Posted On November - 14 - 2008
  RATING:   7+
  RELEASE DATE:   07/29/2008
  REVIEW DATE:   11/14/2008

When Yumi Fukuzawa entered the Lillian Girls’ Academy, a prestigious all-girls Catholic school in Tokyo, she never imagined she would catch the eye of beautiful and demure Sachiko Ogasawara, one of the school’s most popular students. Now Sachiko has offered to be Yumi’s sœur – her “sister” and guide for all her years at the academy. The whole idea has Yumi completely flustered: After all, they hardly know each other! The entire campus is abuzz with rumors about the two of them, but Yumi is conflicted over accepting Sachiko’s offer. While she admires Sachiko, being her sœur would also mean constantly being at the center of the entire school’s attention!

Based on the popular ongoing novel series written by Oyuki Konno and illustrated by Reine Hibiki, Maria Watches Over Us (or as its known in Japan as Maria-sama ga Miteru and to die hard fans as “MariMite” for short) the anime captures the innocent hearts and melodrama of the lives of a special group of girls at an all girls’ Catholic high school.

The star of the anime is the cheerful Yumi.  When asked to be Sachiko’s petite soeur (French for little sister) she is stunned. She deeply admires and is a fan of the tall, beautiful and accomplished student who comes from an affluent family, but Yumi is just an ordinary girl and fears she would not be good enough for Sachiko. There is more to it though. She finds out about a bet and realizes that in many ways Sachiko’s choice was due to opportunity rather than regard. Even an ordinary girl has her pride and Yumi proves it – by rejecting the great Sachiko’s offer! When the bet is made into something far more personal, Sachiko and Yumi are thrown together by the workings of the student council of which Sachiko is a part that congregate at the Rose. Each selection of seniors and their younger ‘sisters’ represent a type of rose. Sachiko must pick a little sister. It is partly her duty as a member, partly due to the tradition of the soeur system at the school, but there is another personal reason and that is what Yumi is determined to find out in the emotional melodrama that is the highlight of this shoujo series.

Many consider this series to be ‘yuri’ which is the slang term for lesbian themed anime and manga. Although titles like Kannazuki no Miko and Strawberry Panic certainly fall under that genre, Maria is more yuri-lite. There are a couple of out lesbian characters and a particular relationship that goes beyond the platonic without doubt, but most of the relationships between the girls remain in that intensely platonic area that some cultural and literary analysts have termed “pseudo-gay” in anime and manga due to the intensity of the relationships portrayed between two people of the same gender that could be interpreted as subtext in regards to what is otherwise a strictly platonic relationship, albeit a rather obsessive at times, even ardent, but nevertheless chaste, even maidenly. Such is the context of most of the relationships between the soeurs in Maria. It is their interactions that comprise much of the melodrama that takes center stage in the story.

Even after Yumi accepts being Sachiko’s soeur, they have a rocky road. But they aren’t the only ones. Most of what we see is through Yumi’s eyes. She can’t help but want to help her other fellow Rose Mansion girls when they have their own relationship troubles. The tomboyish Rei who hides a girly sensitive side is troubled by her rebellious soeur and cousin, the boisterous but ailing Yoshino. About to face a risky surgery, Yoshino breaks her soeur ties with Rei, throwing not only Rei but all of the school into chaos. Now many of the students are breaking up their sister bonds and the council has to try to find a way to turn the tide and heal the rift between the two girls and appease the panic sweeping the school. In helping to do so, Yumi learns quite a bit about both Rei and Yoshino and the closeness of their bond.

They aren’t the only ‘couple’ in the Rose Mansion that Yumi learns more about. When election time comes for the ‘boutons’ of the council, that is, the roles Sachiko, Rei, and Shimako held, a new rival for Shimako’s position takes the stage and presents a challenge. Known as Lady Canina, this composed senior student wishes to get closer to Sei, the out gay character of the mansion who loves to tease Yumi at every opportunity and within that interaction provides much of the show’s comedy. During the elections, Shimako needs to come up with some courage, and Yumi learns the real reason in Lady Canina’s heart for trying to get closer to Sei.

Valentine’s Day proves to be another emotional challenge for the Rose Mansion girls. A competition has been decided upon where whoever finds the cards hidden by the three boutons will earn a date with them. Naturally their little soeurs are anxious to win the dates, but curiously only one of them does, while certain rivals known and a secret admirer cause some ruckus amidst the ardent hearts of the girls of the academy.

The first season ends on two story arcs. The first involves a scandalous novel about at tragic love affair between two girls and one of them sounds just like Sei! While the school speculates and rumors mount, the true story behind Sei’s past is revealed. It is one of the most emotional and poignant stories in the first season and is a personal favorite. As much as Sei’s teasing of Yumi provides laughs, her past gives viewers one of the most heartfelt and truly dramatic arcs in the first season. The other and final arc has to do with the dates the various girls go on and the emotions they engender.  It proves to be a bittersweet day for some and a reaffirmation for others. Sachiko and Yumi grow closer as they understand each other more and learn how to support each other when they need it.

It’s a most heart warming series focusing on evolving friendships. It’s a feel good anime through and through. The production is done by Studio DEEN who did the much beloved and also poignant and heart felt anime Fruits Basket as well as another international hit series, Rurouni Kenshin. It was directed by Yukihiro Matsushita (Sugar Sugar Rune) and the script done by Reiko Yoshida who worked on Aria, another primarily girl cast anime, along with the well known shoujo series Boys Over Flowers and the fantasy epic The Story of Saiunkoku. It is undoubtedly due to these talents that Maria has such a splendid look to it with gentle orchestral and piano themes along with soft pastel colors and designs to help evoke both the maidenly atmosphere and the Catholic academy that the girls live in.

Bonus features include season 1 “Specials” 1-7 which are cute omake style comedic anime shorts, character bios, liner notes and Nozomi Entertainment trailers.

Maria Who Watches over us is a warm and heart felt melodrama about friendships between the girls at a Catholic school. It is a sweet and poignant series that touches the heart.

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