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Strawberry Panic Notes

I am back from an extended hiatus caused by a combination of the extended US Holiday Season, the first real vacation I’ve been able to take in quite some time, some medical stuff, and assorted other life things that happen. Also working on a new project, but not quite ready to start boasting about it yet.

There are a number of new full reviews backlogged in the pipeline, but having just finished watching the low-rent Maria Watches Over Us ripoff Strawberry Panic, I wanted to jot down some thoughts. I intend to write a full review of this one (I’m about to embark on a yuri review bender, since it’s an underrepresented genre I like), but in the mean time…

The show is, basically, not very good. It ends up a lot better than it starts, but the path there is kind of a mess, and it’s particularly frustrating because it eventually reveals that there are some good ideas in there, it just completely failed to make something of them until way late in the game.

Watching it goes kind of like this: The first couple episodes are just weird; a mix of frilly Catholic girls’ school cliches, adoring, sparkly-eyed girls staring at uber-girl Shizuma, and weird pseud-sexual things where Shizuma keeps making wildly inappropriate moves to kiss the ditzy protagonist Nagisa. Those are uncomfortable, and they’re supposed to be (sort of), but that then settles down for a while.

From there through episode 6 is boring unless you love silly girls-school stuff and unfunny light comedy. Then episode 7 finally breaks out a secondary romance and a bunch of intra-school drama involving scheming evil lesbian student council members (essentially everybody in the show is at least mildly inclined toward the same gender, but these two are the only ones depicted doing anything seriously physical). And then… nothing really happens for the next several episodes, so it’s back to boring through episode 11.

Episode 12 finally drops a drama bomb—among other things we’re shown that the intent of the romance isn’t all teary-eyed smiles and hand-holding, in no uncertain terms—and makes things interesting from a character standpoint with the main couple. 13 is slow, but adds another big dramatic twist with the secondary set of romances.

And then, in season 2, it again fails to take that momentum anywhere. Now that the drama and stakes are closer to the surface, I at least was paying attention, but in place of boredom is frustration—it drags out and obfuscates what should have been interesting all the way through episode 18; that one at least has some big stuff, but is mostly botched and still drags painfully.

Then comes episode 19, which is solid backstory, and really good. Shockingly good. It’s not spectacular—we’re still dealing with broad-stroked yuri romantic tragedy—but it flows well, is touchingly and convincingly romantic, has a beautifully tragic crescendo, and even does a good job of tying itself back to the present at the very end.

The thing that’s so disappointing about this is that that one episode showed that the series had interesting, or at least entertaining, things to do, it had just completely failed to pull them off for about 15 of the preceding 18 episodes, and in a single episode it got more emotional response than in the entire series combined to that point. (Heck, it’s backstory so you don’t need to know the characters, so you could just watch that single episode standalone and probably enjoy it as its own little tale.)  It sure grabbed my interest, though, and got under my skin in the way a good romance (or tragi-romance) should.

The remainder of the series is better, at least, but even then it drags things out so laboriously that it got pretty maddening by the end, not helped any by the fact that it had screwed up so spectacularly before that I had little faith in it pulling off a decent end. Thankfully, the very end, at least, is romantically satisfying, so at least it wasn’t a total waste. It does, however, have one of the most ridiculously contrived plot twists I have ever seen, and in the last couple episodes—it had me shaking my head that it actually went there. In the “No, even this show wouldn’t do something that stupid… wait, yes, it would.”

So you have, roughly, 11 episodes of boredom, two interesting ones, another 5 of frustration, one really good one, and a mix of decent (mostly 25, which follows up on what 13 started and it immediately screwed up), frustration, and embarrassing for the remaining 7.

Here are the three things that struck me most about the show:

One, it does a miserable job of setting things up. The entire first season utterly fails to foreshadow later events or make the actions of the characters make sense, so when the big backstory reveal comes, it doesn’t feel like “Oh, now I understand.”—the good feeling you get when secrets are revealed. It’s more like “Oh, that explains what they were trying, and failing, to do with all those previous plot points.”—just made clear how awkward all the plot progression had been up to then.

