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Twenty Years Later: Maria-sama Ga Miteru (Maria Watches Over Us) Anime Series

9 min read
Maria-sama is credited as one of the breakout series of the yuri genre (basically girl/girl romances) which is treated with a lot more respect and elegance in the terms of its setting.

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Twenty years ago is a long time ago in retrospect. Series that I loved during 2004 when they came out may not seem to be as good nowadays as you remembered them to be. It is kind of surprising that some of these series I’m looking at are 20 years old, so re-watching them gives me a combination of a nostalgia factor, but also seeing if it truly has aged well over the years.

Maria-sama Ga Miteru (or as it was released in the West, Maria Watches Over Us) was originally released in Japan on January 7th 2004 and lasted for 13 episodes finishing on March 31st 2004. It would spawn a second season in the same year covering July and September, an OVA 3rd series spread out between November 2006 and July 2007 and finally (for now) a 4th season between January and March 2009. It is based on a series of light novels that started back in 1998 which sadly haven’t been licensed in the west which would conclude the story that the 4th season didn’t finish, however all 4 seasons of the anime were licensed by Nozomi Entertainment between 2008 (first three seasons) and 2010 (4th season), with re-release Litebox sets in 2012. For the purposes of this look back, I will be focusing primarily on the first two seasons in 2004, and will mildly reference the OVAs and 4th season as well. As you can expect, there are spoilers if you haven’t seen this show.

Maria-sama is credited as one of the breakout series of the yuri genre (basically girl/girl romances) which is treated with a lot more respect and elegance in the terms of its setting. Whilst series like Kannazuki No Miko focused on action and fanservice, and various hentai series went even higher, Maria-sama was very subtle in the relationships between the girls in question – as you had to judge whether if it was friendship, close sisterhood like bond, or the potential to be something more. It is a real testament to the quality of the show’s character development because only one character in the show is actually canonically a lesbian yet it is open to the audience’s interpretation of the rest of the cast and how you can showcase the relationships. Considering so many romance aspects of any sexuality focus so much on the fanservice side of things, Maria-sama’s subtle nature actually makes it stand out from the crowd, even in today’s market never mind in 2004. Later school based shoujo-ai/yuri series tried this (Strawberry Panic is a good example) but fell to the focus on the romance and made it more full blown and less about the characters, and more about the love triangles. The problem there was that the characters were less developed, whilst in Maria-sama it is all about the characters and their development.

The setting of the show is in a Catholic school, which already makes it stand out even more so in the Japanese setting (which does become a plot point for one of the girls in Season 2) and adds some French influence with the soeur system, where in Lillian’s School Academy you are recommended to find yourself a soeur (or ‘sister’). It is similar to a sempai/kohai dynamic, but can spread over all 3 years (a 3rd year student is a grande soeur, whilst a 2nd year is a petit soeur, and a 1st year can be a soeur to the 2nd year, known as a petit soeur en bouton) – this is where a lot of the initial plot and drama comes from, with lead character Yumi as an admirer of 2nd year Sachiko, who is part of the student council of Lillian known as the Yamayuri. The main issue of the 1st season begins when Sachiko, who meets Yumi outside the statue of Mary, fixes the younger girl’s scarf and we see no more about it. Later, when Yumi goes to see the council, she literally crashes into Sachiko, and thus our story begins. Yumi actually refuses the issue of becoming Sachiko’s petit soeur, as despite being an admirer of hers, she knows she is being used as a pawn just so that Sachiko can avoid being in a particular duty (it is due to her being in a dance involved with a male fiancé, as Sachiko despises men), and wants to become Sachiko’s soeur on her own terms and getting to know her.

Which she indeed does. We all get introduced to the tier soeur system in full with the council: we have the Rosa Chinesis family of Yoko, Sachiko and later Yumi; the Rosa Gigantia family, which unusually only has 2 members, Sei and her petit soeur Shimako; and the Rosa Foetida consisting of Eriko, her petit soeur Rei, and Rei’s en bouton, Yoshino. The first season basically discusses the relationships of many of the combinations of the above, and the variety of personalities of all the girls. The focus is always mostly on Yumi though, as she is very unique in a character full of dignified ladies. She initially is seen as a common girl, but a lot of the cast fall for her because of her penchant for pulling silly faces at inappropriate times, her kind and natural sweetness, and how she has this ability to liven up the council. Ironically Sachiko is the only one who seems to be put off by it, but then again a lot of the two seasons is mostly how Sachiko develops as a character, from someone very aloof and almost domineering and selfish, to someone who can depend on Yumi and care for her, and indeed vice versa.

