It's a twelve-episode TV series that did well enough to get two OVA sequels, but it has no plot. It's just five girls hanging out together and usually being useless. It's quiet, deadpan, charming and occasionally maddening.
To be honest, I assumed it was based on a four-panel gag manga, like Azumanga Daioh. I was wrong, but it feels that way. Their world has little depth and you might start wondering if our protagonists even have parents, except that they clearly aren't orphans. They're normal girls. There's little coherence to the episodes and they'll drift from one unrelated situation to another. Gags happen, in an understated way. It's not structured much like drama. It's structured like the lives of small girls, doing whatever they feel like doing and generally messing up. There are no boys at all. Our heroines are:
1. CHIKA (age 12), described by her older sister, Nobue, in episode one as having no personality traits. "Her special characteristic is that she has no special characteristic." This is correct. She's the normal one.
2. MIU (age 12), who's obnoxious. She's loud, pushy, talks utter garbage and keeps trying to drag her friends along on some kind of frivolous or delusional activity. Occasionally, though, we get a hint of the human feelings underneath the abrasive surface. She might, perhaps, be feeling a bit lonely as a result of being ignored because of her weird behaviour. She's also capable of getting jealous of the affection between certain other characters.
3. MATSURI (age 11), who's painfully timid.
4. ANA COPPOLA (age 11), who drove me insane. Gyaaaah! Ana (sic) is English, so of course she should be Anna, except that that would be a slightly inconvenient transliteration from the manga's point of view. (There's a confusing running gag about Ana's name, which went over my head as it seems to imply that being called Coppola is embarrassing in some way. I know of no Japanese word with that pronunciation.) Anyway, Ana has been living in Japan so long that she's more Japanese than the natives and can no longer speak English... but she's got a complex about this and has decided to pretend at school that she can't speak Japanese.
She can't speak English, yet she's claiming to be able to speak nothing else. She's in a country where everyone studies English at school and you'll not infrequently meet people who speak it well, including a sprinkling of foreigners.
This made my head explode. I can't think of anything more stupid. I really can't. I'm sitting here, trying. For the most part, Ana's a polite, well-spoken, shy girl who's a natural friend for Matsuri. However the "Ana Goes To School" episodes (2, 3, 5) made me cringe and/or want to punch her in the face. That said, though, some people seem to have found these episodes very funny and I'm happy for them.
5. NOBUE (age 20), who's Chika's older sister and hangs out with the others because... um, possibly from a fetish for cute girls. I'm not saying she's necessarily a lesbian, but the anime's not exactly fighting against that interpretation. She's not trying to shag them, though. That would be wrong. Nobue's just a nice (if sometimes grumpy) big sister and you'd have counted yourself lucky if you'd had a sibling like her while you were growing up. She's deadpan and she drinks and smokes, which is presumably why the TV show made her 20 while the manga version's only 16.
Anyway, the main driver of this show is stupidity and uselessness, but in a gentle, affectionate way. These girls are hopeless at everything. They could manage to fail at tasks as simple as walking up a road. (That's in episode twelve, because of snow, and it made me laugh.) However you'd normally expect comedy anime about stupid characters to be WILD AND WACKY... and this isn't. The slapstick punchlines of Miu getting whacked for having done something outrageous, for instance, omit the actual slapstick. The show just cuts to Miu lying face-down. The tone is quiet and almost reflective, which makes the show pleasant and even soothing, despite the goofiness of everyone involved.
It's about childhood and friendship, I think. It's about children giving themselves silly rules, such as the first one to fail to step in the shadows being the one who has to carry everyone else's bags. It's about how being a complete failure at everything you try to do doesn't really matter when you're eleven, because your friends will forgive you and tomorrow is another day. It's about the warmth of aimlessness.
...well, effectively. That's if you're going to over-intellectualise it. It's also about cute girls (fortunately in a non-sexual way) having misadventures in a way that might hopefully appeal to people who liked Azumanga Daioh.
Not to be confused with the other, unrelated manga called Strawberry Marshmallow. You can tell the difference from the two series's original Japanese titles, which are "Ichigo Mashimaro" and "Ichigo Mashumaro". Apparently both are legitimate Japanese transliterations of "marshmallow", but when I used the former at home recently, I got corrected and told I should say the latter.
The series has one excellent episode, I think. Its finale is about Matsuri's belief in Santa Claus and, I think, managed to say worthwhile things about the show's key notes of childhood and what's important. (While also being funny.) Most of the series, though, is aimless and best described as "sort of amusing". It's low-key. Sometimes it's amusing. It's pleasant, then it's a bit annoying (usually Miu), then it finds a way to make this pleasant again. Personally I was in pain during the "Ana At School" episodes, but maybe I was being weird and overreacting?
Do I like it? Hmmm. It's one of those slightly acquired tastes where I have no problem understanding the mixed, ambiguous reviews that attracted me to it. Some people have been underwhelmed. Others really like it. It definitely has its charms, though. It's gentle, well-meaning and harmless.