My anime preference usually tends toward the seriously dramatic, even edging into the melodramatic. Give me the desperate quest and deep losses of Fullmetal Alchemist (the first series), the tragedy of Noir, or the heart-wrenching, world-shattering action of any of the Gundam series, and I’m in my element. The more dramatic and complex the plot (as long as it makes moderate sense), the happier I am.
This is why Maria Watches Over Us (**) caught me so completely by surprise. If there’s one type of anime that doesn’t particularly move me, it’s a high school story. I generally leave those for the younger viewers, who are more content with tales about school rivalries and jealousies and how to get the attention of the new cute boy or girl in class.
But Maria Watches Over Us is, simply, a work of art. I’m still only a few episodes into the series, but by the second installment I was enthralled. The soft, rich colours befit the theme of “Roses” that underlies the story, and the design of each element of each frame is detailed and delicate. Autumn leaves float, light as snowflakes (which make their own appearance later), on an almost visible breeze, curtains billow, dresses swirl. Each face is lovely, the eyes alive, the expressions vivid, the hair flowing. And the music is equally delicate and exquisite.
The plots of the episodes are fairly simple, revolving around individual characters: the students at the Lillian Girls’ School learning grace, poise, and equanimity along with their academic subjects. The three girls who run the student council are given the titles of three Roses (Rosa Chinensis, Rosa Gigantea, and Rosa Foetida), and they are assisted by three younger girls they’ve chosen as their “petite soeurs,” or “little sisters.” These three are Roses “en bouton,” or “in bud,” meaning that they will eventually take the place and titles of the three Roses as the leaders of the school.
This “sister” tradition is a means for older girls in the school to partner with and mentor younger ones, and the relationship is created when the elder offers her rosary to the younger, and it is accepted.
The main storyline follows Yumi, who becomes the petite soeur of the elegant and aloof Lady Sachiko. She helps the older girl unbend a little and learn to enjoy her life, while Sachiko helps Yumi learn to face life with grace and calm (something she definitely has to work at). But each of the three Roses and their soeurs has special character, and we learn to care for all of them.
The lesbian subtext is strong, though never explicit. But it’s hard to miss, when the girls go on “dates,” blush at the merest glance from the object of their infatuation, and when the process of the rosary exchange itself is as solemn and meaningful as a marriage proposal. However, the purpose of this anime is not to be titilating; rather, it explores deep friendships and yes, love, and how loving relationships teach the girls strength and character.
Once in a while you find a series that has a relatively simple premise, but which is presented so beautifully that it takes on a deeper quality that lifts it out of what might be considered “sappy,” up to a level that may almost be called profound. Until now, the only anime I’d seen that had done that was Princess Tutu.
Now I can say that Maria Watches Over Us is another.
(** The anime is based on a series of light novels written by Japanese author Oyuki Konno, illustrated by Reine Hibiki, published by Shueisha. The series was eventually adapted into a four-season anime by Studio Deen, and now The Right Stuff International is releasing them in North America through its production arm, Nozomi Entertainment. As far as I know, they are not being English-dubbed; the series I’m watching has English subtitles.)