point combined.
The quality difference is startling; the characters' emotions and actions make sense, the plot fits, the romance feels right, and it builds to a tragically romantic crescendo. In only a few minutes it successfully establishes the chemistry between Shizuma and her past flame. It doesn't have to tell you anything--you can feel it from the way they look at and touch each other. They're not just smiling at each other, not just kissing, they're hungry for each other.
Basically, it's everything a broad yuri romance should be, and everything the rest of the series wasn't.2
That, along with the couple other decent episodes, was almost enough to make me retroactively care about the characters, or at least what the series could manage to do with them in the time remaining. The answer being not nearly enough, but to its credit, the climax is unexpectedly--uncharacteristically, really--satisfying.
That's the other thing Strawberry Panic does right; despite the tentative first half, it is actually about romance. Not some vague, untainted yuri concept, but people passionately in love with each other. It's not graphic, but it leaves no question the relationships are physical--there's more offscreen sex than almost any nosebleed romance.
What Went Wrong: Maria-lite
This wildly inconsistent, slow-motion roller-coaster had me pondering how a series that clearly had a story to tell, and some moderately satisfying romance to throw at the viewer, could have gone so wrong.
To start with: Maria Watches Over Us. From the random French titles, to the cute/elegant central pairing, right down to having three student leaders, Strawberry Panic is a blatant, harder-yuri knock-off of Maria with absolutely everything but the romance trimmed away. However, the areas it does things differently partly explain why it turned out so poorly.
Unlike Maria, it has no sense of reality at all--we only leave the campus three times, we see a total of four adults, and not a single male ever appears onscreen. Even the extensive school rituals are designed entirely around the plot--as much Utena as Maria. The focus is impressive, but it leaves the school feeling a bit like a very flowery, very lesbian Lord of the Flies.
This changed focus is a central problem; it's trying to ape something it doesn't want to be.
The first half tries to do the understated, things-left-unspoken drama thing that Maria was built on, but the poor writing, weak characterization, and shoddy animation just can't carry subtlety. It mostly comes across as inscrutable and, frankly, rather boring.
Worse, the meat of the story is about big, emotional, shoujo-manga-style romance--the exact opposite of slice-of-life. That means the attempts to be nuanced fail to set up the big drama later, and once the drama finally kicks in you're left wondering what the show had been doing for the past dozen episodes.
The poor characterization is another glaring issue. The characters' actions in a given episode seem dictated more by what the plot requires than any sort of internal logic. Without any coherent personality past basic stereotypes, there simply isn't a hook for the drama.
It's not the least bit surprising that the show's origins are in a plot-by-popular-vote contest in a geek magazine; a good chunk of the large cast of characters seem to have no point at all apart from filling a fan-slot.3 The rest boil down to the same dynamic: someone has a best friend that wants to be more than friends, but their heart was already taken by someone taller and prettier. It's a decent set-up for a romance, but the show does exactly the same thing with three different pairs just in the central couples (up to five, depending on who and how you count among the secondary cast). It seems particularly redundant since all but the villains turn out the same.
The final glaring problem that I'll bother to note is the incredibly ham-handed dramatic twists. The worst is an incident of random selective amnesia so ridiculous and contrived, even by shoujo standards, that it had me smacking my forehead at the screen. That it was introduced and resolved in the last few episodes for no reason other than to provide a cheap-thrill romantic-re-commitment made me wonder what kind of incompetent was at the helm.
Speaking of which, the series has a split personality. The first half seems targeted, apparently, at preteen girls; that's about the level of characterization and quality. The second half, however, ratchets up the sexuality into the teenage range, except for some drama so ridiculous that it barely qualifies for a grade-school shoujo manga. By the end I really had no idea who was supposed to be watching this mess.4
Budget? What Budget?
