Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Sub.DVD 4 - Fourth Refrain
The Etoile election looms on the horizon, and Nagisa, transfer student that she is, realizes that she knows nothing about the office held by Shizuma. When she learns that the position of Etoile is intended for two people, she realizes that someone very important is missing from Shizuma's life. Curious, she asks about the other Etoile, only to be blocked at every turn. Both President Rokujou and Tamao politely deflect her inquiries, and it isn't until Shizuma herself invites her to a tête-à-tête at a private villa that Nagisa finally learns about Kaori, Shizuma's partner in the last Etoile election. The truth cuts deep, and it falls to devoted Tamao and her friends to heal the devastated Nagisa.
It's tempting to call whatever it is that keeps otherwise sensible viewers watching an air-thin romance like Strawberry Panic! a mystery, but honesty precludes that. It's no mystery. It's shoujo-ai titillation, pure and simple. It certainly isn't the visuals, which are all on the blasé end of the pleasant pastel spectrum (with the exception of the cute, arrestingly-colored cast). It isn't the way that movement grows unconvincing and background/foreground integration breaks down whenever the action gets too swift or complicated. It most definitely isn't the chain of stereotypical schoolyard happenings that pass for a plot or the cast of single-trait characters, and it isn't the cloyingly cutesy humor—which is at its best when absent altogether—or the fan-service, which up until partway through the third volume wasn't even particularly noticeable.
Previous to this volume, it wasn't even really the romance (if ineffectual wheel-spinning can be so called). In addition to going nowhere, it was also hampered by puddle-shallow leads and the series' insistence on giving vapid Hikari's insipid love of Amane equal footing with the potentially unhealthy domination of Nagisa by Shizuma. Rather it was the faint hope that perhaps the romance would eventually pay dividends. While not the dividends that certain of the series' more carnally-minded fans may have been hoping for, in these five episodes the series' romantic side does finally pay off with a romantic arc that actually engages.
While far from anything that can even be charitably called excellence, the series here is finally doing more things right than wrong. Aside from a brief but poignant reference to Yaya and Hikari's troubled friendship, Hikari and her bland beau Amane are sidelined throughout the volume. The progression (or disintegration) of Nagisa's relationship with Shizuma exploits Mai Nakahara's knack for voicing secretly vulnerable genki-girls and sneaks a little humanity under Shizuma's walking-enigma surface. The series' tone—regulated by an often melancholy score that rarely utilizes more than a single instrument at a time, a languid pace, and moments of unexpectedly atmospheric introspection—finally matches the content, and the series' pathetic excuses for humor go blessedly AWOL. It's the first opportunity for emotional involvement that the series has yet presented, and those waiting patiently for something will be more than happy to grab on.
Aside from the meaty episode count, Media Blasters' release of has been a wonder of asceticism. This disc contains no English dub and no extras. Take away the lesbianism, throw in a free vow of silence, and you'd have a release to do a monk proud.
As someone who will openly admit to liking things with names like A Little Snow Fairy Sugar and content like that of UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie, I find the idea that you should feel guilty for enjoying something supremely silly. That said, Strawberry Panic! was getting dangerously close to the paradoxical realm of the guilty pleasure as it wore on with no relief from its shoujo-ai-supported mediocrity in sight. As the series drastically alters the tenor of the central relationship, setting the stage for the series' final arc, that changes. It casts no new light on, nor redeems, the uneven, often impressively idiotic content preceding it, however at times during this volume, Strawberry Panic! is damned near a good series. Amazing.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Central romance finally goes somewhere interesting; temporarily boots to one side the obnoxious and painfully uninteresting in the cast.
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