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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Every Unhappy Lover Unhappy in Her Own Way

In "Storm of Love," Shizuma attempts to tell Nagisa about the lost Etoile, Kaori. While doing so, Shizuma once again sees Nagisa as her lost lover, and once again, she collapses. Deeply upset, Nagisa responds by fleeing Shizuma. This episode reprises the collapse of the "Summertime" episode, but provides the context which explains Shizuma’s paralysis, the story about the dead Etoile. In addition, the episode emphasizes Nagisa’s reaction, her flight, by repeating it twice, once when she flees Shizuma again when Shizuma, now recovered, approaches her, and a second time the next morning, when Shizuma wakes to find Nagisa has fled the house without her. Both girls are overwhelmed by moments of extreme emotion, whose end is to drive them almost violently apart. So we have then two inevitable dramatic high points in the epiosde: Shizuma’s collapse, and Nagisa’s flight. Why do these crises happen, and what do they reveal about Nagisa and Shizuma’s characters?

The repercussions of these events expand from this episode to the conclusion of the anime. Later episodes, and especially the subsequent one, go into Kaori’s backstory in great detail, and actually do the work of making psychological sense of both girls’ actions. This episode is concerned solely with dramatizing the events, with creating for the viewer the experience of Shizuma’s collapse and Nagisa’s flight. Emotion and experience is what counts in this episode, not understanding. Whatever we have to say about the girls’ characters will have to respect the episode’s essentially melodramatic quality.

In Shizuma’s case, we learn at least two things. Though dead, Kaori is still alive in Shizuma’s heart. Shizuma can still believe and perceive Kaori to be alive. Kaori exists in a strange condition of life-in-death, dead and alive at once. That is why when Shizuma sees her, she is pale and white, colorless in the lightning, resembling nothing so much as a ghost; also she is nude, in remembrance of the time she and Shizuma made love, but all the same resembling nothing so much as a corpse. Shizuma is shocked to see her impossibly alive; one wonders how much she is shocked to see her as if she were also dead. In dramatizing this confusion, the animation adopts a macabre tone entirely keeping with the other Gothic elements of the scene: the storm, the lightning, the night, the ocean surges, the isolated house, etc.

The other thing we learn about Shizuma is that she is in a condition of stasis, locked in a hopeless longing for Kaori–thus she appears at Shizuma’s unconscious wish–that is also the moment of knowing her loss, as her renewed tears and grief indicate. Shizuma is perpetually caught in the instant of losing Kaori. Therefore she represses her memories, adopting an ordinary appearance of remoteness and distance; but that means, when her inner barriers give way, as they do in this episode, she is brought back directly and immediately to the very moment of Kaori’s death. Shizuma is truly and literally living a nightmare from which she is unable to awake. 

What are we to make of Nagisa’s repeated flights from Shizuma? To understand her reaction, we need to look at what she says to Shizuma, when Shizuma–having recovered from her seizure–approaches Nagisa out on the bluffs beside the sea. Nagisa turns back to her, her face tear-stricken, and then turns abruptly away again, squeezes her eyes shut, and exclaims, "I’m sorry." After Shizuma reacts in surprise, Nagisa continues, "I’m no good…right? I’m sorry!" Then she brushes past Shizuma and runs back toward the house. Later, when she finally get back to the Strawberry Dorms, and collapses into Tamao’s arm, she once again says, "I’m sorry."

What does Nagisa mean? What has she got to apologize for? There are two possibilities. She is saying that she is "no good" in the sense of being unable to bring Shizuma back to normal. She is responding to Shizuma’s earlier words, echoing Miyuki’s of the previous episode, that even since Kaori’s death, her world has "lost its color," but that Nagisa has enabled her to "retrieve" that color once more, to help her "stand up again." Shizuma’s collapse proves Nagisa has not in fact been able to bring Shizuma back, that she has failed Shizuma, and lost her own role in Shizuma’s life. Nagisa blames herself, as Tamao will put it later, for not having been able "to bring back a smile to your most important person."

The other possibility is that she is saying she is "no good" in being unable to replace Kaori, to give Shizuma what she really wants, which is Kaori. In other words, Nagisa realizes that Shizuma still loves and longs for Kaori, and that she herself does not signify in Shizuma’s world except as a placeholder for Kaori herself. If we understand, as Nagisa’s half-confession to Tamao in the previous episode strongly suggests, that Nagisa is in love with Shizuma and knows it, then Nagisa’s flight and subsequent depression reflects her feeling that Shizuma has rejected her.

The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and reflect the difference in the perspectives of the girls themselves. As we have discussed before, Shizuma and Miyuki regard Nagisa in a utilitarian light, as a means to the end of healing Shizuma. The idea that Nagisa has failed Shizuma assumes Nagisa exists to serve Shizuma, amounts to a way of looking at Nagisa from the standpoint of Shizuma’s benefit. Put another way, Shizuma is telling a story where the tragedy of the night’s events is that she is has failed to recover from Kaori’s death. The second interpretation accords with Nagisa’s own feelings for Shizuma, and makes sense of the same events in terms of the relationship itself, as a failure in the intimate workings of love. Nagisa is telling a different story, one whose tragedy is that she and Shizuma have failed to become lovers.

