Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 26th 2011
Novel - Complete Collection
Astraea Hill is home to a trio of all-girl Catholic schools: St. Miator Girls' Academy, the oldest, strictest, and most tradition-bound; St. Spica Girls' Institute, which focuses more on athletics and developing career women; and St. Lulim Girls' School, which has a more relaxed atmosphere focused on club activities and endeavors to develop “future mothers and wives.” The schools share a dormitory commonly referred to as Strawberry Dorm and service the daughters of the elite and wealthy. Into this heady environment steps Aoi Nagisa, who makes a rare transfer into the school at the beginning of her fourth year (equivalent to 10th grade in the U.S.). Right away she meets the bewitching beauty Shizuma Hanazono and gets swept into an emotional roller coaster by the flirtatious sixth-year St. Miator student. Aoi soon learns that being the love interest of one of the Hill's two top idols comes at a hefty price, and things only get worse when Shizuma decides on a whim to seek an unprecedented second election as Étoile, a prestigious couple which serves as the figurehead for all three schools, with Aoi as her partner. Their main competition is St. Spica's Prince, the dashing and widely-beloved master horsewoman Amane Otori, who has made the highly controversial choice of another transfer student, the shy third-year Hikari Konohana, as her partner. As the politicking and scheming of the three Student Councils swarm around Aoi and Hikari, the two newcomers must learn to cope with the passionate attention of their seniors and the jealousy that their relationships foster in their classmates. Fortunately both of them have roommates who are eager to help out – sometimes a little too much so.
The Strawberry Panic! franchise has a fairly complicated history. It originated in late 2003 with a system that would allow readers of the initial story proposals to partly determine the content through voting; the two romantic pairings that would later form the core of the franchise, Shizuma-Aoi and Amane-Hikaru, came from this. A few illustrated short stories followed, with manga and light novel versions beginning in 2005 and the anime following in mid-2006. The 26 episode anime version was based more on the manga and the original short stories than on the novels, so while the novels and anime share the same setting, story themes, most of the cast, most of the character relationships, and a few specific scenes, there are stark differences in plot, details, and execution between the two. Thus the novels are really an alternate version of the anime's story rather than a direct reflection of it and so should be of particular interest to anyone who watched and enjoyed the anime.
This light novel series consists of three novels written by Sakurako Kimino, who also wrote the manga version and was previously known for writing Sister Princess. The novels were originally published individually in Japan over the course of 2006, and Seven Seas Entertainment individually released translations of the first two novels in the States in 2008. This omnibus edition, which includes all three novels, marks the first appearance of the third novel in English. While the $14.99 MSRP will be a little steep for those who previously purchased the first two novels and only want the third, it is an economical price for those who have not previously purchased them, as here you get all three novels – 670 pages of story – for less than the paperback price of two typical translated light novels.
Those whose first exposure to the franchise is via these novels will find a story that has become an anime cliché: all manner of shojo ai and yuri antics going on at an exclusive, reclusive Catholic girl's school apparently set in a time period before cell phones came onto the scene. It posits the notion that, in the utter absence of any regular contact with males, girls will look to each other for love and romance. (Not really all that strange when you consider that all-male prisons have long been a running gag for the supposed rampant homosexual behavior which arises in them.) The story concentrates much more on the romance aspect than on the lesbian aspect, though, and the catty behavior of jealous girls, which is a recurring theme in the story, is hardly limited to school situations like this. The scheming involving the Étoile competition may be a little more over-the-top, but considering the status of the girls attending the schools and the unusual structure of the three schools it does not seem entirely out of line. Besides, the brief bio at the end of the book indicates that the story was partly based on Ms. Kimino's own experiences in an all-girls school, so at least some of what goes on here has a grain of truth to it.
The story spread across the three novels plays out like a school-aged soap opera, one full of enough girl-girl relationships to be a yuri lover's dream; some vividly-described fondling is even present in places, hence the 16+ age rating on it. The novels do at least attempt to filter some depth into this tale of emotions flaring white-hot and the consequences thereof, however. Because of the wealthy family situations that the girls attending the three schools come from – girls in upper grades commonly already have arranged engagements, for instance – this is really the only time and place in their lives where many of them have some modicum of true freedom, so taking active advantage of that is a must; this is, in fact, so important to understanding the behavior of many of the girls that one has to wonder why Ms. Kimino does not substantively bring it up before the final volume. This version of the story, much moreso than the anime, also does take pains to distinguish between merely romantic and genuinely lustful relationships between girls, the latter of which are the only ones considered actual lesbian behavior. (This reinforces the Japanese notion that girl-girl love at this age is generally considered an immature love.) Less palatable for some is the strong implication that the lesbian behavior of Yaya, the one character on Astraea Hill widely-acknowledged as a “true lesbian,” is primarily a product of circumstances rather than nature, something that is also more subtly suggested about girl-girl relationships in general by the rest of the story.
Those who are fans of the anime version will find that only about a quarter of the anime content has a direct parallel in the novels. Amongst the most important differences are the addition of Makoto Kusanagi, who plays a prominent role in the second and third novels but never appears in the anime, and the much broader and more involved emphasis placed on the Etoile competition, which dominates all three novels but only becomes prominent late in the anime. Kaname and Momori, who are portrayed as a villainous, hard-core lesbian couple in the anime, are entirely different here, as are many of the circumstances surrounding backstory character Kaori and how she fits into the picture. Aoi and Shizuma meet and hook up in the same fashion in both versions but Amane and Hikari get started in an entirely different way here. Shizuma's status at the beginning of the story and responsibilities throughout the story are also different (she is the reigning Étoile in the anime, the past year's Étoile in the novels), as are the circumstances in the scene where Yaya aggressively puts the moves on Hikari and how Hikari responds to it. The novels have no greenhouse, choir, or beach scenes, while the anime does not reveal some of the character background secrets that the novels do. Hikari is equally pathetic in both versions, while Amane is a bit more interesting here and Chikaru certainly comes off as more devious. The ultimate results of the two versions of the story are essentially the same even though they happen in different ways, however.
For this omnibus version, Seven Seas chose Chikaru and Kizuna (one of Chikaru's Costume Club underlings) to be featured on the cover – an interesting choice, since they are not a couple at all, much less one of the story's featured couples. The first four pages provide brief blurbs on most important characters and settings, followed by Seven Seas' typical page describing naming conventions (which are kept in Japanese order) and honorifics; in this case it also explains some French phrases which pop up in the novels. Several nicely-drawn illustrations, done by the same artist who worked on the manga version, appear throughout. The last two pages feature a collection of translation notes involving the most obscure references and very brief bio pieces on the author and artist. The first two novels are clean of significant errors and show a professional translation and editing effort, but the third does not. It is comparatively rife with minor errors, including places where words and even entire phrases are repeated and one place which clearly uses the wrong name for a character. All three novels overabundantly use extra spacing as transitions within scenes, but that could be more attributable to the original writing.
Kimino's writing style may be a little too casual for some tastes and all three novels do suffer from getting bogged down in characters' emotional reactions; a third or more of the novels' scenes involve crying to some degree. The novels do an effective job at formulating a cast of interesting characters and making a story out of how their differing priorities, objectives, and interpretations of love can conflict, however, and late in the first novel the story begins to generate sufficient dramatic steam to carry it through to the end. While not on the level of the best novel translations to come out of Japan, it is nonetheless good enough to be of interest to yuri lovers, fans of the anime, and anyone else who enjoys emotionally-charged romantic drama.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Interesting characters and relationship complexities, all three novels offered together for an economical price.
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