Two, the characterization is really, really weak. Characters start to make sense in the second half, but most of their actions seem either random or blatantly plot driven. Lacking any internal logic, there’s nothing to get attached to as a viewer. The contrast is made all too clear by episode 19, which does make sense—you get what’s going on, the characters do things that make sense, and you can get an emotional handle on them. After that things improve somewhat, but even then it’s awkward.

Three, following from two, chemistry. The main couple completely lack chemistry for most of the series. With enough chemistry, you can overlook almost anything, but without it a romance has nothing to stand on (and this series certainly wasn’t substituting plot). Again drawn into the starkest contrast by episode 19, which in just a few minutes establishes powerful, believable chemistry between the same character and her previous love, which makes the whole thing work (heck, it’s so effective you can almost get into her as a character after that). They’re two people who aren’t just smiling at each other, aren’t just kissing, they’re physically hungry for each other. It doesn’t need to tell you how in love they are, because you can feel both affection and passion just from the way they look at each other.

Contrast the actual protagonist, who’s lively and cheerful, but nowhere near enough so that she seems at all believable to catch the eye of Shizuma; together they have no chemistry at all that you can feel until near the end, and even then it’s relatively weak. Given how she’s supposed to be the chosen savior of the despondent lover, you need a lot more than “Generically chipper schoolgirl” to sell that.

Other notes: Production: The art swings wildly between nice and poor, the backgrounds are relatively pretty, the character animation is abysmal with occasional flashes of merely passable, the soundtrack does quite well with just a piano and violin, and all but the lame second end theme are surprisingly good generic darker J-something-pop. The setting is as narrow as it could possibly be; only two bits take place off campus, we never see a single male onscreen, and there are only four adults I could count who ever appear, none of them more than rarely (a teacher we see briefly once in a while and a scary nun who stops showing up after the first few episodes, plus a choir director and a doctor who are in maybe a couple shots and don’t even have lines). That last bit makes the school seem a little Lord of the Flies due to inattentive staff.

Symbolism: It tries to use red symbolically but mixes its metaphors, it clumsily tries to use falling water metaphorically throughout, and sexuality is treated as the villain up until the endgame, where it reverses course abruptly (and thankfully at that—until then the lesbian villains are the only two who seem to have a reasonably normal relationship for late-teens involved with each other). It goes ridiculously overboard to use a school ceremony to elect a representative and her partner as a wedding analogy, which falls apart the second time it comes up if you spend any effort thinking about it.

Content: The message (secondary to the romance) part is about healing from losing loved ones, be it to death or someone taller and better looking than you. The emotional drama is, with few exceptions, about people with a best friend who is a little too attached to you (varying degrees from vaguely romantic to blatantly so) and is sad and/or jealous when you get the hots for someone else, making your romance awkward. When it finally gets to the actual emotional drama it does passably well, it just takes way too long and keeps interspersing it with out-of-character stuff.

Position in yuri spectrum: Soft yuri that goes fairly hard without bringing up the L-word or social reality at all; largely cute, but a few times genuinely romantic, and leaves no room for misinterpretation about the physical nature of the major relationships or the long-term commitment of them.

Anyway, it has enough decent bits here and there, one good episode, and a satisfying enough end, that I don’t feel like watching it was a complete waste, but boy did it take its time getting there.  You could probably just watch episodes 1, 12-13, 18-19, and 25-26, and it’d be a decent show.

Shades of Blue: Blue Drop and Project Blue Earth SOS Notes

My friends and I have an ongoing thing wherein we’ll buy and watch just about anything that has the word “Blue” in the title and is on sale. This started when somebody picked up Daphne in the Brilliant Blue on a whim, knowing nothing about it, and it turned out to be a flaming ball of awesome. Since then our blue roulette has turned up at least a couple of interesting shows, if no gems on the level of Daphne. (Aside: The number of anime with “Blue” in the title is disproportionately large, if you think about it.)

A while ago on a RightStuf clearance sale this lead to my purchasing both Project Blue Earth SOS and Blue Drop, neither of which I knew anything about apart from what the box blurb said and what the package art looks like. Which, actually, is the way I like to go into anime—the less I know, the better.

