Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 4th 2008
Strawberry Panic!: Third Wheel
The temperature isn't the only thing getting hotter as summer break comes and goes in Strawberry Hall, temporarily separating some potential couples while bringing others closer together. As the fall term begins the politicking amongst Spica council members over who will be next year's Étoile progresses in earnest, with lovers and co-conspirators Momomi and Kaname once again trying to interfere in Amane and Hikari's budding relationship and later attempting to manipulate the casting and performance of “Carmen,” the play the students of Strawberry Hall will put on for the upcoming school festival. Indirectly egged on by the conniving duo, another girl makes a too-bold move over unrequited love, which temporarily drives a wedge between two good friends that Nagisa and Tamao seek to remove.
Poor, sweet Hikari. All she wants to do is hang out with the tomboy of her dreams, and yet she has other girls making passes at her left and right that border on assault. From now on her new nickname will be Sexual Harassment Girl.
That is just one of the developments in this central quintet of episodes which help transform Strawberry Panic! away from its cutesy slice-of-life approach and more towards a soap opera mold. Oh, Sexual Harrassment Girl and Amane still have their pleasant little date in episode 13, but couched around that are plenty of other romantic hijinks, including a decided deepening of Nagisa and Shizumu's relationship, two friends having to reconcile when one of them steps over the line romantically, and the scheming of Momomi and Kaname, who take occasional breaks from their efforts to mess with Amane in order to make out with each other. With all the hormones flying around and girls' hearts going a-titter over other girls, the accuracy of the series' name becomes more appreciable. Neither will anyone question whether this series deserves its “Yuri Fan” label after seeing this volume.
This volume is also the first to show signs of an actual plot. The fractious politics underlying something as basic as casting a school play combine with the key relationship developments to finally give the story some real momentum and help raise the series out of the lethargy into which its story had descended over the first 11 episodes. Somewhat surprisingly, it does this while elevating Amane and Sexual Harassment Girl nearly to the status of co-central couple, as two of these five episodes focus on one or both of them and at least one of them figures prominently into the other three. Nagisa and Shizumu may be the stars, but now they have to seriously compete for screen time.
The other especially noteworthy development through this run of episodes is the sudden explosion of fan service. We're not talking about mere sweet kisses here, although viewers will find some of those; we're talking about multiple instances of near-nudity, nearly scandalous visuals in the new opener, groping, and some strongly racy scenes, at least one of which borders on truly erotic. This content is strong enough to call the mere 13+ age rating into question and assures that this will no longer be thought of as the tamest series in Anime Works' “Yuri Fan” label.
Aside from the fan service, the most significant artistic developments come in the series finally providing an overhead shot of Astraea Hill (which shows the complete layout of the complex), the casual wardrobes of some of the girls, and the way the girls look in such clothes. Sexual Harassment Girl looks darling in her summer dress and matching hat and Yaya looks quite fine in her short shorts and monogrammed blouse, but Amane is the one who steals the show here, and not necessarily in a good way. Her whole manner of casual dress, including especially the jeans (when was the last time you saw a Japanese teenage girl wear those in an anime?), is decidedly masculine, an impression only enhanced further by the manly build she shows off in that apparel. This is more than just looking androgynous; take away the slight curves in her shirt to account for her breasts and she would unmistakably be a man. Showing her as butch is one thing, but this is going a little overboard. These episodes otherwise maintain the standards of soft coloring, nice background art, and animation overly laden with still scenes seen in previous volumes. Although overall the artistry is pretty and appealing enough, the production quality level sometimes makes it hard to remember that this series was produced by the same studio responsible for visual treats like Black Lagoon, Claymore, and Death Note.
Through these episodes the soundtrack meanders on with a core of light piano and orchestrated numbers setting the mood. An organ-backed choral song performed in sedate church choir style becomes a recurring theme, especially in episode 14, albeit with lyrics that do not even remotely resemble an actual translated church hymn. The initial opener and closer continue through episode 13, after which a new fully-animated opener and a part-animated, part-live-action closer replace them. New opener “Kuchiburu Hakuchumu,” also by Aki Misato, is a solid number that falls just a bit short of equaling the original, while the gimmicky new closer, done by the same pair of singers as the first one, is a decidedly inferior lightly jazzy effort backed by awkward behavior by the singers. Vocal performances in the Japanese dub maintain the decent but unexciting performances heard in previous volumes.
As with previous volumes, Media Blasters has included no Extras beyond trailers and no English dub. It does have five episodes at a reduced price, however. Annoyingly, Media Blasters has neglected to put the Next Episode previews in separate chapters from the closer, making it impossible to chapter-skip the closer to get to them.
Those who have diligently plodded through the cutesy, frilly slice-of-life content of earlier volumes while hoping that something would happen will be partly rewarded here. It still isn't great stuff, but greatly increased fan service, decided relationship advancement, and a semblance of a developing plot all speak in this volume's favor.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Fan service, key relationships advance, shows signs of an actual plot.
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