Monday, June 20, 2011

Strawberry Panic: The Complete Novel Collection

By Sakurako Kimino, art by Takuminamuchi. Released in Japan by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

It's very hard to write a parody, especially one such as we see in these three books. You have to make sure to show your audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously, while at the same time keep them involved enough that they keep reading. And, of course, you risk people taking your work at face value, and not seeing the fact that you're not being serious. This is definitely the case with Strawberry Panic, which yuri fans latched on to in 2006 and didn't let go for some time. The anime, like the light novels, did not take itself seriously. However, unlike the anime, it's easy to tell that in the novels from the start. (For those who have seen the anime and feel they don't need to read the novels, note that after Book 1 the series heads in a different direction, and some characters - Kaname in particular - are totally different.)

The prose in this collection is worth your money all by itself. Not only do we have the overwrought emotional dialogue you would expect in a book such as this, but every single sound effect seems to be written out. Tap tap tap... ding dong... swssshhh... squeeeeeze. There's also inner monologues fraught with teenage emotion, telling us all how conflicted and tormented everyone is. And of course there are numerous over the top plot complications that everyone has to gasp at in shock. These are well-handled, though, and the book reads very easily - they are light novels, so they're meant to be read fast.

The basic premise is that you have three interconnected girls' high schools on a common campus. Each of the schools is elite and prestigious in its own way, and each one comes with the following: a new transfer student to be innocent and not actually know how anything works; a best friend who is there to explain the plot; and an older girl idolized by the school. The series seems to have ended prematurely, so we never need to worry about the adventures in Lulim. The other two schools, Miator and Spica, each have their own interconnected romances and relationships, all between "pure young girls". This is an entire genre of novels in Japan, made most famous recently by Maria-sama Ga Miteru, but the resonance will also work for the Western fan - many stock romances of the "Had I But Known" school use similar plot devices.

This particular series is not afraid to turn on the sex appeal (and for "sex appeal" read "creepy pandering"), as it's not written for girls at all. It's released by ASCII Mediaworks, home of Dengeki Daioh, and is clearly meant for young men who always wanted to read about hot lesbian relationships in a Catholic Girl's School. There's nothing explicit here, despite the suggestive artwork - the closest we get are some fantasies by one of the girls (who is referred to as "the only real lesbian in the school") - but the whole thing as a certain sordid air about it, with one of the leads openly leering after other girls in the baths, and the aforementioned lesbian groping her best friend in a swimming pool at midnight while assuring her it's because they're best friends.

The characters are all various stock types, but they're well-written enough that you get invested in them, while remaining cliches. This is important, as I noted above. Not only are you laughing and/or groaning at the increasingly traumatic adventures of Nagisa and Hikari, but you also sympathize and want them to pull through. My favorite characters in the series are the three student council presidents, all of whom are described many, many times in the books as clever, cunning, scheming, etc. and none of whom accomplish a single damn thing. By the middle of the third book I was laughing hysterically as three different cunning schemes all dissolved in the space of about one minute in a single closed-door meeting. And yet by the end, after the incredibly bad week that Shion, the president of Spica, has had I was almost crying right along with her when everything actually turned out OK at the end.

Also, there are helicopters. Plural.

To sum up, this is an extremely fun, lightweight series that I recommend to anyone who is not in danger of taking it too seriously. If you think you may be, go to page 351 and read just that. If you cup your head in your hands and go "Dear Lord", you should greatly enjoy this book. If instead you smile brightly and think "Wow, so cool!", you will *also* enjoy this book, but will probably be quite angry with me for making fun of these girls and their true loves 4-evah.

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