Love and Loss

In the "Refrain" episode, Miyuki tells Nagisa Kaori’s story, from the day Miyuki meets her, to her death and its immediate aftermath. This story is a love story, since it is principally the story of how Kaori and Shizuma meet, fall in love, and enjoy a brief relationship. It is also the story of a tragedy, since Kaori dies, and since Shizuma is devastated by her death. Miyuki brings forward "[t]hat story in which happiness was denied," as she bitterly terms it, to explain to Nagisa Shizuma’s behavior of the night before, and to portray Shizuma’s psychological condition in the two years since Kaori’s death.

Before the fall, there is an ascent: the episode testifies to an extraordinary capacity in love to transform and to elevate its participants. In Kaori’s case, Shizuma’s love affords her an opening into life, a birth into a vital existence she had never known. As she tells Miyuki, "Before I came here, I was so weak that I couldn’t even leave my room. Before coming to Miator, I…thought I didn’t exist in the world. I thought I wasn’t alive. But after I started living here, I was released from the other world." Love with Shizuma is life, the whole of life: she is born anew, she lives in love, and she passes on to death, a whole life lived in a love of a year and a half’s time.

Love’s transformation is almost as profound for Shizuma. The anime portrays her, before she meets Kaori, as selfish and immature: in her first scene in the episode, Shizuma is lying on her bed, pouting to Miyuki about their room temp, as she conspicuously lets Miyuki pick up the magazines she has scattered upon the floor. The anime sums up her character with the Japlish title of her magazine: she is not Figaro, but Pigaro. But love with Kaori transforms her. The love she and Kaori share is itself the absolute antithesis to her prior self-centeredness. She and Kaori live for each other, not for themselves: their joy is in the other’s joy, not in their own. And although we do not see it, since much of Kaori’s illness happens off stage, we know–if only from the depth of her love–that Shizuma attends her through the length of it. The girl who starts out callously indifferent to Kaori’s condition becomes by the end a person of exemplary devotion. In elevating Kaori from death to life, and Shizuma from selfishness to devotion, the love the girls have for one another exalts them to a sublime existence, in which they transcend the failings they have as individuals.

So far we have been discussing love in the abstract, as an ideal which idealizes its subjects. Surely love is love, but Shizuma and Kaori’s love has its own distinctive feature, and this is not at all ideal or abstract. I refer of course to Kaori’s physical condition. When we first see her, with Miyuki, she is sad and apathetic; when we see her again, with Shizuma, she is sitting on a chair her face turned away looking out the window, posed almost for one of Whistler’s paintings, a melancholy beauty. It is this pathetic quality that strikes Shizuma at once, makes her start when she sees her. Death is never far from Kaori, and infiltrates her life with a pathos that makes her beautiful. The overhanging threat of death makes her life more precious, and more intense by its enforced brevity. Kaori is of a piece with poetry, Keats’ "She dwells with beauty–beauty that must die," and Stevens’ "Death is the mother of beauty." Now we must not take this idea too far: the short images of the happy times she shares with Shizuma are simply happy moments, life without thought of death. Still, I want to suggest that it is this pathos of mortality that makes the experience of their relationship so powerful to Shizuma, and explains in part why Shizuma remains so attached to Kaori even after death: Shizuma loved the immense pathos death invests in Kaori, and her actual dying only intensifies and confirms, and does not cancel, that melancholy attraction.

What happens to Shizuma after Kaori dies? What happens after the loss of an ideal? Miyuki tells us. "From that time on, Shizuma sealed her own heart. In these two years, the only one in Shizuma’s heart was her, at a place where no one can reach. That girl is still there." Shizuma lives in the life that Kaori has left behind: life lived under the shadow of tragedy, life with an absence at its center. She erects memorials to Kaori: her room at school, and her room at the vacation house, left empty to symbolize her absence. As we have noticed in previous essays, Shizuma lives a life of alienation and disassociation, throwing up public duties, taking up a string of lovers, haunting the woods and isolating herself from others. All of these acts attempt to make Shizuma’s own life into a memorial to Kaori, a ruin continually signifying its cause in Kaori’s death. The pathos of Kaori’s early dying becomes in its turn the pathos of Shizuma’s devastated life. And as we saw in the previous episode, even Nagisa cannot change this momentum of loss, but becomes instead its latest aspect.

Shizuma’s tragic situation brings into focus just how much Strawberry Panic confronts the problem of tragedy, of how to live life in the shadow of tragedy. Kaori and Shizuma are at the center of the anime, I would argue, because the tragedy they face is the quintessential human tragedy of death; Nagisa is the anime’s heroine because she embodies the anime’s response to death. But there are many other, if less grievous tragedies, from Yaya’s failure to achieve her love for Hikari, to Kaname’s resentment at always having to come in second to the stars of her world. These tragedies afford the anime its most compelling moments, when the affected characters learn from their friends how to find meaning in a world of unavoidable loss and disappointment. Here I am thinking of the moments in which Hikari inists that Yaya continue to sing, or when Tamao answers Nagisa’s wish she had never come to Miator by telling her the immense difference she has made in her life, or when Kaname duels with Amane and convinces her to take up her responsibilities as a star to become a candidate for Etoile. What I appreciate most about Strawberry Panic is its clear awareness of the tragedy in life, as well as its determined conviction that tragedy may and must be rectified. It is this awareness and this conviction that gives the anime its remarkable moral depth.

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