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Maria Watches Over Us Complete Collection Blu-ray Anime Review

23 min read
Maiden Japan’s release keeps costs down here when you consider the sheer volume of content here and doing it all up in one big Blu-ray box set is fantastic.

The lives and connections of private school girls are treated almost reverently in a way that, surprisingly, really warms the heart.

What They Say:
Adapting to life at Tokyo’s prestigious Lillian Girls’ Academy can be difficult, so the school has developed a long tradition of older students “adopting” younger girls and serving as their advisors and confidantes. Even so, shy young Yumi Fukuzawa is startled and flustered when a beautiful and popular upperclassman Yumi has admired, Sachiko Ogasawara, unexpectedly expresses interest in taking Yumi under her wing.

Is Sachiko really serious? And if she is, is Yumi ready to be thrust into the spotlight of public scrutiny that comes with becoming the “petite soeur” to one of the student council’s inner circle, the Roses? As the gossip and speculation surrounding the nature of their relationship increases, Yumi finds her life and perceptions changing in new and unexpected directions in the complete collection of the anime classic Maria Watches Over Us.

Maria Watches Over Us contains anime episodes 1-13 of Season 1, episodes 1-13 of Season 2, OVA episodes 1-5 of Season 3, all directed by Yukihiro Matsushita, and episodes 1-13 of Season 4 directed by Toshiyuki Kato.

The Review:
Audio:
The audio presentation for this series is straightforward in that it contains the original Japanese language track in stereo encoded using the DTS-HD MA lossless codec. With the series using a lot of instrumental music, this allows for it to come across very well and adding a welcome richness to the project. The mix for this serves the show well overall as the whole thing is a dialogue-driven work without really anything in the form of action or big moments. That said, the dialogue does come across very well here as it fills the center channel nicely and is problem-free throughout. With the dialogue being so important, the clarity is spot on and the warmth of the characters comes through very well.

Video:
Originally beginning its broadcast run airing in 2004, the transfer for this TV and OVA series is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio for the earlier works while the latest ones get the aspect ratio of 1.78:1, both of which are done in 1080p using the AVC codec. Like many shows of this nature, Maria Watches Over Us is one that tends to not have a lot of action or movement to it. It’s all about the atmosphere. But what we get are some really appealing visuals with great detail to create the look and feel of it, which a high definition release can draw out more. There is so much detail to some of the backgrounds in how they did the settings, the trees, and some of the interiors that it looks great getting all of it in this form. Some of the more fluid scenes in the series, often creating dramatic moments with the hair moving, come across beautifully. To some degree, one might say this isn’t a show that benefits from high definition. But what we get out of it are much better defined and accurate colors, a greater sense of solidity that gives it all more weight, and a truer look at the source material that the softer standard definition could never provide. The series does get better looking the more it goes on as it shifts to widescreen or the OVAs, but it’s also pretty consistent in overall approach throughout, making for a worthy enough upgrade for fans here.

Packaging:
The packaging for this release comes in an oversized brick case with hinges to hold the eight discs that make up the four-season run. Each season gets two discs as even the OVAs are split apart with plenty of space for everything. The front cover uses the familiar artwork of the main pairings and characters overall walking along the school property and it has a really great illustrated style background that blends well with the character designs. The framing is good and the logo sticks to the stand but done small enough so that it doesn’t overwhelm. The back cover keeps to the same color palette with the sepia style background mixed with the shades of pink that works really well to create a particular mood. The character artwork along the top is appealing and the strip of shots from the show through the middle covers the familiar and expected pieces. The summary is a bit dense but it delves into the basic ideas and themes well while also giving us a good breakdown of the extras included.