Of course Nagisa only says one thing. The fact that we can break it into two senses points to the distance that still remains between the two girls. I think the anime is aware of this distance, and marks it out in the details of the narrative. For instance, we can see a recognition of the essential selfishness of Shizuma’s attitude, an implied criticism of it, in the fact that Shizuma starts to go off the rails only after she interrupts Nagisa’s reciprocation ("Me too. Ever since I met Shizuma-sama…") to tell her "I still have a lot to tell you." We can forgive Shizuma her self-regard, given her great need; also, we can understand why Nagisa might adopt this view too, since anyone would want to be a real help to the person one loves. All the same, the anime shows us Shizuma at this moment insisting upon a monologue, and overriding the necessary recipricocity of love. On Nagisa’s side, the episode underlines the development of her feelings into love by the marked contrast of her reactions here to those she exhibited in the "Summertime" episode. Previously, Nagisa had been uncomfortable with Shizuma’s advances, and uncomprehending of Shizuma’s sudden fugue: her flight then was simply the wish to get out of a situation that was completely over her head. But in this episode, as the commentator Mentar on the Random Curiosity blog has noted, Nagisa now is accepting of Shizuma’s intimacy (1). She knows she is in love, and hopes for love’s consumation. When Shizuma breaks, she stays with her, showing a lover’s concern, until Shizuma’s repetition of Kaori’s name drives her to a lover’s despair, and flight. So I think the anime is perfectly clear, wants the viewer to recognize, the different motivations propelling the two girls.

So, at the close of the episode, where does Nagisa and Shizuma’s love stand? Nagisa has gone ahead of Shizuma, has achieved the ability to be broken-hearted over her relationship with Shizuma. Shizuma, on the other hand, is still lost in the past. The episode closes with Shizuma sitting on her bed, looking at the photograph of herself and Kaori, Kaori sitting with Shizuma behind her, Shizuma’s arm draped around Kaori’s shoulder, with Kaori’s hand holding Shizuma’s. They are both smiling and happy. That was then, this is now. Both Nagisa and Shizuma have managed to find themselves their own distinctive and individual places of exquisite misery.

(1) See http://randomc.animeblogger.net/2006/07/31/strawberry-panic-18/#comment-27726

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Nagisa’s Secret Identity

 
With the episode "Secret," Strawberry Panic begins its long glide to its conclusion. Two new elements are introduced into the narrative: the Etoile election gets underway, and Nagisa investigates what happened to Shizuma’s Etoile partner. As we shall see, the discovery of Shizuma’s secret past will explain the previous failures Nagisa and Shizuma have had in advancing their relationship, and the Etoile election will set the stage for a dramatic conclusion to their romance.

The episode brings up several times the idea that Shizuma has "changed." Tamao tells Nagisa about the lost Etoile, that she "passed away, "and that "[e]ver since that day, Shizuma-sama changed." The anime then jump cuts to Miyuki telling Shizuma, "Shizuma, you’ve changed. You actually take your job as Etoile seriously," followed by Miyuki thinking to herself in the bath, "You’ve changed, Shizuma." We have a concensus of observers who agree that Shizuma has been changed one way, by the death of her friend, and then another way, by the appearance of Nagisa.

So, what are these changes in Shizuma? It is hard to be precise, since we rarely get Shizuma reflecting to herself. Instead, we have to rely on our own interpretation of her words and actions, and on what the people close to her have to say about her. Indeed, a great part of what makes Shizuma fascinating is this very distance, such that everything in her world mediates the secret of her self, becomes a romantic tapestry that enigmatically reveals her to the reader.

The metaphor Miyuki uses to explain Shizuma’s change are winter ones: ice, and its melting; the seasons, winter turning into spring: "You’ve changed. You used to be like an iceberg; no one can touch your heart. Just like an iceberg, you were always cold and removed. Then this iceberg began to melt. Your heart is ready to welcome spring. That girl may be the one to bring you this spring." Nagisa thus brings a restoration, the frozen heart brought back to what it had been before, and the seasons turning around to a new spring, life to what it had been before the winter. Miyuki imagines for Shizuma a reverdie: having been made into a death by Kaori’s death, now Shizuma will be made into spring by Nagisa’s new presence.

In the deepest sense, what Miyuki says is true. We know that from the series’ conclusion, where Nagisa and Shizuma consummate their love. But it is not simply true, since as we see in the following episode, the dead Etoile retains Shizuma’s heart in ice, and in fact Nagisa has not melted it entirely. So the real question to ask is "has Shizuma really changed? has Nagisa changed Shizuma at all?"

