The Star of Love

Had we begun watching "A New Beginning," the final episode of Strawberry Panic, with hopes it might take up Shizuma and Nagisa’s romance, the animation confounds them at the outset, focusing instead upon the Etoile election. The narrative begins on the eve of the competition, showing us each of the major characters in turn, awake and anxiously awaiting the day’s events. After a comic aside about Chikaru and her gang creating a "waiting-in-line" club, the election proceeds in its order, and the candidates dress, and then are presented formally to the school in the school auditorium. The events of the election begin to acquire a momentum, as if to shut out the romance, to allow it no narrative space in which to realize itself.

It is only when Shizuma comes on stage to present bouquets during the presentation that the romance flickers: Shizuma becomes caught up in Nagisa’s gaze when she sees Nagisa looking at her wordlessly, until Tamao pertly calls Shizuma back to the task at hand. After Shizuma gives the bouquet to Tamao, they exchange glances again; Nagisa watches Shizuma walk off the stage, at which point Tamao has to call her to attention; and even after this reproof, we see Nagisa still looking for Shizuma out of the corner of her eye. After presenting the bouquets, Shizuma walks off by herself, ignoring Miyuki’s calls after her, presumably lost in thoughts about Nagisa. 

At this point the romance gains its own narrative, in counterpoint to that of the election. Shizuma revisits her places of retreat, the greenhouse, the piano room, and her special tree, and at each place finds that they evoke powerful memories of her happy moments with Nagisa. The two narratives proceed in parallel, and are told in juxtaposition, as the animation cuts back and forth between them. Sometimes the juxtapositions are significant, as when Nagisa hears the melody of her piano duet with Shizuma during her dance with Tamao, at which point the animation jump-cuts to Shizuma standing by the piano, caught up in the memory of playing the same melody with Nagisa, so that we realize that at this moment they are so much in each other’s thoughts we can hardly tell the two of them apart. The two narratives gain intensity in parallel, as the Etoile election moves through the dance competition to the anticipation of the election’s outcome, and as Shizuma’s memories move to more intimate moments, when she and Nagisa played the piano together in a close harmony, and backwards in time, to the first time she met Nagisa, by her special tree, where she returned Nagisa’s toy into her hand, and kissed her on the forehead.

By isolating Shizuma within the romance narrative, the anime indicates that the fate of the romance now is entirely in Shizuma’s hands. The election has gathered all the other characters within its momentum, and none of them–not even Nagisa–will contravene its advance to its conclusion. Shizuma deserves this distinction, since she is responsible for Nagisa’s participation in the election, inasmuch as she consented to Miyuki’s plan to present Nagisa and Tamao as Miator’s candidates, and she turned a deaf ear to Nagisa’s confession of love and plea to ask her not to run in the election. Moreover, Nagisa has acted, has made her feelings clear to Shizuma; and Shizuma has not. If the romance is to flourish, Shizuma must reciprocate. She must finally recognize her feelings for Nagisa and act upon them. Her isolation now is the animation’s signal that it is up to Shizuma to make this next step. The romance now rests upon Shizuma, and upon Shizuma alone.

Of course Shizuma does act, with splendid, glorious melodrama. At the climax of her series of memories, we see Shizuma at her favorite tree, remembering her first encounter with Nagisa, how she returned Nagisa’s toy and suddenly kissed her forehead. Then Shizuma leans against the tree, grits her teeth, says Nagisa’s name aloud, and at that point, decides, turns, and sprints to the cathedral. There, she will dramatically interrupt the Etoile election, shout before the whole school to tell Nagisa that she loves her, and otherwise bring the two distinct narratives into a magnificent collision. But what inspires her to act?

About this the anime allows us to say at least three things. As Shizuma moves through her memories of Nagisa, we notice that all the old places, which had been bound up with Kaori, are now significant of Nagisa instead. Even the tree, the place of her most intimate memory of Kaori, evokes Nagisa.  But since all these places do speak of Nagisa, they become a visible map of Shizuma’s heart, a speaking mirror, to tell her how important Nagisa is to her, to enable her to recognize at last that she loves Nagisa.

Shizuma’s experience of these places however must be bittersweet, given that she is on the verge of losing Nagisa as a result of the Etoile election. In her tour of her special spots Shizuma is repeating her earlier disconsolate wanderings of the school grounds in the aftermath of Kaori’s death. Shizuma is on the verge of reprising the same tragedy, of losing Nagisa, and then finding the whole landscape turned back again into a landscape of loss. Perhaps the memory of that pain is also part of what moves Shizuma to act now before it is too late.

In the end, Shizuma’s act explains itself in its own terms, as a sudden, impulsive, inexplicable action. Whatever explanations we might put forward, we should remember that Shizuma will later describe her actions to Nagisa as a "whim:" "I couldn’t help it. / I just had a whim to snatch you away." Shizuma finds out her feelings only in the event. She is neither analytical nor self-reflective, but a creature of wild impulses and unrestrained desires. In acting this way, Shizuma expresses the deepest aspect of her character. After she runs away with Nagisa, leaving the election in shambles, Shion remarks, "Things have gotten out of hand," to which Miyuki replies, "Yes, but that’s the real Shizuma." In acting suddenly on her love for Nagisa, Shizuma at last is restored to her true self. She is again who she truly is, a figure of wildness, impassioned, defiant of convention, impulsive, free.

We see that as Shizuma carries the romance forward, the romance itself carries Shizuma forward, to allow her personality to realize itself, to flourish, to become extraordinary. Acting out of love, an extreme and passionate love, Shizuma becomes wildly charismatic, dramatic, elevated above the other schoolgirls. She expresses her love in extremes. In an act of gorgeous melodrama, she declares her love for Nagisa before the whole school, at the climax of the Etoile election. In her declaration, she holds nothing back. Her language is unqualified: she uses the word "aishiteru," which means "love," rather than a less definitive word (1). Where before she had kept her true feelings buried in her heart, now she declares them in the most public way possible. Where before she had refused all commitments of the heart, now she commits herself to Nagisa with everyone in the school as her witness. The animation illustrates her exaltation by showing her in long shots as the solitary figure moving down the aisle amidst the ordered rows of girls in their seats, by placing the viewer’s eye below her looking up (including a very striking image in which we look up to the distant stage from a close-up of the heel of her shoe!), and by dramatizing how everyone in the audience swivels to focus on her, the cynosure of all their eyes. Shizuma is beautiful, dramatic, riveting, extraordinary.

At the same time, and by the same actions, Shizuma becomes the more humanized. The romance brings her back into the world of human relations. Having been solitary and aloof, she is now rejoining the party of love, committing herself to Nagisa irrevocably. Where she had been reserved, we see her blush, for the first and only time in the entire anime, later when she confesses to Nagisa she had acted on a whim. Most touchingly, where before she had been equal parts controlling and self-contained, for the sake of shielding herself in the aftermath of Kaori’s death, now she allows herself a position of vulnerability before Nagisa. She declares her love, calls Nagisa’s name, and stands there, with her arms outstretched, beseeching, waiting on Nagisa’s response. Here Shizuma really is vulnerable. Nagisa could say "no." Shizuma could be rejected. That Shizuma of all people risks rejection is the surest touchstone of the humanization and the radical renewal of her character.