Menu:
The menu design for this release does some nice framing similar to the cover but on a simpler scale where the bulk of it is given over to character visual material within it. It’s bright and colorful with a lot of detail, especially with the hair design, which lets it all stand out well. The left side gives us the episodes blocked out with colors similar to the cover with the pinks, tans, and using black and white smartly for highlights as needed. Navigation is straightforward where most of the discs have just the episodes by number and title and nothing else as there’s no language selection. Extras are kept to the shorter discs in terms of episode count and are easily accessible. The navigation works well as both the main menu piece and as the pop-up menu during playback with smooth movement and quick access when selected.

Extras:
This set has a nice collection of extras that largely the same as what the previous TV seasons had. The big extra is again the special episodes of which were produced for the seasons. They rarely run more than a minute long but they’re absolutely lovely little outtakes that treat the characters as if they’re acting in a drama and we see the silly moments that make up certain scenes.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on a series of light novels by Oyuki Konno, Maria Watches Over Us is a property that began its adaptation in 2004 and had anime releases through 2009 with three TV seasons and a run of OVAs. The original novel series ran from 1998 to 2012 with thirty-nine volumes overall and had a ten-volume spinoff series as well from 2008 to 2013 within the novels. Add in a little manga and a live-action film and this was a busy property for much of this century so far. The property has its audience and has done well over the years, and saw release previously on DVD through some really great collections by Right Stuf. This set basically gives us a much better looking version of that thanks to a proper high definition master, and that makes it easy to slide these discs into those releases with their heavy chipboard sets.

Season 1
The premise behind the series is one is quite simple as it focuses on the Lillian Academy, an all-girls Catholic school. Within the school, there is a tradition that is carried on to this day where students from the second year onward take on the role of big sisters for the first-year students. Through various little ceremonies and traditions, they choose one who accepts a rosary from their new big sister who then guides them through their first year of school at the academy. Some first-year students don’t get big sisters while quite a few older students obviously aren’t involved either since there’s such a disparity in numbers. When the sisters are paired though, it can cause some problems as the actions of one to reflect on the other, so there are pressures to be had by it. The benefits of it are apparent as well as you become more socially connected within the academy and become more involved in various organizations and activities.

For the opening of the series, we’re introduced to the basic ideas behind the school and a whole lot of French phrases revolving around the traditions and titles of many of the student council members and other elite characters. The characters we become closely tied to though are quickly apparent and ones that work well. The main focus is on that of Yumi, a first-year student who like many others have a “crush” of sorts on one of the older students, a beautiful if cool young woman named Sachiko. Yumi ends up meeting her, something that’s photographed even, in a rare moment when Sachiko stops to help straighten Yumi’s collar. This starts a small series of events that brings the two of them together where Sachiko suddenly decides to take Yumi on as her little sister, something that certainly surprises Yumi and causes her to question exactly what’s going on.

Once the difficult area that starts the series is overcome and you have Sachiko and Yumi together as sisters, Maria Watches Over Us becomes a far more interesting show to watch. The nature of the series is one where it explores the relationships between these various girls as they have the three-tiered nature of the Roses and all that it entails. This provides for a number of connections to be played with as everyone has a very different relationship with each other. Naturally, a good deal of the series revolves primarily around Yumi and Sachiko as they are the main draw. But there are many events that shape that view and we see them through the eyes of others at times. One strong instance of this is when another student, Mifuyu, gets involved in an event because of her shared time with Sachiko back in kindergarten.

While Yumi is ostensibly the lead character of the series, the real fascinating is in watching Sachiko and this bit of her past is a huge insight into her. Coming from an apparently wealthy family and not being exposed to the world, watching her during her kindergarten period at Lillian’s shows how she did her best to try and fit in with everyone while still maintaining the kind of grace and elegance that she’s being instructed with at home by all appearances. Her desire to fit in with both sides of the world is difficult and some of that surely explains her initial attitude when we first meet her. But as we get these more interesting moments about her, as well as seeing her going through a date with Yumi in which we see her meeting the adult world through fresh eyes, Sachiko becomes a far more engaging and curious character. Seeing how she and Yumi bond together over the course of this first season isn’t exactly magical, but it’s approaching it.