The visuals suffer from a low budget, and do nothing to mitigate it. The character animation (which is to say all of the animation) is the worst; with the rarest exception it's passible at best and usually stiff and awkward. The backgrounds are mostly nondescript, with only the occasional pretty sunset or tree to break the monotony of bland dorms and generic school-grounds. At least the character designs are distinctive, though even there the art is markedly inconsistent.5
The music is, surprisingly, the exact opposite. The background score, composed mostly of simple, classical piano riffs, is a perfect fit for the setting, and doesn't feel cheap or underpowered. The openings and endings are also considerably more successful at setting the mood than the series itself manages to be. The two agressive, high-energy openings make for a dramatic kick-off (particularly the darker second-season one), and the accompanying visuals are rather edgier than the series itself usually manages to be. The endings, sung by Ai Shimizu and Mai Nakahara (who voice the protagonist and her roommate), are standard anime J-pop of decent quality, but are accompanied by sapphic, eyebrow-raising live-action music videos featuring the two singer/actresses.
Must Have Spent The Money On The Actors
Speaking of actresses, based on the relatively big names I can only assume that's where the entire budget went. The halting directing and lame script hamstring the cast, but they do about as well as you could hope, and deserve most of the credit that the drama works as well as it does.
Mai Nakahara as Nagisa and the similar-sounding Ai Shimizu as roommate Tamao are as energetically colorful as you'd expect from the two veterans. Nakahara has the most drama to work with, and does a solid if not spectacular job with it. Hitomi Nabatame's smooth, lower-pitched voice is a good fit for the charismatic Shizuma, and she does well with the drama, illogical though it often is. The secondary couple, Hikari and Amane, are voiced capably if with no particularly original flavor by fragile-sounding Miyu Matsuki and husky-voiced Yuko Kaida. The two villains, Kaname and Momomi, also have suitably over-the-top performances courtesy Sayaka Kinoshita and Saori Goto.
The standouts in the cast, in that they give the least-stereotyped and most-believable performances, are Natsuko Kuwatani as Hikari's roommate Yaya, who does a good job capturing the character's torn feelings about Hikari; and Junko Noda, who gives an even performance as Miyuki, Shizuma's roommate and best friend.
Strawberry Panic is one of those series that if you watched a carefully selected few episodes, you could be left thinking it was a budget-constrained but passably interesting hard-yuri romance. And if you watched the rest of the series without those few, you'd almost certainly think it was a poorly written, illogical, cheesy mess that can't decide if it wants to be a fanboy-pandering Maria Watches Over Us ripoff or a grade-school shoujo romance with no men. Taken as a whole I can't write the series off as a complete waste of time, but it does so much wrong and wastes so much time it's hard to recommend to anyone but the most diehard yuri fan.
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Obviously Maria Watches Over Us is the first series that comes to mind on account of the setup and setting, but the emotional content and quality are so different that neither is necessarily recommended for fans of the other. Kashimashi Girl Meets Girl is another presumably male-targeted yuri series with a very different premise and not much more quality. The arty, over-the-top yuri parody Maria+Holic is also worth mentioning for having a similar setting, about as much realism, and a lot more reasons to watch.
Notes and Trivia
Strawberry Panic! started life as a series of stories by Sakurako Kimino with art by Chitose Maki published in the geek-centric dating-sim-fan magazine Dengeki G's Magazine. Which girls ended up with each other in various installments was based on the results of a reader vote in the previous issue.
Those short stories were successful enough that a two-volume manga adaptation and three full-length light novels were produced (both also written by Kimino and illustrated by Namuchi Takumi), as well as this TV series and, appropriately, a PS2 visual novel. The novels and manga are, somewhat surprisingly, available in English (each as a fat single-volume omnibus) from Seven Seas Entertainment.
While the characters are mostly the same across the various different media, the plots are more or less unrelated. Note, also, that while most incarnations include an exclamation point in the title (which was written in English even in the original Japanese releases), the title of the anime does not.
Etoile means "star" in French. There is, in case you couldn't have guessed, no actual Saint Miator, Spica, or LuRim.
