Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 24th 2009
Maria Watches Over Us
Sub.DVD - Season 3 DVD Collection
Tempestuous spring now a thing of the past, Yumi is looking forward to summer vacation with her beloved Sachiko. They plan a getaway to Sachiko's vacation home, a place she has loved dearly since childhood. Both are thrilled at the proposition of spending a few days together, but nasty old reality interferes in the form of a gaggle of jealous debutantes who waste no time in raking Yumi over a bed of their own poison tongues. After an unpleasant experience like that, cooperating with the Hanadera student council during the Hanadera School Festival should be a cinch, especially since her brother Yuki is on the council. But Sachiko has no intention of meeting with a bunch of sweaty boys, so Yumi hatches a plan with a long name and a simple goal: to cure Sachiko of her male-phobia. That she would even dare hatch such a plan is an indicator of how far Yumi has come—far enough that she even has fans of her own. One particularly ardent one—Kanako by name—becomes a problem when she begins dogging Yumi's every move. Could Yumi have finally found a candidate for her own soeur? And is befriending a stalker really a good idea?
Season two may be more intense and season one sweeter, but season three is arguably the best of the Maria franchise. It's certainly the most technically polished of all the seasons, thanks to its OVA-sized budget, but more importantly it is the most relaxed and mature stretch of material the series has to offer.
Why does being relaxed make season three good? Well, to begin with, the series has a bad habit of getting a little overwrought when it makes a grab for the heartstrings. If you didn't go into the final episode of season two prepared, its swooning conclusion was downright embarrassing. Granted, the OVA has plenty of the franchise's patented pseudo-romantic sisterly bonding—its fans would be bitterly disappointed if it didn't—but only occasionally does it delve into the kind of emotional excess that periodically threatened to turn the previous seasons into guilty pleasures. Once, to be exact: during a tear-stained reunion scene at the Hanadera School Festival. Rather than constructing towering emotional climaxes, the OVAs are more concerned with introducing new characters, tying up the odd loose end (Rosa Canina), or simply spending time with the cast.
Which is exactly why this season excels. Drama is fine, but Maria's real draw is its cast. They're a darned likeable a bunch, and it's a real pleasure to watch them live their lives without any emotional crises clouding things up. In some ways this is an extended coda to the first two seasons, a “what happens after” reward for weathering the emotional peaks and troughs of those first twenty six episodes. If so, all rewards should be so rewarding. The ups and downs of their fledgling relationship behind them, Yumi and Sachiko's relationship takes on a warm and quietly satisfying stability. Watching them (or Yoshino and Rei, or Shimako and Noriko, if you prefer) enjoying their relationship and reaping the benefits of emotional travails past is fulfilling in a way that's just a tad disturbing if you think about it too hard. And the relationships haven't been alone in their maturation: the third season is a virtual showcase for the growth that the cast, right down to tertiary players like Tsutako, has shown. It's hard not to feel a little proud (and afterwards a little uncomfortable for feeling a little proud) as Yumi proves her skill as a canny mediator and Yoshino emerges as an iron-willed leader of men...er, girls.
If all that sounds a little tame for your tastes...well, it probably is. The introduction of Kanako adds some urgency to what Yumi calls her "soeur problem" and unfolding school events—a cultural festival, sports meet and school trip—provide some forward momentum, but this season is all about the affectionate interplay between its various leads, and it shows. Each episode unfolds with leisurely ease, lingering on small, telling events—Kanako's studied attendance to Yumi's every need, Yumi's aimlessness when separated from Sachiko, Toko's badly-disguised affection for Yumi—as it patiently advances its overall plot. It's the pacing of a series that has matured along with its characters. The first season was a scrappy comedy/drama, the second a mildly episodic melodrama. The third is a series that has learned to trust its characters, giving them the time and space to charm viewers without recourse to plot manipulations or wringing emotions. At times it can be powerful (Yumi's performance at the evil debutantes' party), at others funny (the hilarious undercutting of Yumi and Sachiko's over-dramatized reunion by an ill-fitting panda suit), but mostly the show is simply and purely enjoyable.
It isn't until a vast difference in production values becomes obvious that one realizes just how important they can be. Maria's television incarnations are hardly cheap-looking, but they are night as to day when compared to the OVA. The gap isn't immediately obvious—director Yukihiro Matsushita is careful to maintain visual continuity, retaining the earthy color schemes and attention to seasonal detail that were the hallmarks of the first two series. As befitting a slice-of-life series, the changes wrought by budgetary adjustment are subtle: the girls' hair moves and flows in more realistic ways, changing outfits become more common, faces and body language become more expressive, and backgrounds become more interactive. The cumulative effect is startling. The characters' clean good looks are amplified by their new freedom of movement, and everything takes on a new depth of perspective, settings becoming spaces to be traversed rather than tableaux onto which 2D actions are projected and the campus becoming a tangible world unto itself. It's a difficult effect to describe, like a subtle but wholesale expansion of in-series reality, or a removal of invisible shackles, freeing the series to move as it will.
The series' simple but effective score remains largely unchanged (aside from some regional music during the Italy episode). Highly appealing, even when silly—though the replacement of the classical closer with a generic pop song by KOTOKO does lower it a notch.
With plenty of production art, five SD omake and some nice liner notes (very useful for puns), the only real complaint about Right Stuf's release is that the omake episodes are all on the third disc, making it necessary to pop it in and out if you want to watch each omake after its corresponding episode. A piddling complaint really. A more substantial complaint might be the continued absence of a dub, but any reasonable fan knows that was never really an option to begin with. The packaging—solid box and three thinpacked discs sporting plenty of the series' gorgeous art—is basically impeccable, and the omake—regardless of their location—are highly amusing.
Of all the franchise's seasons, this is the one that gives the snarling cynical cur in you the least provocation. All of those scenes of proper young ladies behaving properly (if rather amorously) towards one another may get him straining at his chain, but if you can keep him from breaking loose and chewing the mannered script to snarky ribbons, this is as rewarding as the franchise gets. Here's hoping season four measures up.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Less melodramatic, more evenly paced, and just as charming as previous installments; gorgeous new OVA-budgeted visuals.
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