Like any series of this nature, and there are quite a few of them, Maria Watches Over Us runs through some fairly standard story ideas through which to show us these characters. The initial storyline revolving around the stage play of Cinderella and Sachiko’s distaste of performing with a young man isn’t a surprise. That we get a Valentine’s Day story isn’t a surprise nor that there is a subplot that leads to there being dates with the Roses by eager young first-year students. Stories of the past come bubbling to the present, such as when a former student writes about her experiences there and the ideas behind it seemingly run parallel to certain events of the present. What makes all of these things work is that the core cast of characters are surprisingly engaging after the first couple of episodes but also in that it completely avoids the traps of many other shows.

There are no high moments of comedy or wild takes undergone by the characters. Occasionally you might have someone get wide-eyed and grimace a bit but that’s it. There are no supernatural elements here. Sachiko’s wealth doesn’t dominate the show. And Maria Watches Over Us doesn’t shy away from the kind of relationships that are obviously going on at times here either. We don’t have out and out sex scenes and for a lot of it we don’t even have really implied intimacy that we see in some other series. But what we have is the kind of bubbling under the covers kind of relationship material going on here, where there are strong feelings and people open to it if it actually breaks past some of the barriers and taboos that they may be feeling. Watching most of them struggle with this, as well as struggling with the elder Roses going through the process of moving on themselves, can be heartbreaking at times. When we do get some payoff in an expressed relationship, it’s even more heartbreaking because it feels so plainly and truly written.

When it comes to the visual design of the show, Maria Watches Over Us offers a lot of familiarities but also some very pleasant changes. With its private academy setting nestled in the trees, we get treated to a lot of beautiful scenes as it plays around the fall months and into the early winter. The school setting has its own kind of elegance to it, whether it’s the Rose Mansion itself or the greenhouse where some time is spent. Little time is spent within the actual classrooms, hardly a surprise, but what we do see fits in with many other shows but with small touches of added elegance here and there. Where Maria Watches Over Us excels is in its character designs. These young women feel very different from each other and they avoid certain traps as well. There’s hardly anything in the way of fanservice offered by them in terms of making them sexually attractive. They’re attractive enough young women in design, but they’re not flaunting it. In fact, going by the outfits they have and what little we see underneath them, they don’t have much to flaunt. They look human and realistic, not oversized caricatures of real women. The appeal in this is that it takes much of the focus off of that side of the equation and leaves us with what we’re really coming here for – the character drama.

Maria Watches Over Us
Maria Watches Over Us

Season 2
Time doesn’t stand still, though the show does move slowly at times, at the Lillian Girls Academy and events are moving forward as the second season gets underway. While much of the first season was the introduction of the school and adjusting us to life there through Yumi’s eyes, the months have moved on as we saw and it’s just about time for graduation for the elder sisters. This changes the dynamic of the series quite strongly in a lot of ways and is something that’s rarely done with a lot of shows and manga as characters are ushered off stage to varying levels and new ones are introduced.

With the way the series jumped about a little bit at times towards the second half with when things take place, this one gets things back on track by running through the New Years material a bit before pushing forward with graduation. With the three seniors ready to graduate and go their separate ways, that puts a lot of pressure on everyone involved since their relationships are changing dramatically. For the Rosa’s, they have all the new things to look forward to, uncertainty and all, as well as realizing what they’re leaving behind. The leaving behind part is what affects each of them the most, though to varying degrees. For Sei, she has to wonder how well Shimako will handle things because of the way events have played out between them but she is also dealing with the way her life has changed since Yumi came into it.

Some of the elder sisters have their own way of passing on what they want to see the next generation accomplish in the form of a verbal “will” that comes up. Some like Sei don’t really proscribe to this, but there’s a certain current of it among some of them as the elder sisters talk about things with their younger ones. Yumi does become the focus of this a bit because she is in her way the glue that is keeping everything together. Her outlook on life and the way she’s breathed a certain air into the Rose Mansion has many of them pinning their subconscious hopes on her. The graduation aspect really drives this home as the emotions run high and low throughout right up through the actual ceremony. And what’s really surprising is that for a show that’s run maybe sixteen or so episodes at this point from the first season, the graduation ceremony and the meetings afterwards really generate some honest and true deep emotions.