Both shows, as it turns out, were about aliens armed with fantastic technology invading earth. It would be difficult for two stories based on that premise to be any more different.

Project Blue Earth is a spectacular show—basically a giant wad of classic sci-fi movie cliches wrapped in a thick layer of super-cool retro style and lavish animation. The Hardy Boys do War of The Worlds, pretty much, although it also hits Independence day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the sub in the desert), The Day After Tomorrow, zombie movies in general, and I’m pretty sure Thunderbirds and maybe Atragon, too, plus no doubt a half-dozen more classic sci-fi films that I’m too young and uniformed to recognize. You’ve even got Dr. Breast and his daughter, Lotta, for some James Bond naming goodness (even so, the character designs are quite realistic, and none of them are notably well endowed—no fanservice anywhere).

The episodes are even structured like an old movie serial—instead of 12 half-hour episodes, there are only six hour-long ones, complete with mid-episode dramatic break (you could easily watch it in 30-minute chunks instead of hour-long ones) and a final painted still-frame recalling anime of yore.

Classic-movie nods aside, the series (set in an alternate 1999) is absolutely loaded with sweet retro-tech: hovercars paired with reel-to-reel tape players, ’50s-style ray guns, giant flying battleships, and all manner of purposefully wacky science. (Although I did have to ask:  What the heck is the manual transmission in the hovercar controlling?) The retro style alone would have made the series worth watching, and when you throw in an ensemble cast lead by two boy geniuses straight out of a classic boys’ adventure story and a bunch of actual adults who do dramatic stuff too, you’ve got a heck of an entertaining ride.

The cinematography is spot-on throughout—slick, but never too modern—the Japanese acting is uniformly good, the story is actually rather entertaining—plenty of mystery and weird alien schemes—and it’s exciting in its own cheesy way.

Although it’s so archetypal you can pretty much tell where it’s headed, I don’t want to spoil the end, so skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen it and ever intend to.  That said, while it ends on a more dramatic note than the high adventure mood might have you expecting, that’s basically required for an old-school sci-fi yarn—you need the introspective, open end. And, of course, Billy has one of those pure-awesome solutions to a semi-tragic end, which made it all work. His rival is moping around because his potential girlfriend vanished into the far reaches of space, to which Billy proposes the obvious solution: Get off your whiny butt and build a spaceship to go after her. Problem solved. I’d love to see a sequel play that out.

Now, contrast this with Blue Drop. Blue drop is a weird series. Not weird like Excel Saga, weird like it’s 70% Maria Watches Over Us and 30% Gall Force. Not mixed, just the two series shown simultaneously in those proportions. Really.

You’ve got most of the plot and screen time centering on Mari, a somewhat maladjusted girl who lost her family, and most of her memory, in a mysterious disaster of which she was the only survivor, who’s just re-entered society at a fancy all-girls’ boarding school. She has trouble fitting in at first, but eventually makes friends and gets involved in her class’ production of an original play about Joan of Arc. It’s slow, it’s very low-key, and it’s all-around pleasant; the drama is mostly quite minimal. The Maria Watches Over Us part is, in particular, due to Mari’s relationship with the unfriendly, taciturn Hagino; they at first get along very badly, but eventually develop one of those ambiguous, soft-yuri, semi-romantic relationships.

Then the show will occasionally cut to Blue, an alien ship lurking offshore that’s part of a reconnaissance team in preparation for an alien invasion. The story is stingy with details about what’s up with Blue and its only two remaining crew, but eventually there’s some drama involving them, as well—big, extra-dramatic stuff involving vengeance and betrayal, and several short battles as other ships in their group attempt to cover something up.

The battles, by the way, are Gonzo-gorgeous—short, but they look spectacular. Also, a trans-dimensional ice cannon is a sweet weapon.

One of the two weird things about the series is that these two parts don’t interact at all until the very end. Hagino, being the commander of the alien ship, is the tie between them, but the plot involving Blue and the goings-on at the school are completely isolated until the final couple episodes.

I’m not sure if it’s stranger that you’re watching a pleasant, soft-focus, slice-of-life story that occasionally gets interspersed by trans-dimensional ship-to-ship warfare, or that somebody managed to make a series starring an introverted alien and doesn’t do anything with it until the climax.

