In the "Labyrinth" episode, Miyuki pushes forward her plan to get Nagisa and Tamao to stand as Miator’s candidates in the Etoile election. The main obstacle to her plan is Nagisa’s love for Shizuma. Nagisa refuses any part in Miyuki’s plans, since to take part in the election would be to declare before the whole school that she and Tamao share a relationship Nagisa wants with Shizuma alone. To overcome her objection, Miyuki enlists Shizuma in the effort to convince Nagisa to get over Shizuma and to pair with Tamao. And Shizuma goes along with Miyuki’s plan. When Nagisa hears from Miyuki that Shizuma wants her to enter the Etoile election with Tamao, she cannot believe it, and races to the greenhouse to find out if the claim is true, and to beg–with all the desperation of love–for Shizuma to say she does not want her to run, even if it is a lie. In a display of extreme emotional coldness, Shizuma confirms Nagisa’s worst fears. With a perfect impersonality, she thanks (!) Nagisa for her feelings of love, tells her she should run in the election, since she and Tamao "look good together" (!), and then–to break the last link between them–asks Nagisa to return her house key. When Nagisa tries to hold on to the key, Shizuma tops everything she has said and done so far: she kisses Nagisa’s forehead, tells her in just so many words to "forget about [her]," and bids her "goodbye." At this unequivocal sign of Shizuma’s rejection, Nagisa dissolves into tears, releases the key, and runs away. To Nagisa, Shizuma’s rejection is apparently complete (she does not see Shiuzma’s own stunned look of dismay at her own actions). Nagisa is devastated.
How are we to make sense of this incident? How can Shizuma be so cold to Nagisa?
I think the anime gives at least two answers to this question, the first in terms of Shizuma’s psychology and characterization, and the second in terms of the anime’s narrative structure. As regards Shizuma’s psychology, it is clear that Shizuma is passively following Miyuki’s lead, and Miyuki’s motives are straightforward. She wants Miator to win the election, and sees the Nagisa-Tamao pair as the best candidate for winning. She says she has Nagisa’s best interest at heart, that there is no point to carrying on a relationship that will have to end when Shizuma graduates and leaves school in a few months. Also, it may be Miyuki has a secret jealousy of Nagisa, and wants unconsciously to frustrate her relationship with Shizuma. In this and later episodes, Shizuma, Tamao, and Nagisa ask pointedly just why Miyuki is so set on Nagisa and Tamao running in the election: the lack of any answer implies a personal motive such as jealousy, but this point is never made definite.
Shizuma’s acquiescence however is the real issue. Why does she go along with Miyuki in the first place? We have seen her passivity at other moments, as when she refuses to involve herself with Miyuki’s selection of the candidates for the election. Shizuma is living as if she has already left school behind. Having put the loss of Kaori behind her, and having passed on the role of Etoile, Shizuma behaves as if there is nothing left for her at school. Unfortunately for Nagisa this nothing includes her, but with Miyuki’s encouragement, Shizuma is willing to place Nagisa behind her along with everything else. So it is possible to make sense of Shizuma’s rejection of Nagisa, to connect it to the narrative and the characterizations that have been established to this point.
What is harder to do is to make this rejection continuous with the series’ imminent conclusion, where Shizuma will declare her love to Nagisa. Having constructed the narrative so that Shizuma rejects Nagisa, how can the anime plausibly reverse itself so quickly and bring them together again?
We learn from Shizuma’s rejection that she is not in love with Nagisa. But for her to arrive at the anime’s conclusion, in such a brief amount of time, Shizuma must be in love with Nagisa on some deeper level. As we saw in Kaori’s story, where Shizuma entertained a relationship with Nagisa while Kaori was still deep in her heart, Shizuma’s consciousness must exist on two levels, of surface thought–where she can reject Nagisa–and deep feeling–where she hides from herself the love that will reveal itself in the conclusion. At this point, then, Shizuma does not know she is in love with Nagisa. She does not know her own heart.
So we have three descending levels of psychological explanation to make sense of how Shizuma can reject Nagisa. Subject to a recurrent passivity, she allows herself to be influenced by Miyuki; living in the aftermath of a painful love affair and Etoileship, she is content to disassociate herself from the school and the Etoile election; and finally, at the deepest level, she does not know she is in love with Nagisa, and is therefore able to treat her callously. All of these levels complement and confirm each other, but it is Shizuma’s divorce from her innermost feelings that make possible the rest.