The shift of three of the elder sisters out of the show to their various colleges and lives doesn’t mean they’re out of the show completely, but they have been taken out from the day to day existence. This is difficult if you’ve come to like them more than some of the others, but the change can be positive. The danger is in that since they’ve graduated, there’s a new class of first years coming in as well that have to be dealt with. And as they come in, some must become part of the program so to speak and the new Elder Sisters have to deal with this. Bringing in new blood to a show in progress can work against the viewership since it changes the dynamic completely. And Maria Watches Over Us plays in this dangerous area rather too freely at times.

The danger comes in the form of two new characters, Noriko and Toko. Noriko’s story comes up first as it’s tied to Shimako. Shimako’s story is a bit difficult since she’s sort of leapfrogged to being a Lady Rose because of the issues that Sei had. And Shimako is carrying a secret that’s very difficult for her to bear and is causing her some internal anguish, but it’s something she can’t reveal. With Noriko, the two are instantly drawn to each other in a way that parallels how things were between Shimako and Sei early on, something we get during some nicely done flashbacks that help to keep Sei in the picture a bit longer. As the story develops, we don’t really get a sense of who Noriko is as she gets closer to Shimako, but we do get a good idea of what defines her. It’s not her background or why she’s at this school, but it’s how she interacts with Shimako and the others when the Lady Roses begin to implement their plan to help Shimako overcome her problem.

More difficult to deal with is the introduction of Toko, a relative cousin of Sachiko’s. Toko is overly familiar with Sachiko because of their relationship and this sets off instant panic for Yumi. The familiarity is enough of an alarm for her, especially since Sachiko nearly dotes on her, but when others talk about past issues that they’ve seen among others who landed in similar situations, Yumi takes it to a natural conclusion and almost starts to shut down. Of course, Sachiko is largely to blame for this as well as she’s become distracted and uncommunicative with Yumi, but she has her reasons as well. The last disc focuses heavily on the relationship between the two girls with Toko as a catalyst but much of it is mired in that lack of straightforward communication. So much could be resolved by a simple call or a minute of actual dialogue. But that would remove all the tension.

Because of how the first quarter of the series plays out by dealing with the graduation, it’s filled with a lot of emotion and uncertainty about how things will progress. This is also brought about in the last story arc around Yumi and Sachiko, though you know things will be resolved because the two are central to things. The first season of Maria Watches Over Us was a bit overly dramatic at times, but it also had to deal with some strong personalities being introduced. With them being familiar now in this season, they feel more comfortable to be around and the way they act comes across as more honest and real. I’m still rather surprised with how well the graduation ceremony connected with me with its emotions, particularly in the photograph moments towards the end of it. But this kind of emotional honesty is what is making this such an engaging series and a surprising one.

Maria Watches Over Us Season 2
Maria Watches Over Us Season 2

Season 3/OVAs
After two very enjoyable seasons, Maria Watches Over Us takes the unusual track of bringing out a series of OVAs. And not just any kind of OVAs either but rather five full-length OVAs. And when you think full length, you think thirty-minute OVAs. Not so here as each OVA tends to run around fifty-three minutes on average. That changes the dynamic of the show considerably and really gives it a much stronger dramatic feel. Maria Watches Over Us becomes an even more engaging series with these girls as they deal with issues without the twenty-minute bell for wrapping up for an episode and carrying into the next. This is far more akin to standard prime time drama material in design and it makes out well by it.

