Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 23rd 2008
Sub.DVD 1 - First Kiss
Cute first-year high school student Aoi Nagisa is the newest transfer student at Saint Miator, one of a trio of Catholic-influenced all-girls boarding schools located on Astraea Hill (the others being Spica and Le Rim). Two chance encounters with the beautiful and bewitching older student Hanazono Shizuma, who virtually comes on to Aoi, leave Aoi flustered and overwhelmed, though she has less trouble dealing with her too-friendly roommate Tamao. Aoi's problem only deepens when she learns that Shizuma has the title of Étoile, which effectively makes her the biggest and most beloved student VIP in the three schools. As Aoi settles in, starts making friends, and gets her first middle school roomkeeper, she gradually learns that Étoile, beyond having a serious interest in her, is also something of a flake, and not the only girl in the three schools idolized by other students.
This 2006 title from Madhouse Studios is the third specifically yuri series released in the U.S. by Media Blasters under their AnimeWorks label, following in the footsteps of Kashimashi ~Girl Meets Girl~ ~ and Simoun. While hardly indicative of a flood, it nonetheless more firmly establishes the trend of American releases of yuri titles. It is also, unfortunately, the least of the three such series to date, although calling it a failure would be overly critical.
Where Kashimashi took a delicate and exploratory approach to girl-girl relationships and Simoun wraps them up in complicated religious and gender issues, Strawberry Panic! instead opts for a more conventional romantic approach, albeit, of course, without the guys; in fact, not a single male character appears even briefly in any of these six episodes. Its comedy content is more incidental than emphasized and it decidedly favors its serious content, so despite a romantic comedy feel the series cannot be accurately classified as such. To regard this as anything approaching high-brow entertainment would also be a mistake, however. At essence this series is mostly about cute girls being attracted to, and swooning over, other cute/pretty girls in an environment which seems tailor-made for such antics. Intimations that something deeper is going on with one of the main characters doesn't change that.
The first six episodes concentrate on establishing the setting by showing off the structural intricacies of the three-school arrangement and Strawberry Hall (the main boarding hall and source of the series' name), primarily through an emphasis on transfer student Aoi, who regards her roommate's fascination with her with tolerant uncertainty but finds herself overwhelmed by Étoile. Episodes 1-3 and 6 spend a lot of time establishing this potential relationship, while episode 4 shifts the focus entirely to a secondary character's infatuation with a boyish equestrian team star and episode 5 more concerns establishing Chiyo as the roomkeeper for Aoi and Tamao, with not a single appearance by Étoile. This span of episodes also firmly establishes that something is decidedly off with Étoile, who despite being the most beloved student on all three campuses has a reputation for shirking responsibilities in meetings and toying with the hearts of girls who catch her eye. Whether or not Aoi represents something different to her, and exactly what mysteries lie behind her behavior, are the closest things to major plot points offered in this volume.
Original creator Sakurako Kimono, whose other prominent creation is Sister Princess, apparently decided that if one stylish school uniform theme was good then three would be even better. The old-fashioned European-styled formal black dresses worn by Miator students, with their distinctly Japanese cutesy tweaks, providing a strikingly different visual look for costuming, but those who prefer traditional schoolgirl outfits can also find them in Le Rim's checkered skirts, while the sweaters and female business suit-styled outfits of Spica students provide further variety. The series also goes to great lengths to visually distinguish all the girls from each other, even down to the most minor characters, with mixed results. As befitting the star student she is supposed to be (her title is French for “star”), Étoile has the most glamorous look with the fullest head of hair, while designs for the rest of the girls fall into typical anime visual stereotypes for cute middle school and high school girls. Weak animation drags down the otherwise-respectable artistry, however, with a heavy dependence on still shots and use of minimal animation wherever possible.
Not so weak is the soundtrack, which predominately uses string and piano pieces to effectively promote mood and tone. The opening theme by Aki Misato is an enthusiastic, upbeat number set to mundane animated visuals, while the closing theme “Himitsu Dolls” is actually a live-action music video featuring Mai Nakahara and Ai Shimizu (the voices of Aoi and Tamao respectively) engaged in some highly suggestive behavior. The Japanese casting sometimes does not provide enough variety in vocal type and style to easily distinguish characters by sound but otherwise does not disappoint. Like with previous “Yuri Fan” releases by AnimeWorks, this one has no English dub.
The inclusion of six full episodes apparently left little room for Extras, as only clean versions of the opener and closer are included. The latter one is particularly valuable, however, as the closing credits are more annoyingly obscuring than normal.
If you like seeing girls blushing and getting flustered over other girls then this may be a series for you. It certainly won't sell itself on fan service (it has none) or its plotting, does not have enough humor to sustain itself on those merits alone, and struggles to find any other reason to be compelling. Episode 4 does have a classic romantic feel to it (except for no guys being involved, of course), and the writing and plotting in episodes 5 and 6 are marked improvements over earlier content, so the series could be heading in a more interesting direction now that it has established itself, but overall it gets off to a slow start.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : B+
+ School uniform variety, solid musical score.
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