Reviewby Theron Martin,
Maria the Virgin Witch
BD+DVD - Complete Collection
In mid-15th century France, the Hundred Years' War against the English is very gradually rumbling toward a conclusion. It can't come soon enough for Maria, a witch who lives in a forest in northeastern France and absolutely abhors war. While her succubus familiar Artemis plies her trade on the commanders of both sides, Maria sometimes uses her magic to intervene more directly, forcefully splitting both battling sides apart. That doesn't sit well many with the many whose strategies and livelihoods are disrupted by her interference, but the real problem comes when the divine angel Michael gets involved. Maria's actions run contrary to the Heavenly mandate of non-intervention in the affairs of humans, so she is given an ultimatum. To retain her powers as a witch she must remain a virgin and not interfere further, and she's assigned the angel Ezekiel as an observer. That really throws a wrench into Maria's peace-promoting efforts and her budding romance with Joseph, a page who often brings entreaties to her from a local noble. With so many parties encouraging her to give up her maidenhood for one reason or another, what's a virgin witch to do?
Maria the Virgin Witch is a remarkable series in many respects. It's nearly as raunchy as a high-end fanservice anime – even being assigned a TV-MA rating despite not having any detailed nudity – and yet it also delves deeply into examinations of religion and philosophy. It features magic and supernatural beings as core story elements and yet shows a level of attention to historical detail that few other anime titles can match. It also develops rich characters and a meaty plot around very grim topics while still seamlessly finding places for bits of sharp-tongued fun. In fact, finding something that the series doesn't do well may largely come down to personal taste. (For my part, I crowned it the 2nd best show of 2015 overall.)
Despite its title, Maria the Virgin Witch isn't a magical girl anime by any definition. No, this is a story about witches in the more classical Western sense and how they fit into the tapestry of life in 1400s France. Here, witches are outsiders from the society of normal folk, not so much rebels against the Christian Church as followers of their own path, and they can generally be very mercenary. The story casts them as atypically empowered women for their era, who live how they please without being beholden to any side. If what they do involves occasionally bedding men, well that's no big deal to most of them. Their only real loyalty is to their fellow witches. While Maria shares many of those traits, she's also something of an oddball among them, since rather than just living life freely, she fiercely sticks to her guiding principles. That means not allowing warfare to go on around her if she can do something about it.
The fiery disposition with which Maria pursues her goals is a galvanizing point that allows the story to leap into more serious discussions. Certainly a desire to see an end to violence and conflict is laudable, but Maria acts strictly by her morality and conviction without considering the longer-term consequences of what she does. The series doesn't hold back from depicting this bigger picture either; in one case, Maria stops a battle only to see the suddenly-purposeless soldiers resort to raiding villages. In another case, her efforts to end the fighting turn what should have been a decisive victory for one side that could have hastened the end of the overall war into a loss. That Maria continues to bull ahead despite numerous parties cautioning her on the consequences of her actions could be seen as a sign of her unshakable will, but it could also be interpreted as reckless and selfish, a point that even she eventually contemplates. It certainly gets her into some nearly-lethal trouble at times.
While she's unquestionably the star and central character, the story isn't just about her. The strong and diverse supporting cast enlivens this production mightily. Artemis is a hoot as an owl who can turn into a buxom succubus who regularly teases Maria about her lack of experience with men. The incubus Priapus is also a joy for the irony that his name reflects: since Maria has never seen a male "member", she can't create one for him, leaving his nether regions a cloudy haze. Ezekiel, the angel who can transform into a dove, starts out as a loud irritant but gradually starts to come around as they see more of Maria and the world she lives in. Michael is a striking figure as the dispassionate divine representative of God, while the monks Bernard and Gilbert represent two distinct views of the Church: Bernard represents its more philosophical aspect, while Gilbert is the purist. Joseph serves as both Maria's love interest and her connection to the bigger world, while Lord Guillaume and Galfa represent proper and crass sides of that bigger world. The witch Vivian is practically a poster child for sexual liberation without taking things overboard, while the spirit Cernunnos is the age-tempered advice of the old world. A bevy of other interesting characters abound, of which the prostitute Lolotte is worth special mention; she is the epitome of pure pragmatism and opportunism in action, offering a viewpoint that the anime doesn't otherwise dwell on.
