Sunday, June 22, 2008

Strawberry Panic! Expands Yuri Genre

Yuri and yaoi, also referred to as shoujo-ai and shonen-ai, are popular anime subgenres. They refer to love in same-sex relationships and have recently become more popular outside of Japan. Yaoi contains stories about male relationships and has a strong female audience. Distinguishable traits of the genre include the bishonen character style and personality, which often depicts a more feminine beauty and usually a certain level of sexual ambiguity. Yuri deals with female relationships, but has a much smaller following. The genre has only recently started to make its mark in America with titles such as Strawberry Panic! While there are misconceptions and stigmas associated with the terms, SP! manages to avoid some of those pitfalls to create a cute, but slightly shallow story.

Astraea Hill contains St. Miator, St. Spica, and St. Lulim's Girls' Academies as well as a cathedral and the Strawberry Dorms.

While yaoi has become a very respectable subgenre, yuri still has more negative connotations. Both terms in Western culture have largely been related to sexually explicit anime, or hentai. The passionate yaoi fan base has helped legitimize the genre, but yuri has had more of a struggle. It has been trying to find its audience, as Japan initially targeted it towards females. Only recently has it been directed more towards males, and American studios have been making an effort to localize titles like Strawberry Panic! for an American audience. Yuri is more than just porn, and SP! tells a cute story at a trio of all-girls schools on Astraea Hill. St. Miator, St. Spica, and St. Lulim Girls’ Academy are three sister Catholic schools who share amenities and a dormitory nicknamed the Strawberry Dorms. The story opens with a new transfer student named Nagisa Aoi. As she meets a popular and important student named Shizuma Hanazono, the plot takes off as it gets into internal politics, character back-stories, and the difference between love and admiration.

Shizuma Hanazono and Nagisa Aoi.

This 26 episode series runs the gamut and has a strong set of characters. The schools have an Etoilé system, which have elected students from one of the three schools act as figurehead and role model for the entire academy. The greatly admired and current Etoilé, Shizuma starts to take an interest in Nagisa, which starts a roller coaster of events over the entire school year. Strawberry Panic! keeps a mostly innocent tone, as the students mature emotionally and sort out their feelings. The school system goes from First to Sixth Year, which coordinates as Seventh Grade to Twelfth Grade for the US system. The story quickly comes to the new Etoilé election, which becomes the primary storyline aside from the personal relationships and friendships. You get to meet a wide variety of characters from all grades and schools, including all three student councils. This is definitely the show’s strongest point, as it drives the series along and creates some chemistry. While it falls back on some stereotypical plot elements, Strawberry Panic! has some personality that keeps things moving.

As you learn more about the characters and relationships, things gradually start to wear a little thin. There are some ‘soap opera’ moments, as well as a handful of awkward ones. Sometimes it is not-so-innocent, but never really explicit. They often tease a kiss or imply a sexual scene, but the overall story still keeps a light atmosphere with a cute romance. Some situations aren’t necessarily realistic, and they never directly address homosexuality or religion. But that keeps the tone from getting too heavy and taking itself too seriously. Many of the relationships between the students are platonic and mostly of admiration, but there are a couple love triangles that don’t feel odd or out of place. Things can sometimes get too melodramatic or overly cute, but it still keeps a fun story.

Overall, Strawberry Panic! is not quite the deep and meaningful story that others in the subgenre can claim to be. But its unique school setting, fun characters, and interesting relationships still make for an entertaining show. The character designs and animation are strong points that may counteract the weaker story and ideals. Like yaoi and yuri as a whole, they focus less on the homosexuality and more on the relationship itself.

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