The paradox of Shizuma at once exalted and yet also humanized is the signature of the Etoile, the figure who is like us, but is more; ideal, and yet real. Shizuma in love, the real Shizuma, the emodiment of wild impulse, extraordinary charisma, dramatic beauty, and also of human feeling, stands before Nagisa as a glorious expression of the human ideal that is the Etoile.

But now that Shizuma finally declared herself, the romance is not over. In fact Nagisa nearly does say "no." After Shizuma tells her and everyone that she loves her, Nagisa leans forward, but then looks down, shakes her head as if to say "no," and with great unhappiness says "but…but…" Nagisa is thinking of Tamao, of her commitment to stand with her for Miator in the election. Even for Shizuma, and for the realization of her own heart’s love, Nagisa is reluctant and unwilling to break the bonds of personal obligation already upon her. So, ironically, the whole arc of Nagisa and Shizuma’s romance comes down in the end to Tamao. There can be no doubt Tamao will give her consent. We know she will concede from the moment Shizuma tells Nagisa she loves her: the animation shows us Tamao’s reaction, as she slumps her shoulders, and swallows a sob, in evident resignation. Just because Tamao loves Nagisa, knows Nagisa loves Shizuma, and because she wants Nagisa to be happy, Tamao will sacrifice her own feelings, and step aside. And so she does. She clasps Nagisa around the waist, draws her to her, explains in Japanese "I guess it can’t be helped," and when Nagisa asks, "Tamao-chan?" Tamao tells her, "Go, Nagisa-chan," releases the red ribbon she had tied in Nagisa’s hair, and pushes her emphatically toward Shizuma (2). Nagisa looks back once more, Tamao nods, and then at last Nagisa makes her choice, runs to Shizuma, and they embrace and run off together to their happy ending.

Various elements of this climatic moment are familiar. We have seen already the pattern where the third girl out gives her blessing to the main couple’s romance, as when Miyuki leads Kaori to Shizuma at the Etoile coronation, or when Yaya pushes Hikari out onto the tennis court to congratulate Amane. Tamao’s motive is the same as Miyuki and Yaya’s: to maintain social comity. The anime refuses to allow rejection in love to divide the general harmony. And we see again Tamao’s red ribbon, with which she had tried to bind Nagisa to herself, by a kind of sympathetic magic. By releasing it, Tamao symbolically enacts a releasing of Nagisa from a bond with her, and demonstrates her own awareness and admission that no bond exists. These elements come forward to indicate that the way is clear for Shizuma and Nagisa to realize their love without social complications and repercussions.

Still, this moment of sacrifice is a moment of great pathos for Tamao. The anime affords her little emotional depth: she is a good friend, loyal, and quiet, but completely overshadowed by Shizuma, and is reduced to being a foil for Shizuma’s extravagant personality. Among the third girls, she is less like Yaya, with her tempestous range of emotions and experiences, than she is like Miyuki, who is conventional and self-contained in her feelings. But unlike them, Tamao gains depth in the rejection. The pathos of the unrequited lover who gives up her own happiness for the sake of the beloved endows Tamao with a tragic quality that elevates her above either Yaya or Miyuki. The animation underlines her tragic character by making the last image of the cathedral scene a portrait of Tamao’s face, in close-up profile, eyes shut in pain, as she murmurs "Congratulations" to the Nagisa who has left her. The anime remains resolutely clear about the loss and pain that is also the reward of love. The happiness of the elect–of Shizuma and Nagisa, before whom social reality bends to enable their love–is paid for in part by the misery of the not elect, of the rejected. If the Etoile is a star of light, its shadow is realized here in the figure of Tamao.

What is Nagisa and Shizuma’s happy ending? It is each other of course. They are running from the school, away from people, to be with each other. What their life will be exactly they themselves have no idea, except as a life of wildness and surprise, as Nagisa is surprised, when she learns that Shizuma has snatched her away with no thought beyond her whim. It will be a life of sensation, as when, following Shizuma’s notion that they run some more, they do so simply for the sake of the exhileration of the moment. It will be a life of complete dedication to each other. Nagisa runs out of the cathedral without ever once looking back, and she follows Shizuma’s whim without question. For her part, Shizuma has found herself again through her love of Nagisa. Just as her previous love for Kaori endured through life and death, Shizuma’s love for Nagisa will endure as her own sense of herself endures.

Above all, Shizuma and Nagisa’s life together will be a life of wild love. In choosing each other, Nagisa and Shizuma gain the Etoileship of love. This is a real election, as the animation makes clear, by jump-cutting between Amane and Hikari’s official inauguration, as they receive the Etoile necklaces, and the parallel scene, in which Shizuma and Nagisa bedeck each other with necklaces made of flowers. Here the anime reprises the distinction made in an earlier episode between the domestic, cultivated flowers of the greenhouse and the wild flowers outside. As Etoile, Amane and Hikari share a domestic love, a life together within the restraints of the responsibility of their position. It is fitting our last view of them is a scene in which both are happily working together in the greenhouse. In contrast, Shizuma and Nagisa share a wild and free love, outside of the social sphere, in a shared reality that is the creation of their own passion for each other. Together, the two sets of Etoiles make sense of the French motto on the facade above the auditorium doors: "Le souffle de D— danse et souleve un etoile," "the breath of G-d dances and raises a star." For the official Etoile, the motto can be understood to mean that divine inspiration in the dance competition decides who is elected to become Etoile. But for Shizuma and Nagisa, the breath of G-d that dances is a wind, a metaphor for their wild passion; the wind dancing is a trope for their art–the dance, the piano duets–in which they express that passion; and the star the divine wind raises, in a creation of the world, is their world of love and themselves, the light within it. As the snow melts around them and nature reveals its reverdie in the correlative and the confirmation of their passion, Nagisa and Shizuma embrace, kiss, fall to the ground together, to consummate their love, as the perspective draws back, to show them together, encircled by the color of their dresses and the silver of Shizuma’s tresses, a red and black flower against the green grass, or a red and black star against a green sky.

But this scene which seems to be the climax is not. After the credits, the anime depicts Nagisa’s return to the dorm. It is very late. Nagisa stands with her back to the door, as if afraid to go in, with Tamao standing on the other side, her back to the door as well, as she says, "Welcome back, Nagisa-chan." It is odd the anime would dramatize this painful moment. Is it an equivocation, perhaps to open up the possibility of a future series? Or does the moment measure the distance traveled, the separation of experience that now stands between the two girls? Nagisa has crossed into sexual maturity, while Tamao has undergone rejection and extreme disappointment. No wonder they stand to back: how to talk, after all that has transpired? But Tamao explains how: she welcomes Nagisa back, as if to say they are still friends. As akayuki.wordpress.com points out, Tamao’s "Okaerinasai," "welcome back," corresponds to the farewell she made at the auditorium, "Itterasshai," where both phrases are the words only family members usually use with each other (3). Tamao is welcoming Nagisa as a sister, setting the scope of their relationship, but affirming it as well. Tamao confirms Chiyo’s point earlier in the episode: "After the Etoile election, everyone will still be friends." So the point of this last scene is not an equivocation, but to allow Tamao a happy ending, to show that after everything, she and Nagisa are still friends. 

Tamao taken care of, the anime returns in its final image to Nagisa and Shizuma kissing while lying entwined on the grass. This beautiful image, the star Nagisa and Shizuma comprise together, is Strawberry Panic’s last word.

