Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 14th 2009
Maria Watches Over Us
DVD - Season 2 Collection: Printemps (S) (TV)
As graduation approaches, the members of the Yamayuri Council must each come to terms with the eventual departure of the Lady Roses. Shimako remembers her first encounter with her “elder sister” Sei, while Yumi faces the sad reality of life without Rosa Gigantea's suspect guidance. Even as the girls acclimate themselves to life without their upperclassmen, Lillian's new arrivals begin to upset their established routines. Shimako, only just appointed as the Yamayuri Council's new Rosa Gigantea, inadvertently finds a seour in Buddha-loving freshman Noriko, thanks to a forceful push from Sachiko's scheming relative Toko. Later Yumi and Sachiko's relationship is tested to breaking when Toko forces Yumi to re-evaluate her place in Sachiko's life.
More focused and intense than the loose, charming first season, the second installment in the popular shojo-ai franchise is in some ways the weakest. The other installments being great fun and weak being a relative term, that isn't actually much of a criticism.
Like the first season, Printemps is divided into a series of short stories, each dealing with a different pair of seours. This is important because the Maria franchise runs almost exclusively on the charm of its characters. If any of them were to be neglected the repercussions would undoubtedly be dire. Sei fans can look forward to her heartfelt sendoff prior to graduation. Eriko gets a rare episode of straight-up romance, and Yoko plays crucial roles in several of the story arcs. Rei and Yoshino's relationship is tested yet again, and Shimako gets both an extensive flashback and a new petit seour, who joins the contentious Toko in swelling the ranks of Maria's already extensive cast. They're all just as adorable (and entangled in too-close friendships) as ever, and regardless of one's character preferences, there's bound to be a scene or two that will warm you from the inside out.
What's surprising isn't so much that the series runs on cute situations and cute characters with even cuter relationships, but that the series has continued to do so for so long without any noxious byproducts. The austere visuals, with their gorgeous character designs and warm, muted palette, certainly have something to do with it—especially when compared to the garish vulgarity of series like Otoboku—as does the classy, severely restrained score. But more than anything it is the care and insight with which the characters and their lives are written that keeps the series from drowning in a swamp of treacle. When the Lady Roses graduate, they actually leave, lending real weight to their melancholy parting and foreshadowing the day when Sachiko and Rei too must leave. The interplay between characters such as the unpredictable Sei and naive Yumi, or Yumi and reserved Sachiko are carefully considered, with equal weight given to both the healthy and unhealthy aspects of their relationships. Sachiko's reservation both alienates and attracts Yumi, just as Sei is both a crutch and a force for change in Yumi's life. As pure and sweet as the relationships are, they are rarely unbelievably so, an essential reserve that also prevents the humorous character byplay from growing silly or stupid.
It's in breaching that reserve that Printemps damages itself. The final Yumi/Sachiko arc generates the series' most intense emotions to date. Their alienation from one another is viscerally affecting, and Yumi's frustration, despair and confusion are only too easy to understand. But that very intensity is Printemps' most serious flaw. The displays of despair and affection generated by the arc are too extreme to fit comfortably into the series' otherwise relaxed, realistic feel—particularly Yumi's reaction to having her umbrella stolen and the spinning camerawork of the arc's swooning conclusion. Viewers already wary of the series' mannered milieu and unabashed homoerotic sentimentality will find the final three episodes far too embarrassing to endure. The Yumi/Sachiko arc is no melodramatic wash however. Those who can tolerate (or thrive on) the occasional lapse in restraint will be amply rewarded by Yumi's growth, in which can be seen the first seeds of a formidable council member.
Right Stuf's release of the series is remarkable for its consistency. The second box set sports a complementary look and the same episode breakdowns as the first set, and features the same basic extras. The liner notes are welcome—particularly when they explain the translation issues underlying the silly, pun-heavy next-episode previews—as are the two subtitle streams (one for people unfamiliar with honorifics, the other for those who want their “Onee-sama”s untranslated) but it's the Maria-sama ni wa naisho specials that really reward. They're the same silly “outtakes” as those from the first season, and are both original and very funny. Special kudos goes to the thoroughness of the super deformation—even Jesus, nailed happily to his cross, is drawn SD-style. Unfortunately at least one of the specials (number six) has an odd quirk when running the second subtitle stream that blanks the screen out whenever a subtitle comes up.
Perhaps even more embarrassing and shoujo-ai oriented than the blushingly girly first season, Printemps plays very much as if it were the end of the franchise. But worry not, as climactic as the final leg of the season is, it is far from the end. The third, and best (to date), season hits American markets in February, and the fourth season is currently being broadcast in Japan. Oyuki Konno's lovable Catholic school girls have life in them yet, and their lives, both political and personal, only get more complex and involving from here on.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ The funny, touching and engrossing return of one of the last year's most endearing ensemble casts; beautiful to behold.
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