Strawberry Panic

Strawberry Panic

Astrea Academy is one of the premier all girl’s schools in Japan. It encompasses three separate establishments; Miator, Spica and Lulim. Each is famous in its own right as an excellent school and each seeks to embody specific attributes in the enrolled students. Despite the serene public appearance schools, tensions  bubble away just beneath the surface. There is a fierce rivalry between Miator and Spica, and while Lulim seems content to sit on the sidelines, the head of their council is not adverse to meddling in the affairs of the other two. The central plot arc of the trilogy centres on an annual, highly coveted tradition known as the Etoile competition. This involves the selection of a couple who is thought to best represent the three schools.

Nagisa Aoi is a transfer student who has just begun at Miator, the oldest and most traditional of the schools. In almost no time at all, she catches the eye of Shizuma – an older, seductive student who wastes little time in beginning a pursuit of the new student. Shizuma is a former victor of the Etoile competition and re-enters alongside Nagisa. Several other students also apply for the competition and the competition becomes a heated conflict between the three student councils who do not see eye to eye on many issues. Nagisa soon finds herself at the centre of a love-triangle involved Shizuma and her room-mate Tamako, while fellow Etoile competition member Hikari is pursued by both her requited love interest Amane and her room-mate. Who will become the next Etoile and how involved will the couples get?

The summary is a little short as there isn’t actually that much plot in the Strawberry Panic light novels. They are light, quick reads and basically boil down to a slightly trashy soap-opera set in an all girl’s school. And where there are soap-operas there are relationships and there are a lot of them here – with different characters taking them to varying grades of seriousness. Some students have arranged marriages awaiting them after school and a few others are completely opposed to men in any way, though in the end, the entire school seems to have Sapphic tendencies. The novel is more concerned with these relationships than any kind of complicated plotting; the storyline is thin and stretched in places by improbable coincidences, communication breakdowns, master-class political manipulation and unexpectedly easy air travel between Russia and Japan.

There are some seemingly blatant influences on Strawberry Panic; it would be a surprise to find that Maria-sama ga Miteru (aka Maria Watches Over Us for the anime in the US) was not one of them. Not least is the setting (for Miator at least) of a Catholic school, the reliance on tradition and the focus on the student councils for a good proportion of the cast. But where MariMite (to use its familiar short-hand) was an industrial grade subtext with one canonical relationship, Strawberry Panic goes all out on its yuri tendencies and applies them to essentially the entire cast. An early trip to the shared library of the schools reveals that it’s a popular spot for couples to hide in between the shelves; the deep shadows giving them little fear of being disturbed. Shizuma is introduced during a break up with a former partner one girl (and possibly sleeping with her as well) before she bumps into Nagisa and takes an immediate interest in her. Amane’s and Hikari’s feelings towards each other leave barely room for interpretation; especially given one sequence with very heavy inference/a touch more mature scene than might be expected given the rest of the text. Tamako and Yaya are both very touchy feely with their respective room-mates.

On the one hand, that the light novel is so honest is kind of refreshing – like Sasameki Koto and Sweet Blue Flowers it has absolutely no qualms about being up front and honest about the central relationship. There is no question here that Shizuma/Nagisa and Amane/Hikari are not intensely involved; somewhat in contrast to the older yuri classics. As wonderful as Utena or MariMite are, they remain for the most part restricted to subtext for the relationships (heavy, heavy subtext, but still not definitive – with the exception of the canonical lesbian characters who don’t wind up with anyone). On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that this is a school set soap-opera with characters who take the competition bewilderingly seriously. There are attempts to back-stab, rules to stop anyone approaching Amane whom the majority regard as a Prince (Amane is not traditionally feminine), but at the same time try to prevent her from getting close to Hikari (Amane sensibly has no time for any of it). And the heavy political manoeuvring is hard to ignore as somewhat out of place – not least when a student can easily return from Russia at a critical juncture on the basis of one letter (okay; so the families are almost all rich, but really).

Somewhat frustratingly as central as the relationship between Shizuma and Nagisa is, it feels a little off; the older student trying repeatedly to seduce the younger, the younger not quite comfortable with the situation she was wound up in. Some of this does relate to Nagisa’s feelings of inferiority, but Shizuma is still pushing for a relationship Nagisa seems not quite ready for. She copes somewhat better in novel form than in the anime where she faints near every-time she even looks into Shizuma’s eyes (a common occurrence in the anime). Shizuma has a tragic back-story which is less significant here than in the anime; the novel taking pains to eventually paint it as more platonic arrangement than the situation with Nagisa.

Amane and Hikari’s is less problematic; Amane is cautious and exploratory having not bothered with the relationships before, while Hikari winds up a lot like Nagisa; so much is centred around the feeling of inferiority/unworthiness. Their development is more effective as it feels more natural and there’s less of a feeling of pursuit from Amane: it’s much more mutual. However, unlike Tamako, Yaya actively tries to seduce Hikari repeatedly – despite Hikari’s lack of interest/discomfort. There was a somewhat worrying implication when Yaya succeeds to some degree, given Hikari doesn’t seem to quite understand what happened. She eventually dismissed any implications as friendly gesture (because friends often wind up in the pool in their pajamas which are soon removed/there’s a lot of touching).

One of the biggest objections I have to level at the light novel is the meandering nature of the narrative. A lot of this is likely due to its original serialization and at the time there was a vote system for choosing where the story went next, which goes some way to explain the lurching plot development and occasional out of the introductions. It might be the original form, but a rewrite might have helped to focus the narrative. By contrast the anime is in many ways the superior version since a lot of the story is pruned, changed and stream-lined to a more traditional story structure. On the other hand it also included the evil lesbian couple and an exceptionally annoying amnesia plot arc. (For completeness, the manga version is very close to the light novel, though the manga comes screeching to a halt at about the half-way mark of the novel’s page count).

The translation seems effective enough, but it is impossible to ignore the massive amounts of repetition. A lot of this is almost certainly a result of its serialisation, but it still becomes very wearing to repeatedly learn the nature of the three schools, why the Strawberry dorms is so called and why no one is allowed into the connecting corridors for the most part. One quirk not found in the Haruhi novels is a lot of onomatopoeia. This, like the rest of the text, has been translated into English. And just like rendering “Zuru zuru zuru” as “Dilly dally, shilly shally” for Advent Children, doing this for actual sound effects just reads strangely. The translators have tried to choose appropriate words, but the effect does not work in the same way in English or at least it’s not something often run across.

Strawberry Panic is not one of the better light novels. It is of interest for making no bones about its lesbian content and the relationships at the various schools. It’s hard not to imagine it as a response to MariMite‘s acres of subtext and minimal text; elevating all the subtext and letting the relationships crash into each other. But in that light, MariMite had better characters, more focus and a lot more restraint. It’s plot wasn’t hugely more complex, but even the seriousness of the student council had something approaching limits unlike the political squabbling Strawberry Panic describes (at least the council are less frustratingly important/obnoxious contrasted to the Kujibiki Unbalance (from the somewhat disappointing anime, not the wonderful OVA episodes) group). The novel is fun enough despite some slightly dubious moments and some concern over the relationships, but can be frustrating to read in long chunks. If the story really does intrigue, the anime would be the better bet – though is in the end an alternate version of the story given the wholesale changes between the two.

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  1. Trackback: News: Light Novel Articles (February 2015) | English Light Novels

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