A very wise man once said that higher education is like a bubble. While it does exist as part of the world, it is also isolated from it. Due to this isolation and the pressure it feels from the outside world, a unique culture develops. Given long enough, it can evolve into something highly unusual with rules and social norms that would baffle, and perhaps intrigue regular society. One such bubble is Astraea Hill, the fictional location that is home to the Strawberry Panic saga.
Strawberry Panic first started as a series of short stories printed in Dengeki G’s Magazine where the readers would vote in order to influence the story and relationships. It eventually grew popular enough to spawn an anime, manga, video game, and even a trilogy of light novels, written by Sakurako Kimino with illustrations done by Takuminamuchi. The light novels, which do differ from the anime and manga, is what I’ll be reviewing here today.
Although there are many words I would use to describe Strawberry Panic, the first word would be “melodramatic.” Paragraphs shine with a strong sense of seriousness. There is no slang or informal language here; every sentence is structured like a pillar of formality, drawing you in like a flagrant scent. The characters carry with themselves a sense of politeness and events unfold in a grandiose manner. Romantic love and wrenching heart break go side by side with challenges of honor and Machiavellian intrigue. One can’t shake the feeling that they are reading a soap opera.
The second word I would use to describe Strawberry Panic would be “yuri.” That means there is a strong focus pertaining to romantic girl on girl relationships. Being a virgin to the yuri genre, I have no previous experience to compare Strawberry Panic to. It seems that Strawberry Panic was purposefully designed to contain all the aspects of yuri works, to the point of being cliché. Even I was able to point out the yuri staples like the very cute, moé girl, the strong dominant idealized idol, the regular girl next door, and the tomboyish strong type. Despite the fact that I never even encountered a “stop someone leaving through an airport” scene, I imminently winced at how cliched it felt when I came upon it.
Being a yuri title which strides to contain everything in the yuri experience, there is, of course, fanservice. Occasionally, characters will find themselves in the baths, or in bunny girl costumes, or find themselves in the arms of someone else. The romance even takes physical form once or twice throughout the tale. It exists not a main dish but as more of a garnish. While it does happen, it is the drama and emotional relationships that take center stage.
If you decide to sample Strawberry Panic, I recommend you get the omnibus. It contains the entire trilogy of light novels in one larger book, and is the only way to get the third novel. Strawberry Panic is not three separate stories in three different novels, it’s one larger epic broken up into three parts. If you want the full conclusion, get the complete novel collection. While the entire trilogy is over six hundred pages long, the word count isn’t as high as that would suggest due to white space and text size. Even if you hate reading it, you can always enjoy the illustrations that are contained within. Each book starts with three double page pictures showing off life at each school. Each chapter has a small chibi picture at the beginning and a beautiful single page picture further in. They are all a joy to see.
The world of Strawberry Panic is a complex web full of red strings. The story unfolds in the secluded campus known as Astraea Hill. There lies not one, but three, highly prestigious all girls schools that live together as sister, sharing and competing with one another. There’s also a convent of nuns and a church to reinforce the stoic atmosphere. In fact, hymns or prayers are routine here. Lastly, there are the Strawberry dorms, home to many of the young ladies who attend the schools.
The over arching conflict of the entire affair is the Étoile competition. There couples (all female of course) from all three schools face off to garner honor and glory for their schools and themselves. Whichever pairs triumphs over all the others through the six events (which are arranged in three sets of two, like couples) will earn the Étoile title, becoming the shining stars of the campus. To be in such an event is to be thrown into the flames themselves! To win such an event is to be smiled upon by heaven itself!
As there are many blossoms on the sakura tree, there are many sub plots in Strawberry Panic. The main romantic storyline is Nagisa’s relationship with Shizuma. The two struggle to understand and come to terms with Shizuma’s past in order to create a future together. The secondary romantic storyline is between Hikari and Amane. Their foe is the expectations and general disapproval of their relationship placed upon them by their schoolmates. There is also the tale of Makoto Kusanagi, who deals with a past full of loss and tragedy. Despite the strength of their hearts, it could be said that they all are but pawns in the never ending game of one ups(wo)menship between the three schools of Astraea Hill.
If you’re lost among the characters and conflicts like a new transfer student suddenly holding hands with the most popular person at school, don’t feel bad about it. It took me quite a while before I could even sort out which character was which. The story jumps between sixteen distinct ladies, two tumultuous relationships, and at least three unrequited loves. At the beginning, I had to constantly refer to the short character guide to understand who was who. It is difficult at first but you’ll eventually acclimate yourself to the environment.
A different environment is exactly what Strawberry Panic is. When I read it, I feel like I’m baring witness to the mysteries of a fey court or perhaps I’m gazing at a private pillow book? Either way, I feel like I’m visiting a human, yet alien, world full of beauty, elegance, and grace. As if everyone there are actresses in a grand play of life. Strawberry Panic is a story that strives for atmosphere and mood, and does so relentlessly.
Like in any court of intrigue, what we see is only a cover for the truth. Sadly, the reason the school environment is so emotionally intense is that many of the students there feel that their lives after school will be but flickers of the glory that they have now. How sad is it to think that your life is at it’s apex so soon? While Strawberry Panic may seem very serious, it may actually be meant to be taken in a mocking tone or as a homage to all the yuri created before it. No matter why it was created, Strawberry Panic is a portal to another world. One where every action is dramatic, every love is pure, and every girl is a maiden. If you care to step into a new, unfamiliar but grand world, then take the hand of Strawberry Panic and step foreword into the stars.