Perhaps not. Perhaps the truth is the other way around, that it is Shizuma who has changed Nagisa. In fact, I think we can even say that Shizuma has transformed Nagisa into a second Kaori. The proof-text for this assertion is the extraordinary moment in which Shizuma encounters Nagisa playing the piano at night. Let me set the scene. Nagisa is troubled, thinking about the lost Etoile and her relationship with Shizuma, and, unable to sleep, is playing the piece she and Shizuma had played together. Shizuma is awake, apparently looking for the key to her vacation house, wandering in the dorm halls, and overhears the piano music. Nagisa is caught up in her memories of Shizuma, when they first met, their first kiss. "I…and Shizuma-sama…" Shizuma stands stock-still at the door, watching Nagisa play unawares. What does Shizuma see? Even though the time is night, and the room is dark, unlit, what she sees is almost whited out in light. It appears to be Kaori and not Nagisa, since there is a bow in the girl’s hair that Nagisa does not wear. To make this point unmistakable, Shizuma gasps. For this moment, Nagisa is Kaori.

What is going on is this. Part of the way Shizuma has allowed Nagisa to become close to her is by unconsciously engaging Nagisa in actions and in places that repeat Shizuma’s own history with Kaori. This pattern will become much more evident in the subsequent episode in which Miyuki tells Nagisa about Kaori: we will see there that the tree where Shizuma meets Nagisa is also the place she and Kaori first made love; that Kaori loved the greenhouse, so that when Nagisa gardens there with Shizuma, she is filling Kaori’s place. We learn in the current episode that Kaori loved the piano music Nagisa is playing; in teaching her to play it, Shizuma sets Nagisa up as a reminder of Kaori. Even Shizuma’s plan to take Nagisa to her vacation house repeats the earlier time when Shizuma, Miyuki, and Kaori had gone there together. We have already talked about how Nagisa acts as Etoile with Shizuma; but that is another way of making the point we are making here: in a substantial part of her relationship with Shizuma, Nagisa has been standing in for Kaori. The fact that at crucial moments in her relationship with Nagisa Shizuma is overwhelmed by the memory of Kaori reflects not just the remnant of Kaori in her heart but the extent to which Nagisa herself is acting like Kaori.

From this perspective, far from releasing Shizuma from what Miyuki calls "the shackles of the past," Nagisa is binding Shizuma in them. Rather than changing Shizuma, Nagisa is perpetuating the impossible wish that Kaori never died. It is no wonder Nagisa and Shizuma’s relationship never gets anywhere. At every moment where Nagisa gets close to Shizuma, she leads Shizuma directly back to her lost love. Shizuma’s world freezes her in her past: everything, Nagisa not excepted, returns her to Kaori, and to the loss of Kaori.

 
What about Nagisa herself? Who is she? It is a nice irony that, in this episode, while Shizuma thinks of her as Kaori, Nagisa resembles no one so much as Shizuma herself. I am thinking principally of the scenes early in the episode, where Nagisa is troubled by the new fact of the lost Etoile. We see her in the greenhouse, recalling Miyuki’s question if she is worried, asking herself "Why I am…?" Then she is wandering through the forest, lost in her thoughts, surrounded by falling leaves, the signs of mortality. And finally we see her trying to soothe her mind by playing the piano at night. Haunting the woods, asking herself broken questions, playing the piano for solace: in all of this, Nagisa has set aside her usual cheerful self to act just like Shizuma. This is Shizuma acting out her alienatin and depression in the anime’s first episodes.
The point of this similarity I think is to bring us back to the deepest reason for Nagisa and Shizuma’s attraction to each other. They are much more like each other than they are to anyone else, to Miyuki or Kaori on Shizuma’s side, or to Tamao or Chiyo on Nagisa’s. If Nagisa responds to the intimations of mortality as Shizuma does, it is due to the fact that they are so alike.
 
With Nagisa’s character oscillating between Kaori and Shizuma, her own individuality is obscured, and it becomes hard for the viewer to appreciate her for herself. A good part of what is distinctive about her–her cheerfulness, her love of food, her enjoyment of her friends–does not signify amid the emotional storm she is going through with Shizuma. So I think we have finally come to the deep reason for why, as we noted in the first of these essays on Strawberry Panic, Nagisa’s personality does not appear sufficiently distinctive or marked to account for Shizuma’s interest in her.
 

All the same, if we look the more closely, we can see where Nagisa’s individuality does come forward. It is in this episode that she consciously expresses to Tamao and to herself that she is in love with Shizuma. More than that, she explicitly chooses Shizuma over Tamao: with apologies, and with a concern for hurting her friend’s feelings, she nevertheless breaks her date with Tamao to go with Shizuma instead. Finally, it is Nagisa, and not Shizuma, who starts the whole chain of events that leads to the revelation of Shizuma’s past with Kaori. Once Nagisa finds out from Chiyo that Etoiles come in pairs, she forces the question of Shizuma’s partner from Chiyo, to Tamao, and then to Miyuki, who finally brings it to Shizuma. No doubt Nagisa is the younger and the naive partner in her romance with Shizuma, but it is Nagisa who plays the adult role to move her romance with Shizuma forward into actuality. There is a decisive and practical side to Nagisa we should recognize and appreciate.