(1) All Japanese words and the points I make with them are borrowed from akayuki.wordpress.com.
(2) As translated by akayuki.wordpress.com. The English subtitle has instead "She really couldn’t help it."
(3) An internet search revealed that these terms are usually used only among family members.

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The First and the Last

It is a melancholy sign of Hikari and Amane’s secondary place in the anime that this episode, in which their relationship achieves its high point, should nevertheless have as its title–"Waltz"–a reference to a decisive moment in Nagisa and Shizuma’s love story. Let us overlook the title’s slight, and look briefly at the resolution in Hikari and Amane’s romance. What happens that is significant? Hikari sings, and reminds Amane of the earlier time she had heard Hikari sing, a year ago, on a winter morning, while she was practicing her riding at the track. Amane remembers, remembers who Hikari is to her, and that is that: they kiss, they make love, and their story has its happy ending. But what does Amane remember? She remembers the song: "Where was it? Where have I heard this before? That same voice…that angelic song." The beauty of the song renews Amane’s apprehension of Hikari as an earthly angel. As she listens, she is taken back to the previous time Hikari sang for her: the animation speeds forward toward the singer, until the singer raises her head, and Amane sees the beautiful vision of an angelic Hikari singing, and recognizes her at last.

The path to this resolution proceeds with difficulty. Hikari always is an angel, and the animation presents her to Amane as such, but until the breakthrough Amane is simply unable to recognize her. In one moment, Hikari stands in a pool of moonlight, radiant with light amid the night’s darkness, looking with yearning toward Amane; but Amane does not respond, remains–as the animation portrays her–in the dark. The darkest moment comes during Hikari and Amane’s later conversation in the stables, just before Hikari sings. Amane can still not remember Hikari or her name, but only knows vaguely that the scarf is precious to her. Hikari tells Amane she is sure she and Amane are bound deeply in Amane’s heart; her eyes tear, but she still cannot break through. They are at an impasse. The scene darkens, and Hikari’s face becomes grave and loses its features. Then the animation returns to their favorite place, the spot by the railing on the track where Hikari would watch Amane practice. No one is there: the place is dark and empty. The anime has reached a void, a point zero.

Now a single large snowflake, the first of the season, drifts down in the middle distance. Hikari sings, and everything follows. The snow marks the shift of the seasons,  the transition to winter, a natural correlative for the new world Hikari and Amane have arrived at together.

What is this new world? It is the world of love. When Amane regains her memory, both Amane and Hikari arrive at  a new place they have never been before. If the narrative goes back, to remember the earlier moment, it is in order to carry the action forward, to a new experience of love fulfilled. Amane at last says Hikari’s name, and now they kiss, and fall below the frame of the scene. The animation jump-cuts to next morning, where everything outside is white, covered in snow, and Hikari and Amane are lying nude on a blanket together, covered in the sunlight flooding through the many windows, their fair skin almost impossible to see, their upper torsos in a very light shadow, as they kiss again, as the scene finally dissolves. There is a perfect unity of visual appearance: the light, their bodies, the snow all become virtually indistinguishable. Love, beauty, passion, nature, angelic being all fuse in this final image. There is no longer any division between them. Where Hikari had been in light and Amane in shadow, now Hikari and Amane share the same shadow and the same light. Where Hikari had sung and Amane listened, now they both kiss, giving and receiving at once. Where Hikari had been the angel, and Amane the one who sees the angel, now they both compose this final exalted image equally. Let us leave them here, in this final apotheosis of love and beauty.

                                        *

We take up now the episode’s central moment, Nagisa and Shizuma’s waltz together. Shizuma has been coaching Nagisa and Tamao, to prepare them for the climax of the Etoile election, the dance competition. But the training has not gone well, due apparently to the fault of Nagisa. We see her stumble during practice, and Shizuma tells her she is "trying too hard." As a last resort to help Nagisa learn to dance naturally, Shizuma attempts to teach Nagisa by dancing with her herself.

By all accounts, the dance they share is extraordinary. While watching, Miyuki tells herself, "[w]hat a graceful and exceptional dance. This is the first time I have seen such a beautiful dance in Astraea." Shizuma’s friends, Tougi and Kanou, think Nagisa is "amazing." While dancing, Shizuma tells Nagisa she is "doing well" and that she is "amazing." At the end, the onlookers and even Tamao give Nagisa and Shizuma a standing ovation. The aesthetic quality of their dance is outstanding and beyond question.

What makes this dance different? The anime answers the question on several levels. Since Shizuma instructs Nagisa in dance technique, we can answer the question in technical terms. Before, Nagisa had been trying too hard, had been "straining to keep up the beat;" now, she is able to "be [her]self more," "to dance with confidence," to "happily dance, heart to heart" with her partner, so that her "body will react on its own." The difference is between an artificial self-consciousness, Nagisa’s deliberate efforts on the one side, and an unconscious, physical, and instinctive joy in dancing on the other. Once Nagisa stops trying, and allows herself to dance in this instinctual, unconscious fashion, she becomes, as Miyuki reflects, "one with Shizuma," and achieves an extraordinary level of dance technique.

Shizuma herself explains great dance in terms of "love." After she finishes dancing with Nagisa, she turns to Nagisa and Tamao and tells them "[t]o dance is to love. It’s when you use your body to show the happiness and the joy of love." Shizuma does not necessarily mean that Nagisa and Tamao must feel love for each other in order to dance well. Rather, she understands dance in psychological terms, as an expression of the feelings of love one has within oneself. Dance exalts itself only when it becomes the vehicle for the dancer’s own feelings of love. As to the object of the love, and the role of the dance partner, Shizuma’s notably abstract formulation is silent. Since she also danced exceptionally with Nagisa, we may surmise that her dance expresses her own feelings of love, but what they are, and how they relate to Nagisa, we do not know. 

By contrast, Nagisa understands her dance to express her own immediate, concrete love for Shizuma. The anime brings us inside her thoughts while she is dancing, so that we can overhear her tell herself "I have loved her (ie Shizuma) without regret. I have tried to carve that love into myself." Nagisa dances knowing that she loves Shizuma. This moment reprises earlier moments in the anime, such as when they played the piano together, or had performed on stage together, but completes them, by letting Nagisa know what those previous moments had meant, that they were moments of love. Thus, when Shizuma tells Nagisa that "this is the first and the last time" she will teach Nagisa by dancing with her, Nagisa interprets her words to mean "this is the first and the last dance," the one essential moment which comprises all those other moments, as the aesthetic expression of her love for Shizuma. Realizing this, she experiences a consummation of her passions: the background changes, and they are no longer in the auditorium, but now she and Shizuma are in their own world, in an elevated scene they have made together. It is an extraordinary moment.

It is not only Nagisa who comes to a clarity about her feelings toward Shizuma. At this point, we can understand Miyuki’s appreciation of the dance to be an indirect acknowledgment of Nagisa and Shizuma’s special relationship. As she admits to herself, and as the marvelous dance compels her to realize, Shizuma and Nagisa together are "so charming and perfect." In their conversation, Tougi and Kanou make the point explicitly, by noting that the difference in the dance for Nagisa is that she is dancing with Shizuma. Although the anime does not elaborate, Tamao’s clapping after the dance can indicate the same recognition, that Nagisa and Shizuma simply belong together. The undeniable aesthetic power of this dance breaks down all before it, and compels a surrender to Nagisa and Shizuma’s love from all those who had opposed it.