Yuri, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to anime and manga with female-female romantic relationships. Strawberry Panic falls at pretty much the hardest mainstream end of the spectrum, with a number of unambiguously sexual relationships and, indeed, not a single male ever appearing. For those curious, there's never any use of the word "lesbian" or any social issues past the briefest mention of an arranged marriage.
Footnote 1: A perfect example would be the empty room; you got that they were trying to imply something with Nagisa opening the window, but the action carries no weight when it actually happens. I'm pretty sure the whole series would be better if you watched episode 19 first; the lack of quality in the rest would be frustrating, but at least you would get the characters, and the hints would make sense and feel more significant.
Footnote 2: You could actually just watch this single episode and walk away satisfied; being almost entirely backstory, you don't really need to know anything to understand it, and the story is self-contained.
Footnote 3: The most shameful is an unsociable younger girl whose entire role is to show up as part of a group, make some ridiculously forced "I only did something nice by coincidence" comment, and walk off. She felt like an afterthought to add a tsundere bullet-point to the characters list.
Footnote 4: For lack of anything better to do, during the particularly boring bits in the first half I started reading beneath the lines in the plot as well as between them, in an effort to deconstruct the symbolism and unintentional messages. If you're curious, the most interesting things I came up with:
Most notable is the inconsistent, and presumably unintentional, framing of sex. Through the entire first half, sex is treated, quite clearly, as bad; the attempted kisses seem inappropriate, the villains are the only ones in a physical relationship (and doing something sexual whenever plotting on top of it), and sex is used almost exclusively as a weapon, either explicitly or implicitly. This is completely reversed in the final quarter, when sex suddenly becomes the ultimate consummation of a romantic relationship. This is a huge improvement, to be sure, but seemed like an inexplicable reversal.
The series tries to do some stuff with visual symbolism to varying degrees of success. There's the Etoile election as a symbolic wedding, which works initially (particularly in episode 19) but by the end has been carried to absurdity.
Better is the red ribbon--a literal red string of fate--that Tamao ties around Nagisa as a symbol of possession; it cleverly has Shizuma then put a red dress on her, one-upping the ownership. It unfortunately then mixes its own metaphor when it puts Yaya in a striking red top while making an inappropriate advance, which in that case seemed only to be an attempt to make her look uncomfortably worldly. It also blew the in-context symbolism of that specific dress by not showing us whose it was (or at least foreshadowing it as significant) until well after the fact.
The one other successful visual bit is when it pushes the main relationship from vague to quite physical. After bending over backwards (almost literally) to set up a fancy first-kiss image, it gives the characters an excuse to take a shower (separately) and put on something other than a uniform. Combined with the small dorm rooms, this sets up a familiar visual parallel with the pre-coital ritual at a love hotel. It also, of course, more closely aligns with the sex-as-bad theme, although it does sell why Nagisa would be uncomfortable with the speed at which things are suddenly progressing.
Footnote 5: The artists could probably use anatomy lessons, too--one of the artful nude tableaux that follows each (offscreen) coupling is so ridiculously contorted it's more funny than romantic.
US DVD Review
Animeworks' DVDs are pretty basic; they include Japanese stereo audio, acceptable-quality (if unimpressive) non-widescreen video, a soft subtitle track, and creditless openings and endings. That's it--not even an English dub.
The original release of five individual discs was later repackaged as a very cheap 5-disc Complete Series set crammed into a shelf-space-friendly single-width case with nice cover art. That set got an "Animeworks Classic" re-release in mid-2012 with an even-lower price tag.
Qualifies for a 16-up rating based on non-explicit sex, attempted sexual violence, and some nudity.
Violence: 2 - Physically limited to some shoving, but the shoving is part of (quickly thwarted) attempted rape.
Nudity: 2 - Sporadic bits of undetailed nudity.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - While never graphic or drawn-out, late in the series there is a variety of clothed fondling, offscreen sex, artfully arranged nude cuddling, and some attempted sexual violence.
Language: 1 - Mild profanity here and there.