Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 23rd 2008
Maria Watches Over Us
DVD - Season 1 Collection (S) (TV)
Lillian Girl's Academy's tradition of encouraging older students to mentor a younger girl has long protected the Catholic school's reputation for prim and proper behavior without recourse to strict discipline. The “seour system” fosters deep bonds between each generation of students, friendships that can last lifetimes and inspire devotion to rival that of real siblings. First-year student Yumi Fukuzawa is a silent fan of Sachiko Ogasawara, Lillian's most popular second-year student. Beautiful, refined, and reserved, Sachiko is also the “younger sister” of the Yamayuri Council's “Rosa Chinensis,” one of three student officers named after roses whose job it is to run Lillian's student government. Outgoing, modest Yumi has no intention of entering the world of the Yamayuri Council or of doing anything more than admiring her idol from afar, but when Sachiko, in a fit of temper, decides to make Yumi—the first person to cross her path—her seour, Yumi is left with no choice. The pairing of hopelessly ordinary Yumi and decidedly extraordinary Sachiko seems an ill-fated one, especially once Yumi rebuffs Sachiko's offer, but the two soon discover that they are strangely compatible. Thus begins Yumi's long involvement in the tangled personal lives of the Yamayuri Council and her own tempestuous relationship with the complicated Sachiko.
The latest attack in Right Stuf/Nozomi's bid to secure “most beloved by otaku” status, Maria Watches Over Us is an influential shoujo-ai drama with entertainment chops and an emotional punch that belie its mannered tone and oft shameless over-dramatization.
It's terribly easy to mock Maria Watches Over Us (heck, even Best Student Council can do it). It's chock full of dialogue of the kind that usually comes from behind the raised fan of some snobby socialite, and the impeccable manners of its cast makes the Victorian gentry look like free-wheeling trailer trash. Director Yukihiro Matsushita's habit of over-dramatizing events that are, in retrospect, quite mundane more than once leaves the series wide open to cynical sniggering. Watching girls putting themselves through the tortures of hell over whether or not to give bon-bons to their beloved sempai never really gets old, but there's no denying that it's just the slightest bit preposterous. The recurring shots of girls sparkling in their worshipers' eyes as their hair blows cinematically in the wind constantly threaten to flip the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” switch in one's head—the switch that defends against shameless revelry in blatant emotional manipulation by transforming one into a cruel, wisecracking cynic incapable of enjoying all the weeping in one-another's arms that the cast does.
That the series, even at its most unabashedly melodramatic, never actually flips the switch is the first sign one has that Maria may have actually earned its following with something more than shoujo-ai titillation. And indeed, for all of the girls fawning over one another, Maria isn't a show to rely on voyeuristic thrills for its appeal. In fact, while suspiciously close friendships are the norm and the act of seour-ing an underclassman is treated with the gravitas usually reserved for marriage proposals, only one relationship crosses the line into outright lesbianism. The series is content to let its characters merely suggest romance, leaving the dirty work of turning them into genuine yuri icons to a teeming throng of doujin artists. Rather than fan-service or girl-on-girl tonsil hockey, Maria's creators have a rather more unconventional hook in mind: quality
Though the lighthearted previews and hilarious SD specials give some indication that Matsushita and his staff are aware of how silly their material can objectively seem, the series proper is played perfectly straight. While ostensibly about the peculiar politics of Lillian Girls' Academy, the series is really about the relationships that bind the student council together, and it takes them very, very seriously. The series is blessed with a likable, believable cast, inhabited to perfection by a small platoon of experienced voice talent. Even peripheral and comic-relief characters are fully realized, replete with goals and circumstances of their own, and fully capable of bearing the weight of emotion placed on them. If you were to take a step back you might recognize the series' emotional manipulation for the melodrama that it is, but the characters draw one in so close that there's little room for back-stepping. It's embarrassingly easy to fret right along with Yumi when she agonizes over what to wear on a date or to share her anguish at some stupid misunderstanding. What sets Maria apart from its imitators isn't that it's melodrama free, but that it earns its melodrama—with careful characterization and two- to three-episode story arcs that build slowly to a single, potent emotional payoff.
Each arc weaves its emotional interactions from carefully-rendered expressions and exchanges both silent and verbal that are supported by clear, expressive eyes and character designs that are gifted with an understated mobility. A lack of any real action frees the animators up to focus on the subtle, important details of wind-blown hair, shifting posture, and those eyes. Gorgeous, evocative backgrounds bring Lillian to austere life, its appearance visibly shifting with the changing seasons and moods. The series works from a palette of warm, natural colors, heavily favoring browns even in the realistically-colored characters. Akira Matsushima's designs eschew fantastic hair, relying on less obvious variations in hairstyle and physical build to distinguish the various girls. He excels at communicating the sheer beauty of his cast, off-setting Lillian's simple, elegant uniform with clean, defined faces, startling, detailed eyes, and noses that could cut glass.
Mikiya Katakura's score is pure class—no crass guitars or synthesizers here, only pure piano, strings and the occasional organ. It can be wielded with a blunt force that is at odds with the visuals, but is otherwise perfectly fine. The opening and closing are beautiful, wordless compositions that, not surprisingly, would be right at home in a church.
In addition to collecting all seven of the Maria Watches Over Us specials—a series of humorous “outtakes” starring SD versions of the cast—Nozomi also includes liner notes and character biographies on each disc. Watch out for spoilers in some of the biographies, though given the series' slice-of-life structure, the spoilers aren't terribly detrimental to one's enjoyment.
In the years since Lillian Hellman first combined private girls' schools and suppressed lesbianism in “The Children's Hour,” the two have grown nearly synonymous. You can't really credit Maria Watches Over Us with popularizing an idea that is nearly three-quarters of a century old, but it did set off a cycle of lesser anime series in a similar vein. Less polished and focused than later seasons, this first season nevertheless introduces a large and intensely sympathetic cast and puts them through their often ridiculously affecting paces, making plain the reasons why the franchise remains perennially popular even as its little sisters fade into obscurity. And all while looking absolutely fabulous.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ A beautifully illustrated, surprisingly effective slice-of-life drama; strong, sympathetic cast.
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