Reviewby Lissa Pattillo,
Strawberry Panic [Omnibus]
Three private schools for girls sit atop Astraea Hill and all of them are known for their open female affections amidst the student body. Nagisa Aoi is a new student at one of the three schools, St. Miator Girls' Academy, and she quickly catches the eye of the school's most revered figure, the beautiful Shizuma Hanazono. There's more to Shizuma than just a pretty face however and Nagisa finds herself caught up in the past and present of her new sempai. Soon the schools become wrapped up in their traditional competition, where chosen couples from each school compete to prove their love through a series of tests and claim the Etoile crowns.
Strawberry Panic! feels like one cliche built on atop another which almost gives it the effect of being a parody of the very genre it personifies. An all girls' school (three no less), transfer students, a angsty past lover felled by an unnamed disease, rival foreigners, not to mention finding reason to have characters race to their damsel's rescue on horseback – it seems a bit choppy in how it hops from one 'see what we did there?' moment to another. The story relies heavily on these circumstantial events to keep itself interesting and readers looking for romance holding any actual substance would do best to look elsewhere. Still, there's at least a little more to Strawberry Panic! than a collection of pretty faces.
The relationship between Nagia and Shizuma rules centre-stage for most of the book as Shizuma takes an immediate liking to the smaller, more absent-minded girl right away. There really isn't much more to their interaction past this – Shizuma likes her and Nagisa is too confused or flustered to give much thought past it. Nagisa is given a brief tour of the school and befriended by a few other girls who can be paired into two groups – those with a crush on her or those who have a crush on Shizuma. The two make for perfect candidates for the upcoming Etoile competition as the unlikely duo that everyone questions yet most assume will win because that's how these stories go.
Other couples, and subsequent adversaries, in the book are Amane and Hikari from the St. Spica Girls' Institute school, and the considerably less relevant couple from St. Lulim's Girls' School . The relationship between Amane and Hikari is the most touching of the series as they two have actually had feelings for one another prior to the events of this series starting. Their shyness around each other feels considerably more genuine and sweet then Shizuma's love-at-first-sight or for-sake-of-winning that bolsters other competitors' affections. Flashes to Shizuma's past partner, and her untimely end, attempts to strike some chords of sympathy for her though it doesn't do much to distract from the young women's otherwise seductively-unnerving personality.
Seven Seas' adaptation of the book does a great job playing with the fun parts of the story. Their use of bolds and italics to draw attention to particular words is done to great effect. Sometimes it emphasizes the emotional delivery of a line, other times it sprinkles in some cheeky wit or adds a dash of perversity. Paying attention to these decisions on the lettering adds considerably to the experience and makes it that much more amusing without going overboard.
Characters meeting, greeting and flirting soon gets moved to the wayside however as the story leaps headlong into the Etoile competition – an event held between the three affiliated schools where specially selected couples are chosen to represent their school and perform in competitions designed to test their love for one another. The exact measure of their success isn't completely clear but the squealing of an audience of fangirls seems at least partially indicative.
As one would hope and expect of a series about beautiful girls attending a prestigious school together, the art of this manga adaptation is fantastic. Every single character is cute or gorgeous in their own way with flowing tresses, shining eyes and lively expressions, whether they're blushing in embarrassment or leaning down to deliver a sultry stare. Individual designs of each girl are distinctive which is useful in any series that takes place in an environment with matching uniforms and a large cast.
Though predominantly fluff and cheese-factor in nature, Strawberry Panic! does deliver some moments more risque than some may expect. Some of these scenes go a little absurdly far, such as a library described as a destination for feeling up your beloved. Others however, such as Shizuma's provocative strokes down Nagisa's neck with accompanying coos, are as much tantalizing teases for readers as they are for the characters. These scenes can be a bit surprising for some and a little disappointing for others, depending on what you're expecting going in.
That said, while it's nice having a story completely focused on open female affection, emotional and physical, the complete lack of men in either presence or mention does take away from the effect just a tad. It comes across that these girls are this close purely in habitual absence of men, not in choice over or overwhelming affection for an individual in particular. Where's the hesitation, the suspense, the sprinkling of taboo? While this isn't to say the story needs male characters to fill this purpose, the lack of believability of having every girl pining over one another still feels rather empty despite the pleasantries of an all-accepting social culture.
Regrettably the book's greatest failing is that it simply doesn't end. The manga version of the series was canceled during its initial run so while Seven Seas is fairly accurate in calling this the complete edition, it still ends on a abrupt note that falls directly in the middle of the story. The rest of the plot can be seen in the light novels, which Seven Seas also publishes in English, but it would've been nice having some indication on the packaging that this is the start of a story, not the entire thing, if only to lessen the blow just a little. Adding to the teasing effect of the story's steamier interactions, the book ends just before they begin a competition that sees rivals send temptresses to seduce other players.
Strawberry Panic! succeeds at offering a fanservicey story of girls' love with a bevy of tropes in tow. Sure the story's shallow, but it compensates pretty well with pleasing artwork, heavy dramatics and shining-knight action to make it a frilly box of fun all the same. There's no doubt that the unresolved ending and lack of actual substantial romance will leave some readers cold but there's still something to be said for a collection of cliches written well enough to work as nicely as this does.
Overall : B
Story : C
Art : A-
+ Polished, attractive artwork and some sweet and spicy exchanges sprinkled amidst lively antics of an all-female cast; complete series in one value package
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