All those characters come together in a well-paced story that gives everyone a chance to breathe while mostly sticking to its base plot about the dangers Maria's ideals land her in. Even when it spins off into side plots, such as Galfa's duel to the death over the woman he bedded, they still eventually feed back into the main story. Amidst that is plenty of room for philosophical discussion. Gabriella Ekens explored the potential feminist interpretations of the content better than I can in her streaming episode reviews, so I won't delve into that here, but the series also has a lot to say about religion. It clearly shows the pervasive influence of Christianity in the everyday life of that era; it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that religion was the glue that bound society together at that time. The writing takes further pains to show that while faith can be a powerful motivating factor, sticking too rigidly to it can result in ill-fated decisions. It can also be a force for oppression when brought to bear on those who don't subscribe to its rules. However, what makes this take on the matter more interesting than usual is that we also see Heaven's view in the voices of Michael and Ezekiel. Their claims about how nonintervention is the only proper path for maintaining balance in the world can seem extreme when so many are seeking guidance, but the script also suggests that it's a practical necessity when both sides in a battle are insisting that God is on their side. (Contrarily, the writing isn't subtle at all about its “Virgin Mary and Joseph” allusions.)
If the philosophy doesn't work for you, then the strong attention to historical detail might. References to various events roughly place the story in the early 1450s, and even its anachronistic elements are usually at least relatively close to that time period. Other than the witches' garb, clothing styles are appropriate for the place and time period, and both the armor and armaments used are amazingly realistic; a warrior in heavy plate armor being lifted onto his mount by a winch was an actual thing, as was a heavily-armored warrior having trouble standing up on his own if he were to fall down. The detail work on the types of weapons and armor used shows an impressive level of research, whether it's the pole arms, the bucklers (small shields), the bombard, or even the hand cannons. The way the weapons are used is also meticulous in detail, to the point that one historical weapons guru doesn't even limit the series to being among the best anime titles on this front, but one of the best fiction representations period. Off the battlefield, periodic resurgences of the Black Plague were indeed still a problem at the time, the artificial limb that one character gets isn't actually too out of line for what existed in that era, and the picture of dancing skeletons on the side of one building bears distinct similarities to real-world paintings from that era. Various locations, whether peasant houses, mercenary camps, or walled cities, also look strikingly authentic.
Then of course, there's the series' raunchy side. Though generally restricted to the lighthearted parts of the series, sexually explicit dialog is a regular feature of the show, and sex acts of all kinds are strongly implied. Artemis's standard outfit in human form is stripper-level racy, and both Maria and one minor female character appear in undetailed nudity on multiple occasions. (These shots come off less lurid than in most fanservice shows, however.) On a darker note, threats of rape come up more than once, but the writing handles this well enough to avoid being tasteless. Graphic violence is also a regular feature, though again, not taken to extremes by anime standards.
Beyond the detail work on equipment and settings, the production effort is solid but not stellar, with a few minor rough spots on consistent quality. Male and female characters alike have distinctive looks, with Maria's expressiveness and balance of cute and sexy being the stand-out. The decision to distinguish witches with anachronistic clothing makes an odd visual impression but definitely portrays them as “different.” The series uses a fair number of animation shortcuts in a more subtle way than most and produces some splendid animation for featured scenes. In one of the neater visual touches, the ending credits illustrations form a progressive scene when taken all together. The musical score is also more workmanlike, though it does up its game during a handful of key scenes. The opener seems a little off in tone compared to the series, but the very mellow regular closer is a great fit; be sure to watch its visuals of the swaying birds closely. The special closer for the final episode is an especially fitting way to wrap the series.
The English dub marked a return to ADR directing for Sonny Strait (who also capably voices Father Bernard) after a decade-long absence from directing. The result is an unspectacular but competent dub characterized by an effort to use archaic speaking patterns. Colleen Clinkenbeard gives Viv a decidedly British accent, while French characters don't use accents but have a tendency to occasionally toss off French phrases. The most questionable choice comes from the handling of Michael. In an effort to approximate the original Japanese performance, Caitlin Glass used her deepest pitch, which was then electronically modulated for an otherworldly effect, but the result isn't as gender-ambiguous in sound and doesn't quite capture the effect that I think they were aiming for. On the opposite end of the scale, Jerry Jewel uses his highest pitch for Priapus, presumably in an effort to suggest emasculation. This actually works a lot better, since it feeds into the ribald jokes about his character. The dub script sounds smooth in execution, though it tweaks line meaning a bit in places.
The Blu-Ray/DVD release by Funimation is typical of significant but not major releases: no Limited or Collector's Edition, merely a combo pack whose case comes in a sleeve. Extras consist of a collection of series trailers, clean opener and closer, and English audio commentaries for episodes 1 and 12. These are mostly forgettable, as they are much more about the voice actors than the series, with the only interesting revelation being that Austin Tindle (Joseph) and Alexis Tipton (Maria) did actually date a little in real life.
Unlike most single-cour manga adaptations, Maria the Virgin Witch is a complete story with a definitive ending. Combine that with thoughtful content that can mean different things to different viewers, fun characters, and some occasionally heavy drama, and you have a memorable, enjoyable series that stands apart from run-of-the-mill anime content.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Smooth handling of tricky topics, great cast, thorough attention to historical detail
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