Mirrored Romances

 
The episode "You on the White Horse" introduces the second major romance in Strawberry Panic, the love between Hikari and Amane, with Hikari’s friend Yaya as the disappointed rival for Hikari’s affections. The question I am interested in is how does this relationship illuminate the anime’s central romance, of Nagisa and Shizuma?
 
Notice the formal resemblances between the two relationships: a highly-respected older girl vis-a-vis an outsider, transfer student younger girl, with the younger girl’s friend and roommate as the third girl out. The two romances mirror each other. Yet I think the differences between them are more salient, due to the difference in personality between Nagisa and Hikari. Unlike Nagisa, Hikari is shy and timid, almost content to worship Amane from afar. Consequently, their relationship becomes a complementary matching of Hikari’s hero-worship with Amane’s princely protection of a princess. Hikari and Amane enshrine a reciprocal hierarchy within their romance. The contrast with Nagisa’s assertiveness and the relative lack of hierarchy in her relationship with Shizuma I think is palpable. So the fact of the formal similarity between the two romances is all the more striking. What is going on here?
 
Certainly the anime is illustrating different ways of overcoming the essential inequity of ages, experience, and social standing between partners, but the truth of that hardly needs saying. Perhaps the formal similarity brings forward what we might otherwise overlook, some hidden resemblances between the characters, as well as some of the deep invariant characteristics of love in this anime. If Amane resembles Shizuma in her preference for solitude, in her distaste for the office of Etoile and the responsibility of standing for election on behalf of St. Spica, perhaps we are thereby to learn that self-will and alienation are part and parcel of being of a school star, and may even be the source of the two senior girls’ romantic attractiveness. It cannot be coincidental that the anime’s romantic stars are Shizuma and Amane, who are as close to "bad girls" as we are likely to get in an anime, and not Miyuki, Shion, and Chikaru, the conventional presidents of the school’s student councils. Hikari’s worship of Amane corresponds to Nagisa’s tendency to be overwhelmed by Shizuma’s presence: the younger girls remind us there is in love an element of submission and fascination, an extinction of self in the beloved which puts at naught will and reason. Finally, Nagisa and Shizuma’s similarity puts us on the alert for the deep similarity between Hikari and Amane, which after all is the main theme of this episode: that both experienced early feelings of failure, and that both are angels in each other’s eyes. As a figure for love, an angel signifies an extreme beauty, purity, and elevation of feeling. Thus, Hikari’s angel is a high, remote figure: the animation places Hikari’s point-of-view beneath, looking up at Amane on horseback in the midst of a jump. And Amane’s angel resides in the pure ethereal beauty of Hikari’s song. With this image, we encounter Strawberry Panic’s characteristic fusion of love and art, of passion for the beloved mixed with the perception of beauty. But ordinary life sustains this unity only imperfectly: the angel’s pure exaltation of aesthetic feeling slides into human yearning, for what one does not have, for who one is not. As a narrative of courtship, the anime amounts to a quest for this perfect moment, of complete love and complete beauty. We and the principals are almost always outside it, in the aspiration for it, in the overcoming of the inevitable barriers to it. Its achievement is the end of the story; we have no idea that it can be sustained. In Strawberry Panic, love is an equivocal goal, whose perfect and beautiful light casts upon ordinary life a shadow of unfulfilled desire, disappointment, and social alienation.
 
Let me make a couple more points about Hikari and Amane’s romance. Its course and conclusion is really given from the beginning: the episode recounts the two girls’ first meeting, and the distance they go in establishing their relationship in that meeting is substantial. While they will not consumate their romance until the end of the anime, they are most of the way there by the end of their first episode. This tells us that the narrative interest in their story is actually Yaya, how she comes to meet and overcome her disappointment in finding her love for Hikari unrequited. We also learn that the elective affinity between lovers is a given, susceptible to tragic accidents perhaps, but not in itself alterable or amenable to influence. Amane does not learn to love Hikari; she has only to learn that she does and to find a time and a place to express it. Also we see that the universe conspires for the sake of true lovers: Hikari’s mistake in the chorus and her night-time despair that brings her to the racetrack miraculously becomes the opportunity to sing for Amane at her morning practice, and then to talk with her and establish their relationship. Yaya’s concern and waiting up all night for an absent Hikari is conscientious, but that counts for nothing in a universe which privileges love. In its way this world of love is quite unfeeling to those who are left out, the Tamao’s and the Yaya’s. The anime itself is sympathetic to them, but all the same, there are in love those who win, and also those who lose. The episode gives us a sweet moral, about how successful people begin in failure and doubt, and so Hikari learns to persevere; but the knowledge the anime conceals about love is hard and dark.
 
 
 
 
 

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