This particular season has a similar feel to what the TV seasons were like in that they deal with the lives of the girls, but it tends to be a little more focused on a few characters and the ones that are ostensibly the leads of it. The smaller nature of the stories, but stories that are given more room to breathe, is very welcome for a series like this. The previous seasons didn’t seem rushed, in fact they were fairly languid in their approach, but with the longer runtime per episode here it encompasses more in the way of the feelings that are expressed. The episode that focuses on a summer vacation trip between Sachiko and Yumi is representative of this as it’s an ideal time for the two to spend together. But while there, they run into problems with some of the other girls who come to visit to curry favor with the Osagawara family since they’re one of the elder families. This puts pressure on both girls and they have to figure out how to deal with it while making sure the other isn’t upset either. It’s a delicate balance but they have the time to explore it and without the rest of the Lillian girls for the most part either.

One of the more interesting changes to the dynamic of this season is that of using her younger brother’s school in a stronger way. While we’ve had mentions and interactions with them before, it takes on a greater role in this set of episodes as Yuki has ended up as the student council president there and the two schools have more things going on in general. A meeting between the two councils has Yumi trying to figure out the best way to do it as Sachiko simply doesn’t care for being around men – and Kanako, in general, is freaking out over any interactions with men since to her all men are despicable – but anything she comes up with involves some kind of deceit. And that’s not something that Yumi can do even if it is in Sachiko’s best interest. The two student councils form a good bond throughout this season though and watching them figure each other out, and seeing how strange the other is, has some amusing moments. But the charm for me was in seeing Yumi having to re-evaluate her brother as well as Yuki really realizing what Yumi has been going through as part of the Lillian student council.

One of the more amusing parts involving the other school is when the student council heads there for their festival to partake in it in various roles. They’ve had little exposure to the boys there overall and seeing such an outlandish and festive place, not like their restrained festivals, is very striking and off-putting to many of the girls. Sachiko in particular struggles with so many males near her and you can see how strained she is when Yumi heads off and ends up disappearing through an awkward kidnapping sequence. Festivals also make up events at the Lillian school as well as the sports festival has the girls trying to compete in teams and there are some amusing rivalries that get brought into it, but with the kind of restraint that’s been present in the series from the start. It’s a nice change of pace in that everyone is more active and outgoing – and there’s cosplay too! – but it’s also a nice change in that they’re wearing different outfits for awhile and they’re actively competitive during it. Everyone tends to get along so well, even when at odds, that this kind of dynamic is a welcome change.

If there’s an episode that didn’t capture me, it’s the last one, unfortunately. In a way, it’s one of those episodes that’s good as it excises from the bulk of it the elder sisters and focuses on the younger sisters. The second-year students are heading to Italy for a school trip and they get to experience the city and its treasures without their elders there. The separation is definitely welcome considering how much time we see Sachiko and Yumi together in particular, and it was really nice to see Yoshino and Yumi bond better here, especially with her being so sick at first. But something about this episode just didn’t click well and it felt too much like a travelogue as it got underway with lots of stills and location pieces instead of things with the characters. It’s appealing, but it’s the weakest of the five episodes here.

Maria Watches Over Us doesn’t make out hugely by being an OVA but there is some definite differences here, at least to me. The quality of the animation has always been good, making use of the little action that the characters deal in to give it a very polished feel. Here, they take the polish up a few notches with richer looking character animation and more detailed and vivid backgrounds. The change to the widescreen format helps a lot as well as it feels like the world these girls inhabit is opened up before us. This series has always been appealing to me in its visual design since I first saw it, but here it feels like it’s made a solid progression to the next level by taking what made it so engaging and expanding it naturally.

Maria Watches Over Us Season 3
Maria Watches Over Us Season 3

Season 4
After two successful seasons and a brief but very enjoyable OVA series, Maria Watches Over Us brings out thirteen more episodes to tell us more stories of the girls of Lillian Academy as they continue to grow up. This season takes us through more of Yumi’s story, but it doesn’t focus so directly on her exactly and it shuffles Sachiko off to the background a fair bit which was a surprise. With it now being just about a year since Sachiko gave Yumi her rosary beads, events are moving forward that will have the senior girls preparing for their own journeys forward.

