The setting is lush Astraea Hill, where three famous all-girls schools are built. It's the first day of school, and the cherry blossoms are scattering to the ground. Nagisa meets Hanazono Shizuma, the top student in the school, and her breath is taken away by her beauty. But when Shizuma takes a liking to Nagisa, love and chaos soon follow...
Okay, let's be honest right up front. You aren't reading this for the story. You aren't reading this for the deep characterization. You're reading this for the myriad of schoolgirls in a world seemingly devoid of a Y chromosome who fawn over one another like dogs in heat. That said, for the bite-sized morsel of a manga Strawberry Panic! is, few yuri manga come as decadent as this one.
However, decadence leads to overkill, and when you have not one, but two plain transfer students sought after by the goddesses of their respective schools, you know you're straddling the line between overkill and parody. In fact,
as a parody, the manga actually works quite well. The dialogue is hamfisted and saccharine, and the plot devices are exaggerated and operatic. It's just too unbelievable to take seriously even from the very start. But as I said, there is a fine line between overkill and parody, and given the intended audience of Strawberry Panic!, I'm obliged to lean towards overkill.
This is only seared into the reader's mind further by the artwork, full of doe-eyed girls and delicate but elaborate designs. As it's intended to be, it's very very pretty but given the content, it's adding sugar on top of more sugar.
The manga does add some much needed spice in the characters themselves. Only innocent leads Nagisa and Hikari are sweet as pie, and pretty much every other girl who isn't them is trying to get into another girl's panties. There are secret rendezvouses, locker room changings, and yes, even open-air bathing. None of these events whenever they should happen in the course of the manga ever stays innocent for long and before you know it, one girl is blushing furiously or drooling at the thought of what she could do with the situation. There is some mild character introspection, but it's only done in the context of how it affects the relationship, not the character herself.
So what it comes down to, plain and simple, is this is a yuri manga for people who only care about the yuri. People who don't want to have to fool around with a plot, turn off their brain, and watch schoolgirls fall hopelessly into one another's arms. Fortunately, it ended prematurely thus sparing any and all readers from having to deal with this yuri overkill for too long. What it all boils down to is that your own personal enjoyment will greatly be decided by whether you're the kind of person who enjoys drowning in a sea of girls constantly blushing at the sight of other girls or not.
Strawberry Panic is, in a strange sort of way, like Naruto. It's the most popular in it's genre, and even if you've never read either of them, you know they exist and their basic concept. However, the important thing I'm getting to here is that they are both overrated and suck. As this is just a review for Strawberry Panic, it is now time to drop the topic of Naruto and move on.
Story: 5. Simple story that is executed poorly.
The story of Strawberry Panic is fairly simple and nothing special; a transfer student moves into an all-girls highschool full of- you guessed it- lesbians.
There, they compete with the other all-girls highschools in the area for some sort of competition for the best couple, or as they call it in the manga, "etoile." I don't mind that it's a simple story; that's not how I critic things. Simple stories can still be very enjoyable when executed properly, after all. However, this is where Strawberry Panic does it's very worst. (Or maybe second worst. More on that later.) The plot jumps all over the place, and the pacing is horrible. Honestly, a story like this deserves a couple of more chapters. There is no preparation for the etoile competition as far as I can tell, and the competition itself appears much earlier then I feel it should. There is absolutely no suspense, thus making the story seem very boring and rushed. I've never seen the anime, but I'm thinking it's probably better paced then the manga as it has much more time to go through everything. Furthermore, the competition itself is actually very boring and almost, well, stupid. Apparently, the mangaka felt the competition shouldn't actually be the main point of the story (despite the whole manga revolving around it), using the competition instead to add some drama between the participating couples, as well as several "KYAAA"-able scenes. Not a very good decision imo.
Art: 7. Decent, but nothing special.
However, if you are just the average, shallow manga reader looking for cute girls doing cute, lesbian things, you are in luck. The art is considerably fair for this sort of manga (I'm assuming yuri art is as bad as yaoi's; one look at those triangular faces saying "I love you, ****-chan" is enough to make anybody cry.) Just remember: I said the art is fair, not the most gorgeous, delicious, beautiful, trunkylicoiaowufsxdmjgh thing I've ever seen. In other words, the art is acceptable, but there are flaws. Most of those flaws can be overlooked, though, so the art still gets a 7/10.
Character: 5. Static, boring, and cliche characters.
As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no character development. None. The characters are all static. This would've been okay if the characters had at least been interesting, but they're not. Just your typical, cliche, stereotypical characters. You can predict everything they do and say; even what they think. On top of that, almost everything they do seems corny and over the top in some way.
Why? Just because. Enjoyment of a series has nothing to do with how good it is in the viewers eyes; for example, I believe Fairy Tail to be a extremely repetitive series with all the usual stereotypical shonen elements that is extremely flawed. However, I /still/ love it. Strawberry Panic satisfies my hunger for yuri, so it /did/ complete it's main goal: provide the world with a bunch of lesbians, varying from cute to cool to handsome to nearly yandere-like princesses to lolis to perverts to megane-girls. You could say Strawberry Panic is my guilty pleasure that I like to read in the corner of my room where nobody can see me.
Overall: 6. Nothing special. Not horribly bad, but no where near good.
The story is in the dumps, the art is average, the characters is in the dumps as well, but the story is still enjoyable. Considering it is fairly short, it has a slightly higher reread value then some other series. Whether or not you'd ever want to reread it, though, is a completely different topic. I would not recommend this book to picky readers that want everything to be perfect (or as close as it can get) as this book is chock full of flaws. If you are just a bored otaku looking for something to pass time, though, then this would be a decent fit. (I am taking the liberty of assuming you like or at least don't hate yuri; if you did, you probably wouldn't waste time reading this review.)
Thank you for reading this review. Please provide any sort of feedback so I can better my writing. :D