At this point, only Shizuma is not accounted for. We do not know her feelings, other that the image of yearning and disquiet that she presents in the episode’s last scene. She is looking out the window at the night sky, while Miyuki bids her goodnight, and asks her if graduating in March is "good enough," the sufficient fulfillment of their remaining hopes and plans at Astraea. Pointedly, Shizuma gives no answer, but continues pensively looking out the window. What she feels, and the anime’s final denouement, await the final episode.

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Friends and Lovers

The "Ring of Fate" episode tells the story of Amane’s amnesia: how she rejects Hikari, how Hikari, distraught, finds solace and advice from Chikaru, and renews her faith in Amane. Since we have already discussed Amane’s amnesia in the previous essay, I will just note briefly that amnesia provides an interesting gloss on Shizuma’s situation vis-a-vis Nagisa. Amnesia confirms the idea of levels of consciousness, of a surface level not aware of a core level: just as Amane is not aware of her true feelings for Hikari, neither is Shizuma aware of her feelings for Nagisa. Also, amnesia allows for a resolution of the narrative through the restoration of memory: Hikari will sing for Amane and remind her of the first time she sang for her, and so bring Amane back to herself; and Shizuma will be overcome by memories of her happy moments with Nagisa that will drive her out of the greenhouse to the cathedral to snatch Nagisa away. Given that amnesia amounts to an estrangement from oneself–a forgetting of who one is via the forgetting of those with whom one has a relationship–the rectification of amnesia is not just a remembering but a renewal of one’s identity. For Amane, this renewal is the endpoint of a process of self-discovery, which she had already been engaged upon before she fell from the horse: to find out that she is a star, that she ought to run for Etoile, and finally, as this process’s climax, to find out that she loves Hikari. In Shizuma’s case, since her self-estrangement has persisted from before the beginning of the anime, when she dramatically interrupts the Etoile election to declare her love for Nagisa, she returns to an identity that is a surprise to most, but who is, as Miyuki admits, the real Shizuma of old, a creature of dramatic passion and wild caprice. Amane’s amnesia helps us see that the resolution to which Shizuma finally arrives is a also recovery from a kind of self-amnesia.
The other incident I would like to discuss is Tamao’s interesting conversation with Nagisa about the nature of the Etoile. Nagisa is still wondering why Miyuki is so set upon having herself and Tamao as candidates for the Etoile election; this question leads her to wonder why Etoiles come in pairs in the first place. Tamao’s reply composes the anime’s most extended discussion in the abstract about the role of the Etoile. According to Tamao, "[t]he Etoile symbolizes everyone’s feelings and everyone’s glorious existence. Sometimes they’re kind, and sometimes they’re stern. They’re life’s examples and lead us on our way." Tamao then goes on to insist that the Etoile is not perfect, that she needs a companion to help survive in life; in this need, the Etoile comparts with humanity in general, and not with any distinctive quality of the Etoile: "But we can’t say they’re perfect. That’s why they have a partner. [...] Humans can’t be by themselves. They must help each other to survive." In answer to Nagisa’s question, we learn Etoiles come in pairs not since they are Etoiles, but since they are humans, and all humans need a partner in order to survive. In general–and this is the most striking aspect of Tamao’s description–the Etoile is thoroughly grounded in the lives of ordinary people and the condition of ordinary humanity. If the Etoile remains an ideal, she is so as a symbol of the "feelings" and the "glorious existence" that inheres in "everyone." More than that, she remains imperfect ("we can’t say they’re perfect") and in fact entirely human, in that she needs a companion just as all humans do.
 
In the subtext of Tamao’s conversation is the idea that the friendship she and Nagisa share is the model of the Etoile. Given this universal and humanistic conception of the Etoile, both Tamao and Nagisa immediately proceed to illustrate it by referring back to their own relationship with each other: "I’m always asking Tamao-chan to help me," Nagisa notes, and Tamao confirms: "I’m always under Nagisa-chan’s care, too." And of course the whole conversation itself, in which they share and reinforce an implicit understanding with each other, is precisely an illustration of the mutuality and correspondence which Tamao identifies with the Etoile. This is a beautiful moment, the one in which Tamao and Nagisa are at their closest in the whole anime. The animation brings this spiritual proximity forward by showing us Tamao putting her hands over Nagisa’s hand, as Shizuma–who had come in earlier and has been eavesdropping–fumes at Tamao’s implied reproof to her solitary ways and then pushes forward to interrupt and break apart the intimacy. Tamao’s argument brings the Etoile down to where she and Nagisa are, and idealizes the friendship they share as the model of the Etoile.

The anime endorses Tamao’s views, as far as they go, but they are not the whole story. Tamao is speaking from the side of friendship, but has left out love. We know that if only since Nagisa includes herself in Tamao’s conversation: Nagisa has only ever felt friendship for Tamao, not love, and so love is not part of what they are talking about. The animation brings out the fact that love is not included by showing the intimacy to be all on Tamao’s side: she goes to Nagisa, but Nagisa does not reciprocate. But the strongest evidence that friendship is insufficient to define the Etoile is Nagisa’s inability to dance intimately with Tamao. Notwithstanding all the practice they do together, in the expression of their good will for each other and their determination to succeed, Nagisa is simply unable to attain the fluidity of movement which love immediately, spontaneously enables her to achieve when she dances with Shizuma in the next episode. Friendship is not enough to win the Etoileship.

Yet friendship is a necessary step on the path to becoming Etoile. We learn this truth, surprisingly enough, from Shizuma. After overhearing Tamao’s explanation of why Etoiles come in pairs, Shizuma enters and vehemently exhorts Nagisa to become the Etoile. She then assumes Miyuki’s role as what Tamao had ruefully dubbed the "demonic Etoile trainer," sternly coaching Nagisa and Tamao in dance. When Miyuki comes in, she beams, since she sees before her her plans apparently bearing fruit: Shizuma is doing her best to help Nagisa and Tamao win the competition, and to secure the pride of place for Miator. And in fact Shizuma is doing her best, or at least, as she tells herself, "I’ll have you guys…I’ll have Nagisa become the Etoile. That is my last mission as Etoile." The emendation is telling: Shizuma is doing her best not for the pair, but for Nagisa. By helping Nagisa learn to dance, she is in fact fulfilling Tamao’s prescription about the Etoiles supporting and helping each other: it is Shizuma and not Tamao who actually helps Nagisa to raise her dancing to the level necessary to win the competition. In so doing, she is also resuming her courtship of Nagisa. The animation makes this point perfectly clear: when she tells Nagisa "’[b]ecome the Etoile," Shizuma holds Nagisa’s face in both her hands, and Nagisa blushes furiously, in response to Shizuma’s physical intimacy. Tamao the animation relegates to the background, the third girl out. Shizuma is returning to her role as Nagisa’s tutor, and just as the lessons they shared in French had been the beginning of their relationship, so too do the dance lessons offer the opportunity for Nagisa and Shizuma to resume each other’s company, and to rediscover how they are special to each other. This is the lesson they will teach everyone, in the next expisode, when they dance brilliantly and transcendently together.