The fourth season plays with some familiar material to the world of high school by having the student festival kick things off, which means the boys are back in town for a little bit. The whole thing gets rather convoluted in its own way as they have the boys and girls working together and then decide that, while dealing with a gender-swapping story, to double swap genders to make it all the more confusing. It’s not a bad little piece but I found the little chibi version in the extras to be more enjoyable as they blended various stories together into one for good comedic effect. The area where the story spends a fair bit of it focus is on Toko as she’s having some conflicts in being involved in the Rose’s play while also dealing with the drama club.

And it’s from there that we can quickly surmise that this season is going to focus heavily on Toko. Toko’s certainly gotten close to the girls and Yumi has taken a strong liking to her, though she’s distracted at first because it is the anniversary of when Sachiko gave Yumi her rosary beads. That memory has brought up an interesting reaction from both as Yumi wants to know what she and Sachiko may do while Sachiko realizes that contrary to her own usual ways, she must do something for Yumi because things will be changing. In reality, it won’t be long until Sachiko moves on to the Lillian Women’s College and is away more, even if just across campus. And that has Sachiko realizing that just like how she was pushed, she has to give Yumi the right push so she can get her own little sister.

It’s certainly not what Yumi was expecting to happen anytime soon, though she was just in a state of denial about it. But once it’s in her head, she’s all about making the girl she cares the most about outside of her immediate sisters her little sister. And that focus falls pretty easily on Toko, but it’s not something that comes with ease. Yumi’s become rather popular since becoming Sachiko’s soeur and the biggest problems she had as that came, perceived by others at least, when Toko become involved with Yumi in the past year. So other members of the student body have an issue with Toko and Toko herself has quite a few issues that are weighing her down. Enough so that she doesn’t want to become Yumi’s little sister and drag her into it. The two end up in a rather slow series of complications, misunderstandings, and issues along the way that makes their journey together very difficult. Particularly so because Yumi wears her emotions on her sleeve while Toko plays the actress and hides everything under a mask.

There’s a huge focus on these two characters and plenty of support material with those who want to see them succeed along the way. Unfortunately, a lot of the other cast members get a much smaller role this time around and it feels a bit lighter in general since we’ve had the graduating class going off previously as well. Shimao and Noriko have some nice moments and there are some amusing bits to be had with Kanako as she towers over everyone while trying not to be seen. Time is given over again to the search for a little sister among all the students, though the majority of that small arc is used to get Yumi thinking about who she’d want as hers. The lack of focus on some of the others, especially Sachiko, gives this season a very different flavor. But it’s a welcome one as it’s forcing Yumi to grow up a bit more and to take on more adult responsibilities and views of things, something that’s definitely been needed after a year of being like a puppy and racing after Sachiko.

Maria Watches Over Us Season 4
Maria Watches Over Us Season 4

In Summary:
Maria Watches Over Us has always felt like a show that was just slightly out of step with everything else I’ve watched. It has a very different flow and pacing to it even when placed against similar projects, not that there were a lot put to anime. This isn’t a yuri show but it’s one that leans into the relationships, the feelings, and the bonds that exist between young women. Especially when removed from their familiar places and are basically in boarding school. I never expected this show to get the upgrade treatment for high-definition but I’m definitely very glad it did. This is the best it’s looked stateside and the show has such a charm about it that has carried it forward for years that I’m glad it still has a place in the anime market. Maiden Japan’s release keeps costs down here when you consider the sheer volume of content here and doing it all up in one big Blu-ray box set is fantastic. For those concerned with space and want the best the show can look, you get a lot here.

Features:
Japanese DTS-HD MA 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Keep It Secret From The Virgin Mary Shorts, Clean Opening Animation, and Clean Closing Animation

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-

Released By: Maiden Japan
Release Date: March 24th, 2020
MSRP: $99.98
Running Time: 1100 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.


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