At the opening of "Hydrangeas," Shizuma asks herself: "In the greenhouse, the flowers do not feel the rain. Outside the greenhouse, the flowers grow under the rain. They’re all flowers, but which ones are more fortunate? If only they could speak to us with words, what would the flowers say?" I love this question: it is allusive, mysterious, endlessly significant, but still, I want to know: what does it mean? What is Shizuma asking?
The episode’s closing shot, where the bird’s-eye view of the girls under their umbrellas draws back to transform the spots of colors into hydrangeas, indicates Shizuma is asking about the students themselves. Is she asking about their sheltered existence within the school, a greenhouse that protects them from the rain of the outside world? They are watered, they receive care, they become beautiful. But they never feel the rain directly. What is the rain? The symbolism is not definite. Other episodes will explain Shizuma’s thinking: I do not recall the details, but later Shizuma will explain her attraction to Nagisa in terms of Nagisa’s intrinsic capability for freedom in what Shizuma feels to be a circumscribed world. So rain is the wild freedom of nature, life untouched by convention and restraint. Other answers: from Kaname and Momomi, when Momomi calls herself a bee and asks Kaname for water, when what she means is sexual love: rain here is sexuality. Also, we recall the wild rain on the night Shizuma tells Nagisa about her lost lover, where the rain signifies wild and uncontrolled emotion: rain is passion without bounds. Perhaps there are other possibilities…
The narrative of the episode, involving Nagisa’s lost umbrella, the competition as to who gets to walk with Nagisa under a shared umbrella, Nagisa’s drawing of Kagome from her highly introverted shell, all really involve the life of the flowers inside the greenhouse, the little victories of a child’s world. They are cute, and satisfying, but only go as far as they go. Evidently the flowers in the greenhouse have no idea as to how life might be different, or more than what they already have. Shizuma’s question measures her discontent, her alienation from the greenhouse world, her longing for something more, even for love. The metaphor she chooses marks romance at a sharp discontinuity with childhood. About this latter point we can multiply paradoxes: the life at school Strawberry Panic depicts is all about romance; Nagisa and Shizuma conduct their romance in the greenhouse. We cannot help but wonder if romance is itself an idealized world, another version of the greenhouse?
But let us not forget that Shizuma’s question remains a question. The episode does not answer the question one way or another. There remains the possibility that the flowers in the greenhouse have the better life, that Shizuma herself knows too much, that she rues the tragic cost of what she knows.
As it turns out, I think the anime does in the end answer the question, and on the side of the flowers outside. In the key episode where Shizuma confuses Nagisa with Kaori, she in effect tries to undo the past, to go back to the earlier, simpler world, before death, and loss. This amounts to a betrayal, of her own tragic knowledge and experience, of her love for Kaori and Nagisa, and of Nagisa herself, but we can only have sympathy for Shizuma. It is hard to live in the rain. But I think the deepest lesson Strawberry Panic has for us is that there is no going back, that there is only going forward, through loss, to a new love.