Maria Watches Over Us
es Over Us

As a show on its own for a general anime fan, it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is slow paced, not much actually happens throughout it, and you are not going to see any giant robots, shounen battle scenes or high impact sorcery happening. But that is precisely why this series is unique – it is set very realistically, it is very out of sorts even in the yuri genre, but what it does well, it does REALLY well. The main plus point I gather from this show are the characters and how well they develop. Yumi grows as a girl for example, first seeing to be a bit submissive to Sachiko but then realises that the partnership is equal and despite being the petit soeur, has to show Sachiko the way a few times as she is a sheltered girl who didn’t even know how to order food at a burger place or how to put on a pair of jeans. Sachiko as well is a character that develops well as truth be told, she isn’t my favourite to start with as she is very stern and not all that enjoyable, but thanks to Yumi, not only does she open up more, she realises that her petit soeur will always be with her. (This is highly showcased by the end of Season 2 when their communication should have been better, but when they realise the problems and return together, that is the main point for their relationship from Season 3 onwards, and how they care for each other and how Yumi is just a big part at helping Sachiko as it is the other way round).

The real strength outside of Yumi’s character is how well she interacts with the other cast as well. Most people love her friendship with Sei for example as Sei adores Yumi as perhaps the most similar person to her, leading to one of the best moments in Season 2 when Sei looks to be graduating away from Lillian, a tender moment between the two girls happens…before Yumi realises the next day that Sei is just going to the nearby university…classic face reaction from Yumi seals the deal. But at the same time Sei’s relationship with her petit soeur is really interesting as the two don’t seem to interact with each other much, but there is a real care between them which is explored in Season 2 when we see Sei’s past and how Shimako helped her out. And Shimako and Yoshino as well become two of Yumi’s best friends as well – Shimako being a beautiful, aloof but understanding girl, whilst Yoshino was a sick girl who is determined to be healthier, which leads to some high strung moments between her cousin and soeur Rei. Last but not least, the grande soeurs also have their moments – with Sei already mentioned, Youko is like a nicer version of Sachiko who worries for her and loves that she gets a soeur like Yumi to help her out, whilst Eriko is very teasing whilst keeping to herself, causing a few silly situations (the episode where people think Eriko is going to get married is somehow serious yet silly at the same time).

Maria Watches Over Us Season 1

With Season 2 happening in 2004, I will cover a few things which lead up to the later seasons and add much to the girls’ development. We get two major new characters as the grande soeurs go to graduate, we get Noriko who becomes Shimako’s petite soeur (and at 2nd year Shimako becomes grande soeur) and we get Sachiko’s cousin Touko, who seems to be quite the little brat and interfering with Sachiko and Yumi’s relationship. However, there is a lot more to Touko that meets the eye which is definitely more explored in the later seasons (and similar to her cousin, a character I didn’t like that much who develops really well by Season 4). Noriko however is one of my favourite characters as she literally takes no crap from anyone, even her sempais and grande soeurs, and whilst she is apologetic, she takes her stand for herself as her arc with Shimako involves the fact that Noriko is at a Catholic school when she has a Buddhist upbringing…and it turns out Shimako does as well. Noriko really helps Shimako break out of her shell, which in turn also helps out Shimako’s friendship with Yumi as well.

The drama involved in Maria-sama is probably the other strong point of the show outside of the character developments. This can range from Yoshino actually returning her rosary to Rei (the rosary is the insignia which signifies a soeur relationship) as Rei is being way too overprotective for her sick cousin, to Shimako losing Sei and how the girls deal with the concern that Shimako didn’t want to reveal that she is a Buddhist in a Catholic school. And the biggie involving Sachiko and Yumi as Sachiko seems to keep blowing off Yumi in favour of Touko, as Yumi gets more and more upset thinking they are drifting apart, not knowing the real reason for Sachiko ignoring her. It combines the fact the two need to communicate better, Touko thinking Yumi is not worthy of Sachiko as she thinks she doesn’t care for her (the two tying in together) and little things with other characters which just adds to Yumi’s development as the lead character. As you can probably tell, Yumi is one of my favourite characters of all time and rewatching the series again doesn’t diminish that at all.

This series might have been seen as a risk by Nozomi and The Right Stuff – they released it without a dub, and it is definitely what one might call a niche series – it’s very slice of life, doesn’t have anything that would be seen as common even in today’s market, and it would have been seen as a series just for a certain market. However, the fact that they licensed the 4th season rather quickly after a few episodes were released says it did well enough to warrant a decision, with re-releases in 2012 so the licence didn’t expire, and they seem happy enough with it to continue to plug it. Maria-sama is still a great journey of a young girl’s discovery, through friends which become a second family to her. The shoujo-ai elements may be what one may be interested in as a casual fan, but it is not the primary focus. And that is what the show’s greatest strength is – that the viewer can interpret the girls relationships in whatever way they want, whether friendship, sisterhood, or romance, but it doesn’t detract from how good the show is in developing the girls as strong characters. Whilst some are weaker (Rei) maybe than others (Yumi, Sachiko, Yoshino, and later Touko) in development, they are all memorable characters, they all interact off each other really well, and it tells a charming tale in a very unique setting and environment that if you came in looking for an actually kissing and making out aspect of shoujo-ai, you would be turned off. However, coming in for an actual good show which respects the characters and environment it is set in whilst making the viewer use their own imagination to the relationships, now that is a show I can get behind.

And 20 years later, it’s as good at doing that as it was when I first saw it.

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