A final note: I have not talked at all about either the music in Strawberry Panic, or the motif of the moon. There are various musical phrases that are repeated in the anime and no doubt have connotative significance: I am thinking of the passage Nagisa plays at the piano, for example, which we will hear at various times as a significant background music, to tell us something about what we are watching. And the moon really must have an important significance in defining the state of the romance it shines upon. If I have the opportunity, I may watch the series over again just to work out how the music and the moon signify in Strawberry Panic. 

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War or Art

In the "Heroine" and "Behind the Scenes" episodes, the focus of the narrative shifts from the individual romances to the social world of Strawberry Panic. The vehicle for this social analysis is the Strawberry Dorms’ annual drama production. The first episode narrates the decision on what play to produce, the casting, and the initial acting practice; the second part gives us the actual production, the rehearsals, and the performance. The individual love stories continue, but these are subsumed in the general social activity of producing a play. Unlike previous episodes, which tend to be either Nagisa-Shizuma or Hikari-Amane stories, these two episodes dramatize the social world of Strawberry Panic as a whole.

The central issue in the "Heroine" episode is the casting question, of who is going to play the role of Carmen. This question pits Shion, president of Spica, against Miyuki, head of Miator and the person in charge of all production issues. Shion wants Amane to have the lead role of Don Jose, against Shizuma’s Carmen, as a part of her larger plan to get Amane to run for the Etoile election. When Shion’s initial attempt to get Amane the lead is foiled by Kaname and Momomi’s undermining tactics, Shion then undertakes a private campaign of bribery (she gives Tamao the playwright cookies in an attempt to influence her to write the part for Amane) and public politicing for an Amane-Shizuma pairing. Shion hopes to use extrinsic pressure to force Miyuki’s hand.

In effect, Shion is trying to write the Carmen production into a larger story she herself is writing, with Amane as the star, and the greater glory of Spica as its purpose. The heroine in Shion’s story is really herself; and the story she is telling is about inter-school political rivalry, with political manipulation as its narrative content. We can see that the question of the heroine–understood in the larger context of Strawberry Panic itself, and not just of the play Carmen–decides the actual nature of the story that is being told.

If we look at "Heroine" from this perspective, we can see there are all sorts of candidates for heroine of the episode, and for kinds of stories struggling to be told. Kaname and Momomi tell Shion’s political story from the perspective of anti-heroines, who seek to destroy the production in order to displace Amane from the Etoile election. Tamao illustrates a story of literary stardom: her play gets chosen to be performed, she gets to write the screenplay, she is included in all major production decisions. In a reversal of roles, she is now the leading character vis-a-vis Nagisa, where before she had always been secondary. Amid all these political fights and production issues, the anime’s principal romances become a secondary story. Still, both Nagisa and Hikari use the production as a means of advancing their relationships, as when they plump for their beloveds to have major roles, in a show of partiality that also expresses their love, or when they help their beloveds learn and practice their lines, finding in the play the opportunity to spend time and grow closer with their beloveds. Evidently there are a multiplicity of stories contending for expression within the episode.

Thus, the social world we see dramatized in "Heroine" is a competitive, even antagonistic one, which is decomposed into individuals and factions, each struggling to impose its will on others. That this description holds for Shion, Kaname and Momomi is self-evident; but it is true even of Nagisa and Hikari, in their attempts to urge their beloveds to take leading parts in the play. For example, Nagisa tells Tamao she wants Shizuma as Carmen, just after Shion has tried to bribe Tamao to that end; and Hikari goes along with Shion’s urging of Amane to perform, despite Amane’s clear reluctance to involve herself. We have discussed this Clausewitzian theme in Strawberry Panic already, wherein society is war by other means: the current episode is this theme’s paradigmatic example.  

As it happens, Miyuki rejects Shion’s plotting, and instead chooses Chikaru to be Carmen, Shizuma to be Don Jose, with Amane as Escamillo, Kaname as Don Jose’s superior officer, and Momomi as Micaela, Don Jose’s fiance. She justifies her choices to Shion based on the interest of the drama itself, as opposed to any extrinsic motive or purpose: "the Strawberry Dorms’ play isn’t a popularity contest. Our goal is to have a marvelous performance which everyone is happy with." We learn from Tamao’s words to Nagisa that Miyuki has chosen Chikaru since she had been the best actress in the previous year’s production; and as Shizuma says herself to Nagisa, it would be stale and repetitive for her to have the lead this year, since she had had it in the year before. As Tamao puts it, in an editorial comment that surely speaks for the anime itself, "Rokujou-sama really knows her stuff." While her choice is politically astute–she undermines Shion’s complaints by putting three students from Spica in leading roles–Miyuki decides primarily on aesthetic grounds, in terms of who will give the best performance.