It’s rather frustrating how long it takes to get to anything substantive with Blue and its crew—the fleeting hints have you wanting a lot more detail, which you don’t get until way into it. The big drama on the ship also makes the girls in school and their issues look rather insignificant, so it sort of hamstrings the drama there as well. Maybe it’s because I’m male and well past adolescence, but I was far more interested in what was going on with Blue than what was happening at school, but the vast majority of the time was spent on the latter. Oh, and it’s slow—it could have been probably half the length without cutting much out.

On the up side, it’s a rather unusual way to approach the alien-in-school premise, and it’s certainly not what I was expecting in terms of story or presentation. It’s also much milder with the ambiguous big sister dynamic of Maria Watches Over Us—most of the characters are pretty much straight, and the emphasis is on friendship, excepting Hagino (whose race is all female) and (probably) Mari.

Aside: There are only a couple of male characters in the show, one of whom is the principal of the school. Which is fine, except he looks exactly like B-ko’s dad, and his character design seems wildly out-of-whack with the rest of the show. I don’t think he was supposed to be a joke, but every time he was onscreen I couldn’t help but laugh.

One of the two biggest problems, however, is the lack of chemistry. One of the aliens and her mate have plenty—it only took a bit to establish why she’d be bent on vengeance after losing her lover. But Hagino and Mari just never seem to have any chemistry that you buy—you can see why they’d have some interest in each other, but it just doesn’t sell them as having some kind of deeper connection, which weakens the entire series.

The other weird thing about the show is a huge spoiler, so you’ve been warned from here on. It’s weird because at the very end the alien invasion happens. As in, the invasion starts in the last episode, and we see none of it. Earth, as implied in a an epilogue (that’s also shown at the beginning), loses, finally surrendering 30 years later. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen a story that ends with the start of an alien invasion, and in which the invasion has nothing to do with the main plot—it’s just an aside that the characters don’t hear a word about until the finale.

Part of the reason is, I’m assuming, because the series serves as a prequel to the couple of Blue Drop manga, which are apparently set way, way after the invasion, and center on the difficulties of human and alien society integrating, since the aliens are all female. They’re also, or so Wikipedia says, harder yuri than the rather ambiguous main relationship in the TV series.

That doesn’t make it any less weird, though. What’s weirder still is that the alien invasion, and the rather tragic finale, seem weirdly out of synch with the rest of it. After 12 episodes of pleasant, small-scale drama, having a thoroughly tragic end just didn’t fit. It in fact didn’t have anywhere near the level of emotional impact such a thing should have, because you were so unprepared for it it just seems sort of random. My main emotion was pretty much confusion.

I assume that the intention was to have the slice-of-life half act as a sort of counterpoint to the impending tragedy, emphasizing the value of little things in life in the face of war, death, and despair. That was all but telegraphed in the play, which from what we see is set right before the execution of Joan of Arc. This just didn’t work; the sci-fi plot was so opaque that you were spending your time trying to figure out the mystery of what happened four years ago, and why the fleet commander wants Blue destroyed, rather than seeing the juxtaposition or feeling the impending tragedy.

I found myself wondering, basically, what the point of the whole thing was; the plot didn’t go anywhere, the end was abrupt and didn’t fit, and none of the schoolyard stuff seemed to have any meaning in relation to where it ended up. It was as if the end negated the previous 12 episodes worth of material by overwhelming it with something entirely out of scale.

I have a feeling it’s one of those shows that was trying to build to a singular emotional moment—Mari calling after Hagino as she goes to sacrifice herself to protect her—but there’s so much going on, so little preparation for the big moment, and the chemistry between Hagino and Mari is so weak, that the moment flops.

The other issue is that the actual plot part of the series is brutally unsatisfying. Apart from the fact that, regardless of anything else, Earth gets invaded and we lose, it basically ignores all the other interesting stuff—the whole contact telepathy sub-plot, what the purpose of the Emil Force Drive experiment was, a twist about thought warfare, and why Hagino tried to kill Mari the first time they met. I assume, based on the plot of the manga, that it was all intentional, but what it felt like was that they had intended an entire extra season of stuff and instead were forced to wrap everything up in a single episode by slapping an alien invasion on top and calling it done.