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The Heart’s Affections

In the "Labyrinth" episode, Miyuki pushes forward her plan to get Nagisa and Tamao to stand as Miator’s candidates in the Etoile election. The main obstacle to her plan is Nagisa’s love for Shizuma. Nagisa refuses any part in Miyuki’s plans, since to take part in the election would be to declare before the whole school that she and Tamao share a relationship Nagisa wants with Shizuma alone. To overcome her objection, Miyuki enlists Shizuma in the effort to convince Nagisa to get over Shizuma and to pair with Tamao. And Shizuma goes along with Miyuki’s plan. When Nagisa hears from Miyuki that Shizuma wants her to enter the Etoile election with Tamao, she cannot believe it, and races to the greenhouse to find out if the claim is true, and to beg–with all the desperation of love–for Shizuma to say she does not want her to run, even if it is a lie. In a display of extreme emotional coldness, Shizuma confirms Nagisa’s worst fears. With a perfect impersonality, she thanks (!) Nagisa for her feelings of love, tells her she should run in the election, since she and Tamao "look good together" (!), and then–to break the last link between them–asks Nagisa to return her house key. When Nagisa tries to hold on to the key, Shizuma tops everything she has said and done so far: she kisses Nagisa’s forehead, tells her in just so many words to "forget about [her]," and bids her "goodbye." At this unequivocal sign of Shizuma’s rejection, Nagisa dissolves into tears, releases the key, and runs away. To Nagisa, Shizuma’s rejection is apparently complete (she does not see Shiuzma’s own stunned look of dismay at her own actions). Nagisa is devastated.

How are we to make sense of this incident? How can Shizuma be so cold to Nagisa?

I think the anime gives at least two answers to this question, the first in terms of Shizuma’s psychology and characterization, and the second in terms of the anime’s narrative structure. As regards Shizuma’s psychology, it is clear that Shizuma is passively following Miyuki’s lead, and Miyuki’s motives are straightforward. She wants Miator to win the election, and sees the Nagisa-Tamao pair as the best candidate for winning. She says she has Nagisa’s best interest at heart, that there is no point to carrying on a relationship that will have to end when Shizuma graduates and leaves school in a few months. Also, it may be Miyuki has a secret jealousy of Nagisa, and wants unconsciously to frustrate her relationship with Shizuma. In this and later episodes, Shizuma, Tamao, and Nagisa ask pointedly just why Miyuki is so set on Nagisa and Tamao running in the election: the lack of any answer implies a personal motive such as jealousy, but this point is never made definite.

Shizuma’s acquiescence however is the real issue. Why does she go along with Miyuki in the first place? We have seen her passivity at other moments, as when she refuses to involve herself with Miyuki’s selection of the candidates for the election. Shizuma is living as if she has already left school behind. Having put the loss of Kaori behind her, and having passed on the role of Etoile, Shizuma behaves as if there is nothing left for her at school. Unfortunately for Nagisa this nothing includes her, but with Miyuki’s encouragement, Shizuma is willing to place Nagisa behind her along with everything else. So it is possible to make sense of Shizuma’s rejection of Nagisa, to connect it to the narrative and the characterizations that have been established to this point.

What is harder to do is to make this rejection continuous with the series’ imminent conclusion, where Shizuma will declare her love to Nagisa. Having constructed the narrative so that Shizuma rejects Nagisa, how can the anime plausibly reverse itself so quickly and bring them together again?

We learn from Shizuma’s rejection that she is not in love with Nagisa. But for her to arrive at the anime’s conclusion, in such a brief amount of time, Shizuma must be in love with Nagisa on some deeper level. As we saw in Kaori’s story, where Shizuma entertained a relationship with Nagisa while Kaori was still deep in her heart, Shizuma’s consciousness must exist on two levels, of surface thought–where she can reject Nagisa–and deep feeling–where she hides from herself the love that will reveal itself in the conclusion. At this point, then, Shizuma does not know she is in love with Nagisa. She does not know her own heart.

So we have three descending levels of psychological explanation to make sense of how Shizuma can reject Nagisa. Subject to a recurrent passivity, she allows herself to be influenced by Miyuki; living in the aftermath of a painful love affair and Etoileship, she is content to disassociate herself from the school and the Etoile election; and finally, at the deepest level, she does not know she is in love with Nagisa, and is therefore able to treat her callously. All of these levels complement and confirm each other, but it is Shizuma’s divorce from her innermost feelings that make possible the rest.

What will disclose Shizuma to herself? In the subsequent episodes, the anime suggests the experience of losing Nagisa is what compels Shizuma to face her true feelings. When Nagisa takes Shizuma’s advice and goes ahead and enters the election with Tamao, Shizuma will undergo a violent reaction of despair that will put the lie to herself about her cool, impersonal rejection of Nagisa in this scene. And only the imminent victory of Nagisa and Tamao in the Etoile election, which would mean the loss of Nagisa once and for all, spurs Shizuma at the climax to realize her feelings and to act upon them. At these moments, we see Shizuma’s deepest self forcing itself into her awareness, subjecting her to the pain of loss and compelling her finally to declare her love for Nagisa. Shizuma’s own explanations for her actions at the conclusion empasize this idea of herself acting autonomously to her own volition: she acts out of "a whim," because she "couldn’t help lt." In Shiuzma’s trajectory of love, the anime moves antithetically and antagonistically, in an abrupt phase change from self-ignorance to self-knowledge, from passivity to action, from the rejection of love to its complete consummation.

The other way to understand Shizuma’s rejection of Nagisa is to realize the incident is an integral part of a final narrative parallel the anime is constructing between the Nagisa-Shizuma and the Hikari-Amane romances. The last few episodes tell two stories: how Nagisa and Tamao come to stand in the election, and their training in preparation for the contest, and how Amane loses her memory due to a fall from her horse, and Hikari overcomes Amane’s sudden indifference to her. The two stories seem unrelated. But by having Shizuma reject Nagisa, the anime places Nagisa in the same position Hikari finds herself when Amane forgets who she is, and asks her to leave her alone. Both girls are rejected by their beloveds, and must face the possibility of losing them altogether.

Both Nagisa and Hikari will overcome the negation of their love by calling upon their own deepest resources of character. Again, as we saw above in Shizuma’s case, the narrative proceeds not gradually, but antagonistically, by presenting Nagisa and Hikari with a supreme test. They can achieve their love only if they are strong enough to love even when everything is taken away from them.

Hikari wins through by fulfilling Chikaru’s advice to have faith in Amane. Hikari holds fast to her hope that Amane will come back to herself, refusing to allow Amane to push her away, until she is able–by singing again the first song she sang for Amane at the beginning of the series–to restore Amane’s memory, and to consummate their relationship. Nagisa, who does not receive advice from Chikaru, instead knows simply to have faith in herself, to be willing to get over Shizuma, and to get on with her life. As she says to Tamao, when she tells her she wants to stand in the election after all, "You see, I feel a lot better after crying all night. I think I can forget about Etoile-sama. I don’t like being in the same position forever. It’s no good to always dwell on the past. I have to let myself take a step forward."  In other words, Nagisa chooses to be free, which is to be herself in her deepest sense. If Nagisa acts exactly the contrary to Hikari, who instead holds fast to Amane, we see both are following the same advice, since by having faith in Amane, Hikari is also trusting in her own deepest instincts, as Nagisa does, and by leaving Shizuma to her own devices, Nagisa is effectively having faith that Shizuma will discover her true feelings of love on her own.