By insisting on the aesthetic ideal embodied in the dramatic production, Miyuki seeks to transcend the social antagonisms brought into play by the casting issue. She chooses not one faction over another, but the play itself as a general goal toward which everyone can strive together. As we see in the "Behind the Scenes" episode, the production becomes the vehicle for general social harmony, as each person fulfills her assigned role and works together with others to make the play a reality. In this context, heroism becomes an exemplary dedication to the achievement of the larger goal. Thus, the anime approves of Tamao, for her dedication in writing the screenplay, and of Chikaru, who fulfills the combined task of preparing for the lead role and creating the costumes. If Kaname and Momomi are the villains for trying to halt the production, Nagisa and Shizuma are the heroines–in another instance of Nagisa acting as de facto Etoile–for standing up to the villains and rallying the students to overcome Kaname and Momomi’s sabotage. The aesthetic achievement of the play is the corollary to the social harmony and the individual heroism and self-sacrifice that make the play possible. It is these moral and redemptive qualities that are "Behind the Scenes," and stand as a decisive counter to the antagonistic conception of social reality offered earlier.

One last question: what does the play "Carmen" have to do with Nagisa and Shizuma’s relationship? It cannot be coincidental that the narrative contrives with considerable artifice to place Nagisa on the stage performing Carmen to Shizuma’s Don Jose. Part of the reason must be that we as viewers are  to understand Nagisa and Shizuma’s characters in terms of the parts they play. When Nagisa proclaims as Carmen, "I am a free woman!," she is describing a crucial aspect of herself, which we have seen confirmed in other episodes. And it is easy to see in Don Jose’s self-destructive fixation on Carmen, his conviction that Carmen somehow belongs to him, an analogue both to Shizuma’s obsession with Kaori and the possessiveness she displays towards Nagisa. While the narrative of "Carmen" has little to do with Strawberry Panic–Shizuma does not kill Nagisa!–the play does dramatize the still-extant differences between our main characters.

Still, what counts about the play is that it provides Nagisa and Shizuma the opportunity to restart their romance after the failure of "Summertime," to bring it forward to the moment when they can play as lovers before the whole school, and finally to the last scene of "Behind the Scenes," where they are alone together in the greenhouse, and Nagisa can tell Shizuma how happy she was to be on stage with her, while they stand with hands entwined. Just as the play becomes an avenue for a general social comity, it makes possible the love of individual couples. The school bonfire, where all the students are gathered together, but with lovers and freinds gathered closer, is an excellent symbol of these multiple levels of unity. It is curious that Nagisa and Shizuma are apart from this social world, in the greenhouse. While Strawberry Panic celebrates social harmony, it recognizes the highest moments of love to be an intimacy that belongs to the lovers alone, in a world of each other, in a rarified world of art or nature. As the downcast faces of Tamao and Yaya at the bonfire prove, love finally leaves others behind.   

 

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More than Friends, Less than Lovers

 
In "More than Best Friends" Yaya and Hikari make up. Yaya’s shocking actions notwithstanding, they retain a deep and real connection with each other, a shared history of significant memories and significant places they connect with each other. Following Tamao’s advice, their friends bring them back together at the place they first met, the grounds behind the cathedral, and there, remembering when they met and what they mean to each other, they reconcile. Yaya apologies, disavows her bad actions ("That time, I must have been…not the normal me,") even Hikari apologies, reassures Yaya saying "Yaya-chan, we’ll always be best friends," and they hug, and all is well again.
 
But in going back to where she had been, Yaya also learns an insight about her feelings for Hikari. The episode opens with Yaya recalling how, when she first met Hikari, she thought she was an angel, in a direct parallel with the earlier episode in which Hikari and Amane meet, think the other an angel, and begin their love story. Yaya shares moments with Hikari that in another context signifies the florescence of love. A similar moment occurs when Yaya remembers singing together with Hikari, in a moment of shared art that reminds us of Nagisa and Shizuma playing the piano or dancing together. But in Yaya’s case, these moments are not the steps to love, but instead signs of the special deep friendship she has with Hikari. So, at the episode’s close, she returns to the vision of the angel, and shifts it from love to friendship. She recognizes that Hikari is an angel, "[b]ut that angel wasn’t just for me."
 
We see in this episode the anime developing the concept of special friendship, the being friends beyond best friiends which yet is not the same thing as love. The episode’s title, "More than Best Friends," is an allusion to this intensest of friendships that is still purely friendship. That the title might mean, but does not, love, contains all the disappointment Yaya still feels; that it means more than just "best friends" captures the importance that both Yaya and Hikari attach to each other. Where the line is between friendship and love is not clear, especially since lovers also are friends beyond friends. When we see Mizushima and Chihaya quarreling, acting for all the world like a long-married couple, we do not know on which side of the line they stand. Yet, as Yaya learns, that line is unquestionably real and inviolable.
 
We also get in this episode the story of how Nagisa recovers Tamao’s ribbon, which she had lost in the pool the night she and Shizuma had kissed. The circumstances that Mizushima and Chihaya were quarreling about a protective charm, and the sight of Tamao’s particular shirt reminds Nagisa of the ribbon, which she had forgotten until now. She runs off at once to find it, and returns it to Tamao. Tamao is delighted by this sign of Nagisa’s caring. In an evocation of a Japanese tradition about the red ribbon of fate, Tamao ties the ribbon around their little fingers, as if to bind their souls and their destinies together: "[f]rom now on and always. That way, Nagisa-chan will always be mine. I’ll be satisfied." So Nagisa and Tamao seem to becoming closer and closer! We learn that they are still sleeping in bed together, and Nagisa even blushes at various of Tamao’s statements and actions. What’s going on?
 
