They say that April showers bring May flowers, but in the case of this month it's bringing forth nothing but lilies. That's right, it's finally time for an entire month of yuri manga! To kick things off, let's take a look at one of the best-known yuri manga out there.
STRAWBERRY PANIC (Sutoroberi Panikku!), adapted from the light novels by Sakurako Kimino with art by Takuminamuchi. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2007.
For Aoi Nagisa, the illustrious halls of St. Miator Girls' Academy is a chance for her to define herself as a somebody. In short order, she catches the eye of the school's idol, Hanazono Shizuma. Shizuma is determined to have Nagisa for herself, no matter how oblivious Nagisa may be to her overtures. In doing so, the two become the front runners in the annual intermural contest for best couple, but not if some of the other girls from other school have anything to say about it.
There's a fine line between satire and just plain ridiculousness. That line is defined not just by tone, but by purpose. After all, any good joke has to have a punchline. Without it, all you're left with is a lot of over-the-top nonsense that's never entirely sure if it's being silly or playing things entirely straight. What does this have to do with Strawberry Panic? Everything, as it's never sure itself of whether it's meant to be mocking the usual yuri story formula or not.
All the traditional story elements are there: a religious all-girls' school, a ridiculously convoluted and formalized social system within it, lots of flowery terminology, aggressive sempais hitting on their innocent kouhais, and despite the fact that nearly everyone is in a gay relationship of some sort, few of them ever seem to get beyond first base or treat it like a serious romantic relationship. Strawberry Panic not only plays these plot elements straight, it does so in such an over-the-top manner that it would seem to be lampshading them. Why else would Nagisa be so much of a naive, oblivious cliche of a shoujo heroine unless she was meant to be parodying these sorts of protagonists? Why would practically every girl she meets fall for her despite having no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever unless it was meant to send up cliches? Why else would they turn Shizuma's wooing of Nagisa into a silly cat-and-mouse style pursuit unless it was meant to be funny? For all intensive purposes, this would seem to be a parody of the serious, sensitive, Class S-style stories like Maria Watches Over Us. That begs the question, though: if that's the joke, what's the punchline?
It's not like you can't make an affectionate genre parody that doesn't have a narrative point to make. For example, Ouran High School Host Club is meant at heart to poke fun at reverse harem conventions. The boys of the host club are literally playing to reverse harem stereotypes for the benefit of a female audience. Yet we see through their interactions with Haruhi that their true personalities are more complex than their roles suggest and that they change over time in no small part thanks to her intervention. That's part of what makes Ouran work so well: it not only parodies these elements, but uses them to make a point about how shallow these character types are and how they don't reflect the reality of actual relationships. That's good satire. In comparison, Strawberry Panic also utilizes a lot of over-the-top elements from its genres, but it plays them straight (pun not intended). It's not trying to make a point about how real-world lesbian relationships don't usually work this way or even how predictable and formulaic these sorts of yuri stories have become through sheer repetition. It's simply trying to have its narrative cheesecake and eat it too. I have no problem with the idea of a silly take on the traditional girls' school yuri stories - if anything, I would welcome it. It's just that Strawberry Panic is tonally too mixed-up to work either as a serious romantic drama or as a parody of yuri convention.
The artwork here is fine, if nothing remarkable. The one thing that distinguishes it is the hair. Takuminamuchi seems to love drawing hair. They don't just love coming up with different styles, but they throw so much of themselves into drawing each little spike of bangs or tendril of tress. They get downright ridiculous with Shizuma's mane of long hair, as each curl swirls about her at all points as if it were sentient. Alas, the focus on the hair comes at the sacrifice of the faces, as they tend to be the same sort of cookie-cutter cute anime girl face. It seems to have been pasted over every single girl in the cast, so much so that those hair styles were often the only way I could distinguish which girl was which.
Beyond that, there's not much to say about the art other than it's serviceable. The backgrounds are nothing special. The school uniforms are old-fashioned with their lace collars and cuffs, but are actually rather reasonable compared to the explosion of frills and layers that a lot of designers like to use. They also make a nice complement to the competing school's smart and sleek suit and skirts. There's not much in the way of fanservice beyond a single bath scene and a groping in a library that comes off as way more disturbing than intended. It just wants for some sense of personality or beauty to make it distinct.
I think Seven Seas was aware that there were too many girls with too many similar faces to keep track of, so that's why there's a character guide in the back with mini-bios, setting info, and a translation guide.
Strawberry Panic ultimately suffers because it can never decide on whether it's serious or silly. It tries to be a jack of all trades when it comes to yuri, but instead is a master of none.
This series is published by Seven Seas. This series is complete in Japan with 2 volumes available. Both have been published in both single volumes and a 2-in-1 omnibus. The single volumes are out of print; the omnibus is currently in print.