Nagisa and Hikari know their own hearts, and act according to their deepest instincts and feelings. Consequently, they have the strength to endure the absolute loss of their beloveds, and indeed finally to achieve in reality their visions of love. In contrast, Shizuma is estranged from her own heart, and finds herself tormented by inner conflict, until her feelings break through and compel her to declare her love to Nagisa. The anime acknowledges the power of external factors such as accident–e.g. Amane’s fall from her horse–and social obligations–e.g. Miyuki’s interference on behalf of Miator–to complicate love’s path, to ensnare the lovers in the labyrinth of the episode’s title. But in the end, Strawberry Panic is arguing, love prevails. It does so in affirmation of the idea that the individual’s innermost feelings and character, self-knowledge, and the courage to hold fast to one’s heart are the decisive factors in life and relationships. If the anime dramatizes a dark view of love, where love proceeds antagonistically through rejection and despair, underlying the narrative is a radical confidence in the individual’s inward self and its capabilities.

* * *

Postscript: I now fully appreciate just how much Nagisa is truly the heroine of the anime, and how much the narrative is a matter of bringing Shizuma up to Nagisa’s level.

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Everything is a Star

There are two principal events in the "Duel" episode: the tennis match between Kaname and Amane, and the debate between Hikari and Yaya about Yaya’s refusal to continue singing. While the former is evidently the duel to which the episode title refers–Kaname challenges Amane to what she terms a duel, which we only later find out means a tennis match; and the spectators describe the match not as a game but as a duel–I want to suggest that Hikari and Yaya’s argument is also a duel, and even the very same duel Kaname and Amane are fighting.

On the face of it, this thesis lacks substance, since the two confrontations seem to be about quite different subjects. In Kaname and Amane’s case, their fight is motivated by Kaname’s resentment of Amane–at always losing to her, at being less popular than her–and by Kaname’s desire for Amane to accept her responsibility as a star and to stand for election as Etoile. In Yaya and Hikari’s case, Yaya is depressed by the realization Hikari will never requite her love, and feels herself unable to sing again. The contest on Hikari’s side is for her to convince Yaya to sing again, while not relenting on her steadfast love for Amane. If the first duel revolves around school stardom, and the second around unrequited love, we are entitled to think–as far as subject matter goes–the two debates to be unrelated.

That the debates nevertheless are connected we know from their formal presentation: the anime jump-cuts from the match to the argument, and then back again several times, to ensure that we juxtapose the two conflicts and consider each in the light of the other. Making the connection between the two unmistakable, however, is the fact both arguments achieve their resolutions through a striking repetition of language. To both arguments, the anime appeals to "passion" as the raison d’etre which obligates Amane to become Etoile and for Yaya to sing again.

 
As Kaname puts it, Amane has to become Etoile so that her admirers will be able to live a life of passion: "Those girls see you as their dream. You are their admiration, their courage, and their reason for living! For all of their wishes, you have to stand up! [...] And then, those girls’ chests will be burning with passion. And the one to do that is you, Amane!" In response, Amane then connects this passion to herself, and to Hikari: speaking to herself, she thinks "It’s me…Then, my chest will also burn with passion. [...] Not only for myself…but for everyone….[...] For Hikari!" In Amane’s formulation, the Etoile is a receiver and a focusing lens of passion, who reflects and conduces that passion outward into the lives of others, and who then experiences that same passion within herself, and finally with her beloved. The Etoile is a star, who radiates not light but burning passion in a chain of connection that links everyone together.
 
Hikari uses the exact same language to describe the power of Yaya’s singing. "Sing, then your chest will be warm again. And everyone who hears your song will warm up in their chests too. After that, even more people’s chests will warm up. No, they won’t just be warmed up, they’ll be burning with passion. That’s why…Yaya-chan, continue singing!" According to Hikari, song inspires passion within the singer, that then spreads outwards, to the listeners, and beyond them, to those the audience inspire in turn. Again, we see a chain of passion, where Yaya’s song fulfills the same role as the Etoile’s charisma in mediating passion among its listeners.

Once we notice this point of connection, we can recognize how the two confrontations are essentially the same duel. In both cases, one contestant (Kaname, Hikari) appeals to another (Amane, Yaya) to accept the responsibility of her personal capabilities (as Etoile, as a singer). In both cases, the first person justifies her appeal by pointing out the other person’s distinctive power of arousing passion in others. And in both cases, the other person recognizes the truth of this argument, consents to the first person’s appeal, and concedes the victory in the duel. If Amane wins the tennis match, Kaname wins the duel, since Amane agrees to stand for election as Etoile. And in agreeing to sing again, Yaya confesses she has lost her duel with Hikari: "I’ve lost. [...] Listening to what you said, I can’t say that I’ll stop singing any more." The two confrontations mirror each other in structure and outcome. It is the same duel.

 
We can now understand the difference between the confrontations’ subject-matters to be the basis for an analogy between them. On Yaya’s side, her song represents the affective power of art, to create and to communicate beauty that induces a burning passion in its audience. If we carry this idea over to the Etoile, we can recognize the Etoile to be a living work of art, an incarnated ideal whose charisma acts as a kind of beauty to inspire passion in others. And if a person can be a kind of art, then we learn that art is not a separate category but an attribute of life as a whole. In fact, Hikari tells Yaya just this: the "beautiful things" that fill Hikari’s heart and make it "warm" include not only Yaya’s song, and "[n]ot just Amane-sama! Coming to Spica and meeting Yaya-chan…Joining the Saintly Chorus, [...] Everything is in here. That’s why my chest is warm." In using the word  "everything," Strawberry Panic is precise: life in all its details is art. "Everything" mediates beauty and passion.

What do we learn if we carry the idea of the Etoile back over to Yaya’s song? It is that the charisma of the Etoile, the unique essence that sets her above everyone else, that makes her in Kaname’s resentful words "the chosen one," is the general attribute of every artist and work of art. The anime makes this point in the closing visual image of the episode. After the match, after Yaya has pushed Hikari out onto the court to congratulate Amane, and Amane and Hikari publicly declare their relationship, Yaya begins to sing. The animation then pulls back to a distance from above, and we can see that all the students who had watched the match are now centered around Yaya. Even Amane and Hikari are subsumed into the general audience. It is Yaya–with her voice, and the power of her art–who is the star.

To conclude, the "Duel" episode provides a brilliant generalizing gloss on the issue of the Etoile’s singularity, her idealized being that seems to set her off in a solitude of her own perfection, to which everyone else is diminished to being merely a foil. In contradiction to this movement toward election and isolation, Strawberry Panic subsumes the Etoile within an aesthetic conception of life in general, where all of life owns the power of beauty to create passion, and has the capacity to be a star. Rather than being isolated or static, the Etoile is part of a universal flow of beauty and passion. Rather than being unique, the Etoile shares in the aesthetic nature of everything that is. Everything is a star.

 
* * *

This episode also contains Nagisa and Shizuma’s first face-to-face encounter since the night at Shizuma’s vacation house. The incident occurs at the greenhouse. Nagisa has returned there, looking for Shizuma, and–noticing that the plants have been neglected–immediately sets about to watering the plants. When Shizuma comes in, they manage only a brief, strained conversation, where they avoid any intimacy (in acknowledgment of the distance between them, Nagisa shifts her form of address from "Shizuma-sama" to "Etoile-sama" in mid-sentence), and talk instead about the plants. Shizuma remarks "These flowers…they’re dying, right?" to which Nagisa rejoins "No. They’ll definitely bloom into beautiful flowers again."