To some extent, the anime is playing with the viewer, opening up the possibility in order to tease all those shippers hoping for Nagisa and Tamao to get together. But Strawberry Panic is never serious about that possibility. In fact, Nagisa and Tamao are in the same place as Hikari and Yaya. The point of telling both stories in the same episode is precisely to make the viewer understand the similar nature of their friendships. Nagisa remembers the ribbon in the spirit of affirming friendship, as Yaya and Haikari end up doing, as Mizushima and Chihaya end up doing. Otherwise, Nagisa had forgotten the ribbon, hardly a sign of love. We learn Nagisa hasn’t told Tamao about Shizuma’s kiss, so we can see Nagisa is keeping this part of her life seperate from Tamao. When Nagisa blushes, it is a sign of embarassment, not love; and when Tamao asks what bed they’re sleeping in together, Nagisa repeats the question, deflecting the whole issue back to Tamao. The connection Tamao is drawing between Nagisa and herself remains–however close–friendship, even the friends that are more than friends, but not lovers. Nagisa and Shizuma develop their love together in a world they alone share. However much she wants it otherwise, Tamao will have to learn Yaya’s lesson.
 
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Love’s Cost

 

"The Roar of the Waves" shifts the narrative back to Hikari’s romance with Amane. Nevertheless, there is a strong connection between this episode and the previous one. The events that happen in this episode amount to a commentary on the issues raised in the "Summertime" episode.

The date Hikari and Amane finally manage to enjoy stands as a nice contrast to Nagisa and Shizuma’s failed encounter. It is as if the anime is bringing forward an example of how their date ought to have been. Amane takes Hikari to a place special to her, a seaside cove that she likes to go to when she wants to be alone. They walk along the beach, enjoying the place and the moment, one ahead of the other, not even imposing their presence on each other. They talk–there are no secrets: Amane finds out that Kaname and Momomi have been bothering Hikari, and Hikari tells Amane she justs want to be with her all the meshugas notwithstanding–and they become closer, even physically closer–by the end of the episode, they are holding hands, and where they had sat on opposite seats on the way out, on the way back Hikari sits next to Amane, dozing with her head on her shoulder. Of course in every detail this is the exact opposite to how Shizuma had approached Nagisa.

Framing this lovely interlude are two distasteful scenes of sexual violence, which stand to illustrate the concepts of freedom in love we discussed in the previous epiosde. At the beginning we see Kaname and Momomi seize Hikari, in an effort to break up her relationship with Amane. While Kaname attempts to compel Hikari physically to submit to her advances, Momomi waylays Amane and makes vague threats against her friends, including Hikiari by name, in relation to Amane’s standing for election as Etoile. Yaya overhears the noise of Hikari’s struggles, and saves her, enabling her to run off to have her date after all. But Kaname infects Yaya with corrupt logic, justifying her violence upon Hikari as a lover’s right, and seducing Yaya with the idea that "only love can stop love." Overwhelmed by her feelings for Hikari, and fooled by Kamane’s words, when Hikari comes back from her date Yaya seizes her and forcibly kisses her. Yaya does much worse that even Kaname had managed: she betrays her friendship and commits an actual aggression of a kiss upon Hikari. It is the ultimate betrayal.

We have already seen Kaname and Momomi attack Hikari before. I have only two points to add to my earlier comments on their sexual politics. It is curious that in a yuri drama the overt villains are also the overt lesbians. I take that as evidence for my point that the yuri element signifies not lesbian but universal human themes. The point of the drama is not physical love, which alone by itself the anime associates with aggression and violence, but human love, which, when consumated in sexuality, becomes a moment when life and art merge, a moment when the lovers become themselves the work of art, the portrait of beauty the animation displays when showing them together, unclothed, in a state of bliss, flowers and clothes and sheets strewn about in an aesthetic climax. The other peculiar element in this episode is Kaname and Momomi’s confusing rhetoric. Momomi’s threats to Amane are highly veiled; she is making some kind of threat, but what she wants Amane to do or not to do is unclear. Likewise, Kamane’s lovemaking talk to Hikari is conspicuously unintelligible. She is talking almost in a disassociated way, about global warming (!), Natsume Soseki, and then in a crazy way about herself, how she is beautiful and dangerous. She must mean to confuse Hikari and in that way overcome her resistance. Here the translation distance is important, so I cannot say more, other than to say that the anime suggests that language itself can be part of the sexual violence. Certainly it succeeds in breaking Yaya’s self-restraint and propelling her to really meretricious behaviour.

When Yaya forces her kiss upon Hikari, she unfortunately proves the point that love must be free, freely given and freely received. We may have sympathy for her frustration, but that is no excuse.  Kaname’s evil little formula–"only love can stop love"–has it exactly backwards: love only ever furthers love, even when it must–as Chiyo and Tamao teach us–surrender itself for the sake of the beloved’s happiness. Otherwise, it is not love, but selfishness and aggression, which does indeed destroy love, or at least threaten mortally Hikari and Yaya’s friendship.

