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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