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.