Let us conclude by going back to Hikari. If we tend to think of her as the submissive partner in the relationship with Amane, this episode illustrates just how strong she has to be to succeed in her love for Amane, how much outright physical and psychological opposition she has to overcome. We learn from Hikari the next lesson about love’s freedom: even if love is free, it has a price. While one cannot seize it or steal it, one must still pay for it. Hikari will put up with all this trouble because she loves Amane. There is a wonderful moment in her conversation with Amane when she tells her just this. Amane is falling into Momomi’s insidious idea that she puts her friends at risk, when Hikari bursts out passionately that she doesn’t care, that all she wants is to be with Amane. Here she she echoes Nagisa in the previous episode, when Nagisa tells Shizuma she doesn’t care about the bars of the cage, as long as she is not lonely, as long as she is with the person she loves. For Hikari, as for Nagisa, what other people do don’t enter the scales, don’t affect her in the slightest. Since she loves Amane, she is perfectly free: all the costs imposed upon her due to that love are as nothing. Therefore she accepts them, and pays the price of enduring them. We know the depth of Hikari’s love and the degree of her freedom by the cost she bears. 

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Full Stop

In "Summertime", Nagisa and Shizuma fail miserably in trying to advance their relationship. After spending an unhappy day studying French on her summer vacation, in an unsatisfying reprise of "Personal Tutor," Nagisa finds herself alone with Shizuma, out in the dark, watching fireworks from a distance. They manage to confess their feelings to each other, that both felt lonely while apart from the other during Nagisa’s recent vacation at the beach, and so they make an indirect confession of love. Then everything starts to go downhill. Shizuma tries forcibly to remove Tamao’s protection ribbon, Nagisa resists spiritedly, and in the struggle they both fall into the nearby swimming pool, Shizuma on top of Nagisa. Floating in this other world, and as Tamao’s ribbon falls away, they kiss for the first time.  Cut to Shizuma’s room, where Nagisa is asking herself what in the world she is doing there, and telling herself it is time to leave. Then Shizuma appears,  pushes Nagisa onto the bed, and then tries to make sexual love to her. But she hears her dead lover Kaori saying her name, and freezes. Nagisa disentangles herself, and gets out. Their relationship is in complete shambles.

To be sure, the episode is not an unmitigated disaster. Nagisa and Shizuma  do have their first kiss, notwithstanding its unpleasant prelude. It is a lovely moment: Nagisa accepts Shizuma’s kiss–she closes her eyes, interlocks her fingers with Shizuma’s–and the animation realizes the moment brilliantly: as they fall into the pool, they fall into another world–Tamao’s ribbon falls off, towards the viewer looking up at Nagisa and Shizuma kissing, with the light (but it’s nightime!) overwhelming the background behind them.

All the same, at the end of the episode Nagisa is overwhelmingly sad, a state we have never seen her in before. She is only able to talk to Tamao, to tell her what has happened, and to cry on her shoulder. She is sorry she lost Tamao’s ribbon. (In a latter episode she will make a point of finding it and returning it to Tamao. We shall have to figure out there why this restoration is important to Nagisa.) Shizuma on the other hand we see morosely playing the piano, lost in herself, not paying attention to Miyuki chattering away. Nagisa and Shizuma are both miserable.

So what is going on? Is this simply a game, of one thing after another, the anime making up obstacles until a happy ending is pulled out of a hat in the last episode? Or is there something more, some connected theme and lesson, which underlies the trajectory of Nagisa and Shizuma’s relationship, gives it a logic which explains its failures and its eventual success?

To answer this question, we need to look closely at why Nagisa and Shizuma fail at this point in their courtship. The overriding reason, of course, is Shizuma’s unresolved connection with Kaori. Now we know that Shizuma’s new feelings for Nagisa are bringing these old feelings back, that Nagisa is in effect forcing Shizuma to confront her past. After all, we are told Shizuma has had a string of affairs since Kaori’s death; it is only with Nagisa that Shizuma finds the dead to come back. Shizuma has still to accept Kaori’s death, and to put her love for her behind her, so she can love Nagisa for her own sake, and not out of some compensation for Kaori’s loss. Strawberry Panic will address this issue directly in the upcoming episodes "Storms of Love" and "Refrain;" for now, the moment in which Shizuma freezes is emblematic of how her heart is frozen in place in devotion to her lost love.