I will, however, give points for the series surprising me—I certainly didn’t think that’s where it was going. I also did not see the revenge-blinded soldier surviving—she was about as doomed as a character can possibly be from the first minute, and she even made the ultimate mistake of having a last-minute, dramatic change of heart. Of course, I didn’t see Hagino dying, either, but that seemed awkward more than anything.

It’s funny, too, because the very first scene is the same as the epilogue, although it’s not clear that’s what it is at the time. This was probably supposed to tell you where it was going, but by the time the end rolled around I had completely forgotten that that’s how the show started. As in, if a friend hadn’t insisted that the final scene was also at the beginning, I wouldn’t have even looked. It was so out of place, I guess, that my brain didn’t even bother to store it.

In the end, I had to wonder what the point of the whole exercise was, but it was at least passably interesting and nice-looking.

So basically you have one story that turns a brutal, world-destorying alien invasion into rollicking good classic boys’ adventure, and another that shoves it into a corner while we watch a less-refined, less-yuri Maria Watches Over Us.

Between the two, Project Blue Earth SOS definitely comes out ahead in terms of quality, entertainment factor, and satisfying plot, but both series do manage to throw a few curve balls, and are if nothing else the kind of unusual thing that makes anime interesting to watch.

Aoi Hana Manga vs. Anime (as of Book 5)

Despite the anime being a huge letdown at the end (or rather because it was), I read through the Aoi Hana/Sweet Blue Flowers manga version to see where it might be going.

The 11 episode anime (weird number—I can’t think of anything else that’s below the standard 12-13-episode-long season range) follows the first 18 chapters (three books) very closely. Through about 17 it’s practically line-for-line the same (the anime actually adds a little more to some conversations, and in fact one of my favorite little bits was barely noticeable in the manga). The final episode of the anime somewhat rearranges the sort-of-montage wrapping up the remainder of the school year in the last couple of chapters, but even that is pretty close.

There are only two plot changes.   The smaller is that one chapter of the vacation interlude (ch. 15) was removed entirely (or rather mentioned but not shown).  This segment mainly served to introduce Kyoko’s apparently severe family problems. I can see why it was skipped; though it sets up the beginning of a very slow build into her backstory/problems, it would have made it even more obvious that the story wasn’t finished yet, while the end of the anime as-is could theoretically stand on its own as an end, albeit one that leaves things frustratingly unconcluded. The omitted section could also easily be moved to later if a second season is produced (even put in the right spot chronologically via flashback—the series does that occasionally with other things within its own main timeline).

The other change is more major, but I assume was done for the same reason—to set the anime up such that it could theoretically stand on its own if a second season is never produced, and set the final couple episodes up as more of a finale. In the manga, Fumi realizes (and mentions) that Akira was her first love much earlier, rather than at the very end. The manga also only does a bit with Fumi’s sort-of-jealousy about Akira going shopping with Kou, using it to introduce the idea that Akira wasn’t just her first love, but someone she still feels for (it doesn’t even bother to show the follow through of it indeed being nothing—Fumi’s assumption of such is enough). The anime, in contrast, plays the event through to a happy conclusion, and uses that as the prod that reminds Fumi that Akira was her first love.

That does provide a vague sort-of-conclusion, instead of the very definitely not-yet-finished sense of unease that following the manga more closely would have ended on. Not much of an improvement, but a little. It’s certainly not enough to satisfy me, though, and I’m rather glad the sense things were just getting going was right. For that matter, the message, if left there, would be “adolescence is sometimes fun, but nobody you love will love you back (and the resulting depression will creep into every area of your life).” Not exactly… romantic. Something you might write a story about (it may well still be where the whole thing is going—not sure yet), but not romantic, nor something I particularly enjoy stories about.

(Non-sequitur side note: Emma, now that’s real romance, in a deep, involved, substantive way even with all the avoidance, hurt feelings, and drama.)