This incident is an aside to the main events of the episode, but will figure importantly in later episodes. We notice Nagisa’s characteristic determination to set things right, set in counterpoint against Shizuma’s unfortunate passivity and morbid perspective. Of course the flowers are the metaphor for the two girls’ love relationship. Nagisa is dedicated to revivifying that relationship, but Shizuma seems resigned to its failure. If we want to know why, now that Kaori is out of the picture, the two girls do not immediately come together, it is due to a flaw in Shizuma’s character. Instead of being passive, she needs to act; instead of acquiescing to the flowers’ death, she needs to live. She needs to love life and to love Nagisa just as and as much as Nagisa loves life and loves her. Shizuma is not there yet. But the memory of this moment, of Nagisa insisting and acting for the sake of life and hope, will be a decisive catalyst to Shizuma at the moment when she will overcome herself at last, to bloom into a beautiful flower once again.

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Shizuma Getting Free

In the "Like a Flower" episode, Shizuma finally comes to terms with Kaori’s death, and is able to let her go from her heart at last. Given the tremendous resistance Shizuma has given to any such reconciliation, our question has to be, how is this possible? how is this episode different from the previous ones?

The decisive factor is Kaori’s letter, which Miyuki finds tucked away in the box for the Etoiles’ pendants. Kaori had foreseen that her death might devastate Shizuma. So she writes Shizuma a letter, which she intends for her to read after she dies, to forestall that unhappy outcome. In the letter, Kaori tells Shizuma to live after her death, to go on out into the world outside of their school, to keep close to her friends, and to have new relationships. Above all, she tells Shizuma to remain herself, the person whom she loves: "Shizuma, be free. Stay the way that I love you, the beautiful, strong, capable, and free Shizuma. Forever and ever. Please, Shizuma. Kaori."

Up till now, Shizuma had resisted all inducements to change that came from the outside, whether from Nagisa or Miyuki, for the sake of Kaori, whom she holds within herself. But to Kaori herself, who speaks to her from inside the fortress of her heart, Shizuma can have no such barrier. And so she listens at last to a plea to get over the loss of her love. Precisely since Shizuma still loves Kaori, since fulfilling the terms of her letter is a way of connecting one last time to Kaori, she takes Kaori’s letter immediately to heart. Shizuma’s first reaction is to connect Miyuki with Kaori’s advice "[t]here should be some one beside you who is always supporting you," and to acknowledge to Miyuki her special role in her life: "You’re my friend…my only friend. I couldn’t go on without you. I…need you." Miyuki is overcome, and embraces her. Already Shizuma has stepped out of her solitude, to appreciate the role Miyuki plays in her life, and to recognize that she herself is not self-sufficient, that she needs other people. In a nice antithesis to their previous conversation in the episode, where Shizuma had insisted she and Miyuki were fundamentally set apart from each other given that Miyuki had never shared Shizuma’s experience of love, now Shizuma recognizes a deeper connection between them based on friendship, of shared support and need. As Nagisa does in the previous episode, Shizuma begins her emotional recovery by integrating herself back into a social network of friendship.

A measure of the distance Shizuma has traversed is the fact that she now encourages Amane to become Etoile and to move forward her relationship with Hikari. Again, the anime provides a neat antithesis to Shizuma’s attitude of the day before. Then, to Amane’s question as to what the position of Etoile meant to her, Shizuma had disparaged the job as so many tiresome responsibilities. Even its personal aspect, the relationship between herself and Kaori, however transcendently significant–"[f]or certain, at that time…[w]e…had attained something…words could not describe"–she considered to be finally evanescent, a condition of loss. In a brilliant piece of animation, the anime indicates this idea visually, by showing us Shizuma after saying these words looking down at her empty hands. Now, however, she urges Amane to become Etoile, for the sake of the relationship with Hikari: "[y]ou have to become Etoile and attain something that only the Etoile can get." "And what is that?" ‘Find it yourself. It’s not something you can get alone." To make it clear that Shizuma is referring to Hikari, the animation pans over and centers upon Hikari singing in the choir behind them. Shizuma now understands the real value of her time as Etoile with Kaori, seeing it as something precious, and worth Amane and Hikari’s finding for themselves. She understands the position to exemplify that aspect of life one does with someone else, that cannot be realized by a single person. And finally, she understands the deep message about love that Kaori is exemplifying by her letter: that love is best expressed by extending to others, that just as Kaori seeks to bring Shizuma forward to new love, so too should Shizuma bring others to love.

Shizuma brings her fulfillment of Kaori’s letter to its culmination at the climax of the episode, when she returns the Etoiles’ pendants to the cathedral. Given that the pendants are to her emblems of the life she shared with Kaori, we can understand her act to return the pendants also as an intentional turning of Kaori’s page in her life, to go forward to a future without her. In confirmation of this decisive psychological step, just after she has set the pendants’ case down, Shizuma whispers "goodbye" to Kaori, and hears Kaori respond "goodbye" in return, while her image rises upward toward heaven and disappears. The anime provides us unambiguous evidence that Shizuma has at last released Kaori from her heart, and has become reconciled to her death. Kaori’s part in Strawberry Panic is now over.

There is no doubt Kaori’s letter acts as a deus-ex-machina in the plot, to move the narrative past the block Shizuma’s prior relationship with Kaori represented. In apology for this literary device, I repeat the point made above, that it is logically consistent with Shizuma’s characterization to this point, that she has sealed her heart against the outside, and can only be moved from within, by Kaori herself. Also, we can argue that the letter answers to steps in the same direction that Shizuma had made before getting the letter. I am thinking of how she tells Miyuki that she is sorry for hurting her, how she reflects to herself that she is always hurting others, especially Nagisa and Miyuki, and then how she decides–to Miyuki’s surprise–to attend Miyuki when she does to fetch the pendants from Kaori’s old room. If we link these scenes, we can understand them as to signify regret followed by an effort of renewed responsibility, whereby Shizuma on her own moves in the direction the letter will take her. If the letter is a deus-ex-machina, it enters a scene that Shizuma has already morally and psychologically prepared.

Finally, Kaori’s gesture maintains a pattern we see repeated throughout the series, whereby the third girl out deliberately and dramatically delivers her beloved to her rival. This moment occurs in all of the significant relationships narrated in Strawberry Panic: Miyuki helps Kaori walk over to Shizuma at the Etoiles’ inaugural ball, Yaya urges Hikari to go to Amane after the duel with Kaname, Kaname gives up her secret attraction for Amane and convinces her through the duel to stand for election as Etoile with Hikari, and, most spectacularly, Tamao pushes Nagisa toward Shizuma at the series’ conclusion. That Kaori does not go quite so far, to deliver Shizuma into Nagisa’s hand, is due to the circumstance of her death, which closes the specifics of the future from her sight; but so far as she can, Kaori means to separate Shizuma from her, and to hand her over to her future, and her future lovers. So Kaori’s letter does not enter the narrative anamolously or artificially: rather, it confirms a pattern in which all rivals lay down their contention, and celebrate the destined lovers’ union. In Strawberry Panic, love includes both lovers and friends: complementing the union of the two beloveds is the reconciliation of all rival friends to their love. Love conquers all.