Bound up in Shizuma’s inability to cope with her memories are related issues of character and personality, which seperate her from Nagisa. She is jealous and possessive about Nagisa: when Tamao says "my Nagisa-chan," Shizuma retorts, "My?;" when Amane leans over Nagisa lying on the ground, Shizuma appears, sends Nagisa back to study and very tartly tells Amane to look for her princess in Spica; and Shizuma forcibly tries to remove Tamao’s ribbon over Nagisa’s repeated objections. When we hear Shizuma propose to teach Nagisa about her feelings ("Do you know why you had those feelings? Have you ever known someone with those feelings?" […] Let me teach you,") we realize that Shizuma is presumptuous; and when she rushes into sexuality with Nagisa, we realize she is arrogant as well, since she is pays no attention to Nagisa’s own misgivings. However Shizuma may think Nagisa is different, she is treating her as if she was another in her string of conquests. It is all very well for Shizuma to tell Nagisa "It’s not the first time with me. It may be the last time with you;" she is merely congratulating Nagisa on capping her amatory career. After all, this is Nagisa’s first time in Shizuma’s room, and Shizuma barely talks about her personal things, how they relate to when she was an understudy for several upperclassmen, before attempting to seduce Nagisa. Indeed, the animation shows us Shizuma holding Nagisa down by the wrists, in parallel with Kaname’s holding down Hikari the same way: Shizuma’s actions verge upon a rape. There is no relationship here: it is all Shizuma imposing herself upon Nagisa. Shizuma’s lack of introspection about her past extends into a lack of self-reflection about her character in general, which then manifests itself in these various aggressive and selfish ways.

If Shizuma appears to be the dominant partner, the sudden shift from her agrressiveness to her freezing in place demonstrates that she herself is dominated by her past, her memories, her habits, her failings. The anime gives us two important clues to guide us to understand Shizuma in this light. The first hint is Tamao’s book, which has the name "Prosper Merimee" written in English on its cover. This allusion to the author of the novella "Carmen," on which Bizet based his opera, and which will come up in the anime in the school play episodes, leads us to associate Shizuma with Merimee’s Don Jose, the role she will actually perform in the play, thereby leading the viewer to understand her as someone dominated by her passions to the point of self-destruction. Certainly all the characteristics we have ascribed to Shizuma in the previous paragraph identify her as a putative Don Jose(1).

This allusion brings us to the second clue in the episode, which will be brought out later when Nagisa plays the role of Carmen. Amane tells Nagisa: "You really are a very mysterious girl. […] Why is it all of Miator’s students that I know are like birds in a cage. Except for you. You really are an amazing girl." Strawberry Panic turns to an outside disinterested party to make sure we recognize and accept this crucial characterization of Nagisa. Nagisa emblematizes freedom, a quality of spontaneity, joy, unreflective life and vitality, a mode of activity and wildness at odds with the conformity and convention of school life. She is a transfer student in the same way Carmen is a gypsy: an outsider, who is free of social habits and restraints. I think we are to understand that Nagisa’s love is like Carmen’s love: free, unwilling to be bound by Shizuma’s (or even Tamao’s) possessiveness. If it is this freedom that makes Nagisa attractive to Shizuma (as Shizuma will tell Nagisa in a later episode), Shizuma cannot possess it at all, since possession itself is antithetical to Nagisa’s essence. Instead, Shizuma must herself become free. It is only then she will be able to meet Nagisa’s love on its own level.

When Shizuma can do this, then she can move beyond school restrictions and conventions and find in love its own freedom. This is the lesson Nagisa is trying to tell Shizuma in this episode, although she does not hear it. Recall the conversation Nagisa and Shizuma have while watching the fireworks. When Shizuma tells Nagisa, "That girl was right. We’re just like caged birds," she expresses a spirit of bitter resentment and defeat. But Nagisa overturns Shizuma’s complaint: "But it’s better than being all alone. I don’t know why, but I always felt lonely during Summer School. Even when I was with everybody and even when I saw that beautiful meteor shower I just couldn’t shrug off that lonely feeling…I was just lonely." For Nagisa, the true restraint is being apart from one’s beloved, the condition of being lonely, even when one is surrounded by friends and open skies. But when one is with the beloved, then one is free, in the unique contentment of being in love, notwithstanding the actual circumstances of being behind the bars of a fence, within the school’s golden cage looking out at the fireworks from a distance. Nagisa is free, as she is, and with the person she loves.

I have been a little unfair, by putting all the burden of change on Shizuma. Nagisa has her own issues to deal with, her own restraints, of which Tamao’s ribbon is the emblem. If for Nagisa, being apart from the beloved is itself a restraint, she faces the doubled difficulty of reconciling the competing claims of several lovers upon her. This is Carmen’s problem: how can she have both Don Jose and Escamillo love her at the same time? In Nagisa’s terms, how can she choose between Shizuma’s love and Tamao’s friendship, when the feelings of love and affection she has for both are equally genuine, and both important to her? Amid these competing bonds of love, how can she be free to love whom she loves? In the end, she cannot choose, and must rely upon Tamao making Chiyo’s choice, of giving Nagisa up for the sake of the self-less love that only wants the beloved to be happy.

Strawberry Panic has this to teach us about love: that love itself is free, contains its own world of freedom, and can only be found in the same free spirit in which it offers itself. Nagisa’s relationship with Shizuma waits upon Shizuma’s learning this lesson.

(1) Shizuma has a facsimile of an 18th century essay "Remarks on Duelling" taped above her desk. I cannot read it sufficiently to identify it as real or an invention. It could be the latter, but my guess it is a historical facsimile included in a book about Merimee or Carmen. Its purpose in the episode is to connect Shizuma further with Don Jose, since we will recall the famous duel Don Jose has with his rival Escamillo.

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