Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 29th 2010
Maria Watches Over Us: Season 4
Now well into her second year at Lillian's, Yumi is feeling the pressure to soeur up. Unfortunately she's having difficulty establishing the right connection with any of her underclassmen. A soeur mixer set up by similarly soeur-less Yoshino ends in disaster, and neither of the obvious candidates—almost-stalker Kanako and prickly aristocrat Toko—is overly eager to take the plunge. As Yumi's feelings for Toko grow (and Sachiko's graduation looms), the situation grows acute. But when she broaches the subject with Toko, Toko lashes out viciously. Yumi is hurt, but she isn't a girl to be easily discouraged, and she sets out in her own inimitable way to unravel the mystery of Toko's heart.
If season three was a restful reward for surviving the emotional highs and lows of seasons one and two, season four is a return to dramatic form: an occasionally intense study of the vagaries of life at Lillian Academy, though tempered by the maturity and restraint learned during that third-season respite.
The focus this time is almost exclusively on Yumi and her "soeur problem," particularly her thorny relationship with potential soeur Toko. It's a focus that lacks for nothing in big changes and bigger emotions. Most of the series' long-standing issues—Yumi and Yoshino's lack of protégés, Kanako's hatred of men—are resolved in fine style, and in the process the series hits emotional peaks sure to satisfy even the most avid melodrama hound. That it does so without the frankly embarrassing excesses of season two is this season's particular achievement, born of the newfound maturity of its cast and the calm confidence acquired during season three. One need only compare the scrappy emotional appeal of season one with the smooth assurance and effortless complexity of Toko's devastating self-imposed alienation to see how far the series has come.
Like any Maria incarnation, though, season four is at heart a character's show. Satisfying as its forward strides are, it's a simple and even shallow satisfaction when compared to the gentle but rich pleasures of the characters' advancement. Yumi's transformation from insecure child to sweetly honest, self-assured young woman is a thing of beauty, and Toko is a revelation as the series' emotional core, a complicated girl whose difficult personality is rooted in a deep-seated need to keep others at arm's length. In less central roles, long-established characters like Yoshino and Shimako are allowed to relax and have fun while relative newcomer Noriko proves an invaluable steadying hand. Criticize the series as you will for its Merchant-Ivory manners and occasional lapses in subtlety, to say nothing of the cheese attached to those suspicious female friendships, there's still no denying that its characters are among the best and most meticulously fashioned in anime.
After the immersive detail and fluid articulation of the third season (an OAV series), this season can seem drab and stiff. Certainly Lillian Academy doesn't breathe or leap from the screen the way it did, and the freedom of the camera and characters has been severely curtailed. But after four seasons, the animators at Studio DEEN know how to utilize their resources: when to use a well-placed cinematic flourish, or when to allow a character—an infuriated Toko for instance—a full range of motion. And for every penny scrimped and saved on background details, a penny gets pumped into Akira Matsushima's wonderful character designs, enabling distinct personalities to radiate from every clean line and glimmer of the eye. Great characters deserve great character designs, and Matsushima's certainly qualify.
Mikiya Katakura's alternately elegant and humorous score remains unchanged, though its use is rather less sensitive than previously, which can probably be laid along with the occasional visual blunder at the feet of Toshiyuki Kato, who takes over directing duties from Maria veteran Yukihiro Matsushita. The opening and ending themes are quiet, thoroughly pleasant pop tunes that really don't deserve to have displaced the superb instrumental themes of the first two seasons.
As ever, Right Stuf's packaging—sturdy thinpack box amply adorned with the series' beautiful art—is impeccable. A nice booklet wouldn't have gone awry, but we shan't get greedy. After all there are helpful liner notes on disc, along with eleven Maria-sama ni wa Naisho shorts. The latter, though less irreverent and thus less funny than previously, are still a fine way to unwind after each disc, across which they are thoughtfully distributed. The dual subtitle tracks, one standard and one with all the honorifics in situ, are another nice touch.
Like its cast, Maria Watches Over Us is growing up. It has learned the value of self-control and fore-planning, even if it hasn't forgotten the value of a heartbreaking big scene, and it trusts its cast absolutely, allowing them to carry the series with a minimum of plot gimmickry. That it'll embarrass the heck out some viewers is still a given—a leopard may grow stealthy and wise, but it doesn't lose its spots—and it won't challenge season three for the Maria throne, but it's a sweetly accomplished little comedic drama that needn't be ashamed in any company.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Moves the series and characters forward while allowing plenty of time to bask in the company of the hugely likeable ensemble cast; a growing sense of maturity in both plot and character.
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