In closing, I note the paradox by which Kaori bids Shizuma to be free, and Shizuma dutifully fulfills her instructions. Is this freedom, or is it Kaori’s shadow under another color? Certainly Kaori sets out an ideal of Shizuma, but which is also an understanding of her character, seen in its best light, from the perspective of one who loves her for her own sake: "[s]tay the way that I love you, the beautiful, strong, capable, and free Shizuma." If Shizuma simply repeats the letter, for Kaori’s sake, then she has not really achieved what Kaori asks. It is up to Shizuma to act and to live on her own the terms of this ideal, to give them their specific meaning in the particular events of her life. Shizuma’s steps in this episode are only a beginning, insofar as she is acting under Kaori’s influence: that is why the series is not over, and why the relationship between Shizuma and Nagisa does not go directly to its conclusion. She still has to learn to be free. The remainder of the anime amounts to a waiting for Shizuma herself to get up, to act for herself, to be free on her own account.

Appendix: the text of Kaori’s letter in full:

"To Shizuma. You’ll read this letter someday. When you do, I wonder how you’ll feel? Right now I have no regrets. *Just that I pray that someday this letter will reach you. **Do you remember? The days after we became Etoile? *Under the guidance of the past Etoile, the first time we entered the greenhouse. I fell in love the first time I saw it. The greenhouse is very pretty. No matter what season it is, there will always be the sweet scent of flowers and plants. Cold winds and rain don’t reach there. Just like the place we live, Astraea’s Hill. Hey, Shizuma. I’ll disappear before I’m able to see the outside world. To be protected by your warm love, and seeing the rain pouring down of the outside, I feel very happy. I have never once thought of leaving this place. I love it here. But Shizuma, you are different. You can walk under that cold, windy rain and look at the new world. There should be some one beside you who is always supporting you. And…look ahead. A brand new world awaits out there. You will surely have new encounters. Shizuma, I love you. Shizuma, be free. Stay the way that I love you, the beautiful, strong, capable, and free Shizuma. Forever and ever. Please, Shizuma. Kaori."

*narrator’s voice switches to Kaori. **Kaori and Shizuma speaking together. The narration opens with Shizuma’s voice. 

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Overcoming Despair

In the "Confession" episode Nagisa comes to terms with the pain she feels in the aftermath of Shizuma’s rejection of her on that stormy night at Shizuma’s vacation house. When we first see Nagisa in the episode, she is acting out an enthusiasm and cheerfulness she does not truly feel. She declares the chilly autumn weather "great," in an ironic offset to Tamao’s opening comment "[t]he winds of autumn are so cold;" she races to class and then struggles to pay attention to the lecturer; she exclaims how wonderful her dinner is, when she has eaten almost nothing. Nagisa seems to be disguising her true feelings from not only her friends but from herself as well. Nevertheless, both Tamao and Kagome recognize–in the excess of Nagisa’s enthusiasm, in her distraction from the events happening around her, and by their own perceptiveness–that her behavior is really a mask for a hidden sadness. The issue comes to a head when Nagisa attempts to play the piano once again. Kagome interrupts her, and asks her point-blank–apparently incongruously, since Nagisa is dry-eyed–why she is crying. The question brings Nagisa to herself, to what she is really feeling, and she breaks down into tears in fact. Kagome attempts to comfort her with her stuffed bear, and then Tamao comes to embrace her, and to put her to bed.

Why exactly is Nagisa overcome with tears? One can envisage any number of other plausible emotional reactions to Shizuma’s behavior, so why this one? Kagone’s question is a good one, in that it forces us to try to understand the particular significance of Nagisa’s weeping. The best clue the episode affords us to her inner state is the sequence of memories she has while trying to play the piano. First she remembers playing the piano together with Shizuma, she hears the music they played, and then she recalls some of the moments of the time she spent with her at her vacation house, and lastly she remembers Shizuma in a happy moment at the greenhouse. In the context of the possible memories she might have, given the extreme disappointment of the night at the vacation house, we can say that these memories are conspicuously positive ones, ones which remind Nagisa of the Shizuma she loves. Of course, these memories at the same time are hardly in accord with Shizuma as she is, consumed as she is with her memories of Kaori. So I think Nagisa’s feelings are a complex combination of emotions. She feels love: this is the point of her last memory, the happy Shizuma who is the object of her love. She feels longing for Shizuma, as evidenced by her desire to play the piano, to reenact her memories of her beloved. At the same time, she feels pain in that Shizuma has not reciprocated her love, given that Nagisa cannot quite bring herself to play the piano again, cannot continue to express love whose return has only been such extreme disappointment. Consequently, caught as she is in the contradiction between her love’s expression and its rejection, she desperately wants to disengage from her feelings altogether. That is why she denies her grief in the first place, why she dissolves into insensibility when forced to confront her feelings, and why later in the episode’s most dramatic scene she questions whether she should ever have come to Miator in the first place, to experience these feelings at all. All of these moments are efforts to remove herself from the arena of emotions, to solve the failure to consummate her love by annulling it altogether. Since she cannot, since her memory and her friends and her own, real love for Shizuma keep bringing her back to these feelings, her dominant emotion must be an overwhelming frustration with the emotional stalemate she finds herself in. 

So what brings Nagisa back from her despair? Her own strength I think is the primary reason. The first time we see her out of bed she is at the side of the lake, about to throw Shizuma’s house key into the water. She restrains herself, if barely; the moment amounts to a decision not to give up on Shizuma, and to accept the situation she herself is in, notwithstanding the frustration and the disappointment she feels. Once Nagisa makes this decision, the animation then brings in the support of her friends to corroborate her own decision: they decide to make her something to delicious to eat as a way of cheering her up. The food answers to Nagisa’s own physical and practical character, which is innately cheerful and vital, seeking to live in a happy and straightforward way; but of course the food also expresses her friends’ love and concern, which are a spiritual nourishment and comfort that help to restore her to cheerfulness. Finally, Tamao points out to Nagisa the crucial difference she has made in Tamao’s life, and in the lives of all their friends: "After that girl [ie Nagisa] came, every day was better than she [ie Tamao] ever imagined [...]You may not have been able to bring back a smile to your most important person, but you have spread that smile among the people around you." Nagisa matters, if not to Shizuma, then to her friends; she has a crucial place in their lives, and the love they bear her is the sign of the difference she makes. In contrast with the solitary Shizuma, Nagisa is emplaced in a social network of friends whom she has affected decisively to the good. Nagisa responds by taking Tamao’s words to heart and cheering up at last: she thanks her friends, and, in a satisfying comic denouement, invites them all to join her in a late-night tea party. Individual sorrow is resolved in social harmony.

So Nagisa does indeed achieve an emotional resolution. In this respect the episode contrasts Nagisa sharply with Shizuma. We see Shizuma sitting in Kaori’s old room, looking at the photograph of the two of them. The light outside changes in brightness, ending in twilight, so that we know Shizuma has spent the whole day caught up in her memories of Kaori, in the exact place we last see her on the day of Kaori’s death. Nagisa is able to overcome her grief, and Shizuma is not: that is the sum of the distance between them, the reason they cannot yet come together in the reconciliation the narrative is pointing towards.

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