Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 5th 2008
Sub.DVD 5 - Fifth Waltz
The Etoile election is nigh, but aside from ambitious Kaname no one seems interested in fighting for the office. Amane, the most obvious candidate, is vocally disinterested, and no one else seems up to the challenge. Eventually, at Kaname's behest, Amane changes her mind, but before she can declare her candidacy she suffers a dreadfully predictable spill from a horse and loses her memory. As Hikari pines away for her, she slowly remembers again those things that were once precious to her. At Miator, the emotional wounds that Shizuma inflicted on Nagisa have yet to heal, and Miator's president Rokujo decides that Nagisa must move on or perish in the tide of her own unrequited feelings. To force Nagisa to move past the shambles of her first love, Rokujo nominates her and Tamao as Miator's representatives in the Etoile election. Oddly enough, it works—but at what cost to Shizuma?
If you were to pare Strawberry Panic! down to its central romance it would be a pretty solid romantic melodrama. Though nothing particularly adventurous, the Nagisa/Shizuma romance has drawing power, in large part because they simply look as if they belong together, but also because theirs is a rocky and uncertain relationship. Shizuma's feelings for Nagisa are never entirely clear, which, coupled with Nagisa's babe-in-the-woods innocence, adds an edge of potential emotional exploitation to the pairing that it never quite loses even as the series draws it to a definite, satisfyingly preposterous conclusion. Were it not for the distractions of the supporting cast, their relationship could easily carry the series—as the Shizuma-focused fourth volume proved. The final episodes are studded with little reminders of that potential. Shizuma's violent, private display of despair at Nagisa's drifting affections is nicely melodramatic, and Mai Nakahara continues to milk Nagisa's underlying vulnerability for all it's worth. Whenever the two take center stage there's a palpable sense that Strawberry Panic! might just salvage something more than lesbian titillation from its mess of romantic clichés.
Alas, it is not to be. For the beginning of volume five also marks the full-time comeback of the supporting cast: the teddy-bear toting loli weirdo, the reserved underclassman servant-girl, Chikaru's squealing cosplay underlings—the whole herd. Chikaru actually acquits herself quite nicely, providing succor and sensible advice to various sobbing maidens, and Tamao makes a nice romantic foil for Shizuma, but any sparks they strike are immediately smothered by the return of the series' most crippling hindrance: the Hikari/Amane relationship. For some unfathomable reason the writers insist on giving it equal footing with the Shizuma/Nagisa relationship, despite how plainly obvious it is that the pair has no personality or chemistry. The narrative calisthenics that they pull off in order to wring pathos from the pairing would be funny were they not so pathetically misguided. They can take away Amane's memory as many times as they like, and have Hikari follow her amnesiac ass all the way to Atlantis, teary eyes a-simpering until the lost civilizations rise from the kelpy depths, and we still wouldn't feel a thing for them, because there's nothing there to feel for. Without the emotional payoff to excuse the plot manipulations, the writing comes across exactly as it is—clumsy and cheap.
While the writers are desperately trying to breathe life into Amane and Hikari's relationship, the director has clearly given up. Masayuki Sakoi's spare direction is fully capable of exploiting the obviously limited budget, as when the sad, minimalist score, highly stylized visuals, and vulnerable character designs with their big, shimmery eyes combine to silently express romantic longing and unspoken loss during the opening of the Etoile election. But when the focus drifts away from the central relationship, he loses interest. There's a sad, flatly animated excuse for a tennis showdown in which distant figures move like cardboard targets in a carnival game, some embarrassingly stiff horse-riding action, and it's hard not to notice how bland his use of the forgettable designs for Hikari and Amane is in comparison to his striking, subtly sexual usage of the instantly compatible color-coordination of Nagisa and Shizuma.
The cheesy, Graduate-inspired conclusion to Shizuma and Nagisa's self-destructing relationship is fun, and satisfying in its own shamelessly shallow way, but it's still fair to say that Strawberry Panic! ends weak. Forget that the plotting is ridiculous, that the internal monologues read like bad emo lyrics, that the side-characters are obnoxious, and that its treatment of same-sex relationships is utterly without nuance. None of that would have mattered had the series hit the dizzying melodramatic note it was aiming for. But unfortunately, for every shameless, bittersweet high that the Nagisa/Shizuma material reaches, there's an equally shameless low waiting somewhere in the Hikari/Amane material to knock viewers off of their blissful shoujo-ai cloud.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D+
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Nagisa and Shizuma's relationship develops and concludes nicely.
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