Maria Watches Over Us is complicated. Let's get that out of the way first and foremost. It's not complicated in the same vein as a series like Serial Experiments Lain or confusing like Steins;Gate can be, but it's a special brand of muddled that rewards viewers in a very special way. But in its confusion, it's one of the most graceful anime series I've ever had the pleasure of digesting.
Maria Watches Over Us: Season One (DVD)
Studio: Studio DEEN
Licensed by: Nozomi Entertainment
Release Date: September 11, 2012
MSRP: US$39.99 [BUY]
For a long while I had hovered around the high-brow drama due to my love of all things shoujo-ai (I thoroughly enjoyed Revolutionary Girl Utena and Rose of Versailles), but Maria-sama ga Miteru (Marimite for short from the Japanese title) always seemed a little too duanting. Now that I've had the opportunity to view the series, a few years older and wiser at that, I've discovered an incredibly classy, in-depth character study of an intriguing group of young woman building complex relationships and a lot of oft-confusing terminology.
Lillian Academy is a prestigious Catholic all-girls school, and within it dwel some of the most wealthy, refined young women you'll ever meet. Fukuzawa Yumi is a first-year student who hasn't yet become acquainted with some of the school's more out-of-the ordinary customs. One particular morning on her way to class, Yumi is stopped by Ogasawara Sachiko -- one of the most beloved and popular students of the school, right in front of the academy's Virgin Mary statue. Sachiko is Yumi's senpai, a second-year student who commands respect from the entire student body. Sachiko propositions Yumi to be her "petite soeur," or little sister of sorts, part of a complex senpai and kohai system the academy has in place. Eventually, Yumi is propositioned by Sachiko to become her petite soeur, surprising no one. But there's a very gracious manner in which it all happens.
From there, Marimite swells into a muted, yet wholly engaging rollercoaster ride that examines the relationships between "souer" pairings (best described in layman's terms as an older guide for a younger, less experienced student) and the way the girls interact with each other.
From the first expository moment of the series, you're assaulted with a barrage of new terminology, multi-faceted tiers of relationships, and the hierarchy of the Yamayuri Council. It's all extremely confusing at first, from the point of the souer pairs and the chemistry exhibited between the girls. It's a bit frustrating since newcomers will have to sift through every dozen or so lines of dialogue to pick out what makes sense in relation to Yumi's situation and what makes each duo tick. The constant assault of academy rules and Council practices does improve beyond the first few episodes, however, and things begin to fall into place.
Once the setting has been established, Marimite is quick to introduce new soeur couples that are absolutely adorable, inviting you to pick apart what makes them tick. The shoujo-ai overtones are indubitably strong, what with the mature relationships and the obvious mutual admiration between the girls, but unlike similar series (Strawberry Panic, especially) the romantic subtext never escalates to full-on yuri. If you were looking for more than longing glances or angsty crises, you'll be disappointed. Marimite is all about subtlety, which it delivers in droves.
While this may delight some viewers, it will undoubtedly drive away others. The pacing is excruciatingly slow, and the phrase "making a mountain out of a mole hill" has never been so fitting. These girls will agonize over some of the smallest, most seemingly insignificant dilemmas you can imagine, and it can be frustrating as a viewer to watch these stoic girls appear to unravel over the smallest comment or school happening. Watching the girls maintain poker faces after being dealt crippling emotional blows is entertaining, and Marimite is full of these moments. Perhaps that's why I was eager to push through the slower areas and research the relationships further, waiting for facades to fade.
Though the first season wraps up neatly, it wasn't exactly the ending I was hoping for after the strange journey I began with the Marimite cast. Since the series has since received additional episodes (and a rabid following) it made sense that such a move was made, and it was at least fitting, but I'll likely continue the series since I have the option to now.
Overall, Marimite is gorgeous, plain and simple, from its orchestral arrangements to its elegant character designs. It practically oozes style from every pore -- a delicious show of grace and student relationships through and through that should get shoujo-ai fans swooning over the various personalities and strong female leads here. Think of it as a prolonged walk through a fragrant flower garden, and realize no other shoujo-ai drama will likely ever accomplish the same things.
8.0 – Great. A great example of its genre that everyone should see, regardless of their interest.