Maria Watches Over Us season 1
The prestigious Lillian Girl's School is a "garden of maidens", a place where conventional education is secondary to the cultivation of young, beautiful women. In such an environment, the students essentially rule the school - in particular, the Yamayurikai (Mountain Lily Council), which acts as the de facto student council, putting on events and initiating newer students into Lillian traditions.
The council is based on a "little sister-big sister" system, which means that each council member must find a "little sister" to succeed them, and each girl is a member of a line of students denoted by the name of a certain kind of rose. In French, of course.
Into this whole scene comes the slightly clueless, awkward, but cute and well-meaning Fukuzawa Yumi, a first-year student who has a huge crush on the stately, beautiful, raven-haired Ogasawara Sachiko. Sachiko, being a member of the Yamayurikai, needs a little sister to continue the unbroken line of "yellow roses", and Yumi happens to be in the right place at the right time.
But what starts out as a chance meeting quickly grows into something far, far deeper. Is Sachiko merely trying to manipulate Yumi for her own purposes? Will Yumi be able to handle suddenly being so close to the girl she's admired from afar? And what's with all this gratuitous French being thrown around anyway?
The answers can only be found at Lillian Girls School, under the patient gaze of the statue of the Virgin Mary.
I could have picked an easy series to review, but instead, I decided on this one. Hoo boy.
First off, it's a thirteen-episode anime based off a novel which will undoubtedly never be translated into English, so you're going to miss a whole lot of backstory and characterization, not to mention many of the reasons why people are acting the way they do in this.
Secondly, if you don't like yuri / shoujo ai (that is, girl-girl romance), then stay the heck away from this show. Much of the plot deals with what is effectively elaborate romantic courtship between girls, thanks partially to the exclusion of males during a pivotal period of social development (and thanks partially to the roles of the male characters in this show, to be discussed later).
Thirdly, this is first and foremost a drama series. You won't find people going SD, or weird psycho monkey-things, or karate-kicking action.
That being said ...
Maria-sama ga Miteru is one of the most beautiful and graceful anime I have ever seen. While the animation itself isn't particularly spectacular (and Studio Deen's work apparently fluctuates in later episodes), the artwork is very appealing, and it sets a very distinctive atmosphere, much like Brother Dear Brother without the oppressive angst, or Revolutionary Girl Utena without the overt sexuality and the weirdness. Coupled with the best classical soundtrack since Princess Tutu, the audiovisual aspects of this title evoke a feel of high class, which is undoubtedly going to put off anime fans looking for lighter fare, and rightly so.
The setting itself is not going to sit well with some viewers. While the title invokes the Virgin Mary and Lillian is ostensibly a Catholic school, this is virtually nothing but window-dressing. As a prestigious private school, this is perhaps one of the least egalitarian settings possible in an anime, so Western audiences may find a lot of the sociological aspects of the setting to be completely alien. Admittedly, the idea of a schol as a "garden of maidens" strikes me as extremely strange, but having dealt with the genre before, I can't say I'm surprised by the philosophy. At least we don't get the psychotic administration of, say, I My Me Strawberry Eggs. There's hardly any teachers to speak of in the episodes I've screened, as they aren't particularly important to the story.
And, yes, the story. Maria-sama ga Miteru doesn't tell any sort of sweeping plot. Rather, it delves into the relationships between the girls of the Yamayurikai, whether as friends, as "sisters", or as something more than that. This whole "sister" thing is where you're going to lose most potential viewers, because the usage of French to denote status titles within the council is really, really distracting and doesn't get explained for almost a full episode.
I've pretty much explained it in the synopsis as a "sister" system -- but the gist of it is that there are three leaders, titled "Rosa chinensis", "Rosa foetida", and "Rosa gigantea", their immediate subordinates ("Rosa ... en bouton"), and their subordinates ("Rosa ... en bouton petite soeur"). It's an extremely elaborate, tongue-twisting way to say "kohai" and "sempai", and it's going to drive a lot of people batty.
The whole idea is that each "Rosa" must choose a "petite soeur" (little sister) to carry on the line by granting her a cross pendant. This often takes on a sort of courtship aspect, especially in the first episodes as Sachiko tries to convince Yumi to accept her pendant.
Once you get past the whole hard-to-explain "sister" aspect of the series, the rest is easily managed. The interpersonal relationships are intriguing, and often very, very heartwarming, and basically we get to see this remarkable group of people through the eyes of the very cute lead, Yumi (played adorably by Ueda Kana). Immediately interesting is the man-hating Sachiko (played by veteran Itou Miki) who seemingly flashes from aloofness to extreme affection within the blink of an eye. The budding "sisterhood" between these two characters is endearingly awkward, and well worth watching in its own right, seemingly epitomized by an unlikely piano duet (using Bach, no less) early on. Simply put, Yumi and Sachiko are so dang cute together, and I can't help but root for them.
But the rest of the relationships within the roses are equally interesting (if not more so for some devoted fans), and the series focuses on mplenty of other characters as it runs along its thirteen episode length. While there isn't a lot of humor here (this is a drama of the first degree), there is the occasional bit of what I like to call "gratuitous yuri" - scenes that heavily imply that a lot more is happening than actually apparent, for comedic reasons. There is also rampant usage of lesbian imagery, such references to lilies (yuri), as well as the slightly misplaced etymology in using the sapphire gem to allude to Sappho. Interestingly, this actually adds to the overall feeling of romantic (not necessarily sexual) tension that underlies this entire series.
Frankly, the biggest setback this series could have (apart from an obviously limited audience) is its length. Already, I've seen many small threads that have been missed in the first three episodes (in particular the motivations of the male character Suguru, which are glossed over), and I get the feeling that this series has been highly simplified for television audiences (which is scary because it's already so damn complicated)!
But the quality of the storytelling and art, matched by an exquisite soundtrack, demand to be recognized. While I find it difficult to describe or justify why I like this series so much, I can not hesitate in recommended open-minded audiences to try out at least the first three episodes of this series (basically the first story arc).
If you find it boring, then feel free to walk away. I won't blame you. But if you are willing to sit through some exposition and delve into an unusual setting and follow an intriguing set of relationships, then you could do a lot worse than Maria-sama ga Miteru.
And if series like Rose of Versailles and Brother Dear Brother are your bread and butter, then what in heck are you waiting for?
Those unused to this genre of drama may drop a star or two. Fans of the genre, however, may want to add a star, unless they're expecting hot girl-on-girl action. This series is just a bit too classy for that. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: Thanks to the "window-dressing" treatment of a Catholic school as a backdrop for same-sex romance, this will undoubtedly offend conservative audiences, who frankly shouldn't be dabbling in this genre to begin with. That being said, there is very little violence and no nudity or sexual situations - the raciest things here are same-sex kissing scenes on rare occasions, and the general psychosexual tension underlying the whole plot. Fine for teens and up.
Version(s) Viewed: digital source
Review Status: Partial (3/13)
Maria Watches Over Us season 1 © 2004 Konno Oyuki / Shueisha / Yamayurikai
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