What will disclose Shizuma to herself? In the subsequent episodes, the anime suggests the experience of losing Nagisa is what compels Shizuma to face her true feelings. When Nagisa takes Shizuma’s advice and goes ahead and enters the election with Tamao, Shizuma will undergo a violent reaction of despair that will put the lie to herself about her cool, impersonal rejection of Nagisa in this scene. And only the imminent victory of Nagisa and Tamao in the Etoile election, which would mean the loss of Nagisa once and for all, spurs Shizuma at the climax to realize her feelings and to act upon them. At these moments, we see Shizuma’s deepest self forcing itself into her awareness, subjecting her to the pain of loss and compelling her finally to declare her love for Nagisa. Shizuma’s own explanations for her actions at the conclusion empasize this idea of herself acting autonomously to her own volition: she acts out of "a whim," because she "couldn’t help lt." In Shiuzma’s trajectory of love, the anime moves antithetically and antagonistically, in an abrupt phase change from self-ignorance to self-knowledge, from passivity to action, from the rejection of love to its complete consummation.
The other way to understand Shizuma’s rejection of Nagisa is to realize the incident is an integral part of a final narrative parallel the anime is constructing between the Nagisa-Shizuma and the Hikari-Amane romances. The last few episodes tell two stories: how Nagisa and Tamao come to stand in the election, and their training in preparation for the contest, and how Amane loses her memory due to a fall from her horse, and Hikari overcomes Amane’s sudden indifference to her. The two stories seem unrelated. But by having Shizuma reject Nagisa, the anime places Nagisa in the same position Hikari finds herself when Amane forgets who she is, and asks her to leave her alone. Both girls are rejected by their beloveds, and must face the possibility of losing them altogether.
Both Nagisa and Hikari will overcome the negation of their love by calling upon their own deepest resources of character. Again, as we saw above in Shizuma’s case, the narrative proceeds not gradually, but antagonistically, by presenting Nagisa and Hikari with a supreme test. They can achieve their love only if they are strong enough to love even when everything is taken away from them.
Hikari wins through by fulfilling Chikaru’s advice to have faith in Amane. Hikari holds fast to her hope that Amane will come back to herself, refusing to allow Amane to push her away, until she is able–by singing again the first song she sang for Amane at the beginning of the series–to restore Amane’s memory, and to consummate their relationship. Nagisa, who does not receive advice from Chikaru, instead knows simply to have faith in herself, to be willing to get over Shizuma, and to get on with her life. As she says to Tamao, when she tells her she wants to stand in the election after all, "You see, I feel a lot better after crying all night. I think I can forget about Etoile-sama. I don’t like being in the same position forever. It’s no good to always dwell on the past. I have to let myself take a step forward." In other words, Nagisa chooses to be free, which is to be herself in her deepest sense. If Nagisa acts exactly the contrary to Hikari, who instead holds fast to Amane, we see both are following the same advice, since by having faith in Amane, Hikari is also trusting in her own deepest instincts, as Nagisa does, and by leaving Shizuma to her own devices, Nagisa is effectively having faith that Shizuma will discover her true feelings of love on her own.
Nagisa and Hikari know their own hearts, and act according to their deepest instincts and feelings. Consequently, they have the strength to endure the absolute loss of their beloveds, and indeed finally to achieve in reality their visions of love. In contrast, Shizuma is estranged from her own heart, and finds herself tormented by inner conflict, until her feelings break through and compel her to declare her love to Nagisa. The anime acknowledges the power of external factors such as accident–e.g. Amane’s fall from her horse–and social obligations–e.g. Miyuki’s interference on behalf of Miator–to complicate love’s path, to ensnare the lovers in the labyrinth of the episode’s title. But in the end, Strawberry Panic is arguing, love prevails. It does so in affirmation of the idea that the individual’s innermost feelings and character, self-knowledge, and the courage to hold fast to one’s heart are the decisive factors in life and relationships. If the anime dramatizes a dark view of love, where love proceeds antagonistically through rejection and despair, underlying the narrative is a radical confidence in the individual’s inward self and its capabilities.
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Postscript: I now fully appreciate just how much Nagisa is truly the heroine of the anime, and how much the narrative is a matter of bringing Shizuma up to Nagisa’s level.