Nagisa Aoi is a new transfer student into one of the three prestigious all-girls Catholic high schools on Astraea Hill: a school called St. Miator (the other two are St. Spica and St. Lelim (known in the anime as Le Rim, for some reason). While getting totally lost on her first day, she stumbles into a clearing with a tree, and also into a girl with long silver hair. Nagisa is immediately smitten with the girl, Shizuma Hanazono, otherwise known as the Etoile of the three schools (the most idolized girl). Shizuma, after picking up a figurine dropped by Nagisa, kisses her on the forehead, leading to Nagisa fainting. After waking up in the school's infirmary, Nagisa then meets her new roommate, Tamao Suzumi. Things, however, will be getting a lot more complicated for the new student than just that.
Some shows have names that have great numbers of fans and just as great a number of people wondering what the big deal is. Strawberry Panic! is so thoroughly in that class it's hard to not imagine it sitting at the head of the class. And honestly, for the most part, I'm sitting in the latter. It's like getting a new Bentley from the dealership and finding out it has a moped engine instead of a V8: it is quite the looker, and it has decent packages, but the uniting principle (the yuri) is absolutely unoriginal and the car often fails because of it.
It's unoriginal because it's well known for copying several of the same premises and ideas as other series, nearly all of which better liked than it. It runs through the list of traits (the characters are cliche, the plot gets ridiculous, and the drama is lifted from elsewhere), and only allows breathing room every now and then. While most of it is stereotype, it is wrong to say there was nothing about the show I didn't like.
For instance, I do admit I like the music. The two openings are fairly decent, as is the first ending, which features a live-action video rather than an animated clip. The second ending, however, SERIOUSLY needs reconsideration: on one hand, it's OK to have a poppy little song as an ending (which also has a live action video), but having it on the latter half of the show - during a time when some of the endings include a character falling on her head after a mishap on a horse and another being Nagisa crying - it can easily cause whiplash due to how unexpected it is for the mood. The middle-of-the-show soundtrack is also decent, mostly being a mix of simple songs and more anime-esque songs. Imagine going from a piano or choir song to a brief anime song like the ones you hear on other school anime, and you'll know what I'm talking about. While not harming the mood of the show, there are some points where the music just doesn't jive as well as it should with the scenes.
It's also wrong to say the art is bad. While there are times when the artist makes a real headscratcher of a decision (submit for example the fact that, apparently, a tilted shot needs to have the art stretched) and the art sometimes loses proportion between scenes involving the same characters, there's really not much bad about it. The colors are great, the characters are decent, and the school uniforms (there are at least six in the show's run, seven if you include Nagisa's sailor fuku in the first episode), as unlikely as some of them are (MIATOR!) are well portrayed. It's not sore on the eyes with animation either, even though this is more of a hit or miss depending on scenes. Some of the scenes are decently animated, and some of them are fairly low-animation.
But all the decent things start to go wrong when you look at the characters, who although given individual personalities and decent voice actresses, play like similar cogs in a machine. Nagisa's the naive and adorable girl, Tamao's the overjoyed fangirl (it takes quite the personality to record a scream from your crush and view it as a treasure. I wonder what Tomoyo from Card Captor Sakura thinks of that), Shizuma's the obligatory dark, yet well talented idol of the schools, and this is just among the top three. At Miator, we also get the best friend of the dark Shizuma (Miyuki), the little sister figure (Chiyo-chan...no, seriously, that's her name at the school), the strict matron head (Sister Mizue), and the secret figure from the past (Kaori). Spica also doesn't let us down, as it contributes a "prince" (Amane Ohtori, whose last name has to be deliberate), the princess to the prince (Hikari), the princess's best friend (Yaya), and a student council headed by a particularly wayward pair (Momomi and Kaname, the "dark Amane") and Shion. The final contribution to the bunch is the almost needless Tsubomi (I say almost needless because she rarely shows up alone, doesn't really do much for the plot, and only seems to show up to remind us that she's a tsundere). Ironically, it's the school with the least presence in the grand scheme of things (Le Rim) that provides the most memorable non-relationship character: Chikaru (who seems to have a few screws loose, but is still helpful). The other three common Le Rim schoolgirls are Kizuna and Remon (who show up in the same scene so often that I would actually have a hard time remembering who is who) and Kagome (who carries a teddy bear named Percival around, and seems a bit out-there).
Now as boggling as that full list looks, can I point out this is actually a bit of an abridged list? There are other characters, yet not only do they look to not have much significance, the show actually seems to forget them too. For instance, there's a pair of Miator students who actually lose all relevant plot after a fight mid-season, and when I saw them in the last episode, I almost asked "Who are they?". Mizue is the most notable of these: after a few appearances, she only moves through the show as a trivia add-on (it's not good when the reaction I have to her coming on is "I remember you!"). The mains from that list for the majority of the episodes are Nagisa, Tamao, Chiyo, Shizuma, and Miyuki from Miator, Hikari, Yaya, and Tsubomi from Spica, and Chikaru from Le Rim (although she is really not that commonly seen) and then on some episodes it switches focus onto Hikari, Amane, and Yaya. It's rare for another character to take the spotlight, though its usually for a good reason. For instance, later episodes focus on the aforementioned Kaori and her relation to Shizuma and Miyuki. It's given in a full-episode flashback, and it does serve a point.
But having a point really doesn't help a whole lot. The plot is quite a bit creaky, making contrivances (Shizuma is interrupted nearly every time she tries to kiss Nagisa in the beginning), ridiculous events (Kaname trying to convince Hikari to not see Amane, despite this usually involving holding her up from going to see or do something involving Amane), and some backstory (the whole Kaori plot). As a yuri show, it didn't look like it was trying to break new ground, and truth be told, I doubt it was trying to, using the blunt end of the knife in the writing department (it uses several not-very-good ideas like stalkers, immediate intimacy, and other things that make it feel a bit forced). The thing is, when the show isn't trying to run with the premise and is just having the drama take a back seat, the show actually does seem to become a bit of fun. Not high-grade A stuff, but a bit of a guilty pleasure. The characters become a bit more affiable, the stories are a bit easier to buy into, and so forth. That sort of thing happens quite a lot, honestly.
And therein lies the conundrum: the show is not a good yuri (it's too cliche to be one), yet for as bad as that aspect is (and make no mistake, it's bad to a point where a one-star makes sense, given this aspect lead to both the plot and the characters), the things like the music, art, and some of the episodes actually make me feel like my time hasn't been wasted. I admit: I had fun, yet when I come back down to Earth, the reality is that the uniting purpose of the anime is seriously flawed, so the question is how badly does the purpose fail the things that I liked?
Perhaps a better question: I've already dealt with a Kimino work before (Baby Princess), and I gave it the lowest rating possible. Do I think Strawberry Panic! was as bad as that one? The answer is an honest no: SP has more character development, decent music, some enjoyable moments and a premise, despite being fairly unoriginal. And in the end, those things stall this anime from the final step down the stairs.
The few good things in this anime save it from the final chop. It's not a fully bad anime, but its clunky premise does make sure that it never goes beyond a two. — Jake L Godek
Recommended Audience: Let's see...it's a yuri show that has implied sex and fanservice. People over the age of 13 would be good for this show.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Strawberry Panic! © 2006
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