Where was I… As for the manga, books 4 and 5 initially appear to slip a little at first when it leaves the whole Sugimoto thing on asomewhat unsatisfying note and adds several new characters (particularly a very energetic new first-year student starting at Fujigatani, Ohno Haruka). It initially jumps around enough to make me feel like I was losing a bit of a grasp on who all was who (several of them look similar enough that, combined with slightly loose page layouts and unfocused word bubbles, I occasionally lost track—probably wouldn’t be a problem in anime due to somewhat more solid art and voices making it easy to tell who’s talking).

However, once Fumi confesses that she’s still got feelings for Akira things rapidly get interesting again, enough that I was willing to forget my dissatisfactions with the vague end to the whole Sugimoto arc. Even more so when, as hinted early on in a flashback of her relationship with Chizu, she tells Akira that she is most definitely not talking about idealized hand-holding puppy love. As with coming right out with the L word I was pleased to see the comic go there in no uncertain terms. (In a way escalation of things makes sense, given that the characters are moving quickly toward adulthood, though of course Fumi’s physical relationship was when she was significantly younger, not to mention with someone significantly older and a relative on top of it, adding an additional layer of impropriety.) The drama looks to be getting meatier, the stakes upped, and generally speaking it seems to be going somewhere interesting.

Which does leave me wondering why it took so long to get there; I feel like it was a little too leisurely through the first year of school, when there was time and room for either more to happen or it could have been shortened to something a little more punchy. The anime, likewise, could have easily been much shorter without losing anything, though to get to a stopping point at the end of the first season I can see why you’d want to drag your feet through year one, as it’d be almost impossible to find a satisfying might-be-the-end spot anywhere past there.

(Come to think of it, maybe that’s where the weird 11 episode length came from; there flat out wasn’t enough material to pad it for another episode.)

My main complaint, though, is that the increasing number of girl-interested characters is pushing it back in the opposite direction from the relative realism of the first three books, over toward Maria Watches Over Us territory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but after establishing a comparatively realistic setting and some straight characters it just seems to be overloading the sapphic end of the spectrum—if everybody is a lesbian it sort of deflates the social awkwardness of it and impact of coming-out and such. This perhaps annoys me in particular because I don’t like soap operas.

To define, I mean I prefer stories focused on a small group of characters in more depth, so the more people that get added on as potential romantic interests the closer you get to the character overload and tangled mess of plot that ends up (in my mind) sinking so many long-running comics and TV series. Books 1-3 of Aoi Hana didn’t feel that way, 4-5 seem to be threatening, though not yet nearly enough to stop me from wondering what’s going to happen next (and in general it’s doing a good job of keeping me guessing as to how things are going to play out).

Part of what gives me that feeling are some brief “bonus” chapters showing fragments of story from the pasts of other, peripheral characters (for example, Sugimoto’s sisters). There’s nothing wrong with these, but frankly they add nothing to the main story and break up the flow by distracting you with unrelated things and a bunch more characters to keep track of. I’m all for substantive backstory, and I’m in no position to complain if the author feels like drawing up some of the events of the past with the other characters she’s created, but from a narrative standpoint they feel pointless. (They’re also a little bit disorganized in terms of narrative flow, feeling like truncated excerpts more than side-stories.) I suppose I should probably just skip them, since they’re not at all important (at least thus far) to the main story.

To toss in some more technical notes, the artwork features sparse, airy linework, but unlike a lot of shoujo manga it has detailed, concrete backgrounds in most scenes (the process of collecting photos of Kamakura and its environs are discussed in some author notes at the end of each book). There’s an acceptable sense of realism to the character positioning, and I can see how that could have translated into the wonderful character animation of the anime. Speaking of which, the character designs (and background art style) are as faithful to the comic as everything else in the anime.

Bottom line, I’m looking forward to book 6, and if the series sticks to three books each for years two and three of high school and stops there, rather than trying to spiral into something epic and out-of-control in college and beyond, it may well add up to a satisfying whole. Here’s hoping that, at minimum, they animate another three books’ worth into a second season, as it’d be wonderful to see the new material onscreen, particularly if the character animation, mood, and treatment is kept to the same level.