Maria-sama ga miteru
Okay, ready for a foray into deep shoujo territory? You'd better be, because this series is a relatively rare opportunity for some of the pure and uncut stuff. It's certainly going to be a fun one to try and write a fair review for.
The story takes place in, and is centered around, Lillian's school for girls. An upper-class catholic girls school, running from kindergarten to high school, somewhere in Japan. And like all shoujo environments, and I daresay like the real life equivalent, the social structures within such places can be complex and treacherous. This is made more interesting by two school customs. One of them is that older students give their rosary to a single "little sister" (petite soeur in the anime) who they will look after, forming a bond between the two. The other is that the school is run by a council of students, themed after three types of rose, who not only wield political power but are also leaders of the schools social structure.
They are, after all, rather special people with special qualities. Natural leaders with deep emotions and great talents. This does tend to separate them from the more normal students however. And none more so than the talented, beautiful and sort of scary, in an icy way, Sachiko. However, through a rather freakish sequence of events, she offers her rosary to the distinctly ordinary Yumi. She's even more surprised when she finds that her new relationship ends up being rather more than she bargained for. And as for Yumi, well, she gets an insight into the lives of some of the most interesting characters Lillian's has to offer.
Like I said above. It doesn't take long to realize that this is the real thing. Pure shoujo in every aspect. One of these being that there's no particular story of great importance. The events that take place, seen from a certain distance, are disturbingly mundane and ultimately meaningless to the wider world. But within the minds of the characters, and the interaction and relationships between them, they hold surprising depth. It's basically one of the first challenges, the stories are less important than the characters, but as you begin to care for the characters the episodic stories gain meaning as reflections of character.
As a result, or possibly as a weakness in the writing, the stories are both a little basic and a little overly dramatic. They're really rather traditional and even a little bit predictable. To express power and emotion they have to skirt the boundaries of being a little cheesy, and sometimes they cross the line a little. But, to my mind, it doesn't really matter. Because the story is actually less important than watching the response and actions of the character on who the story is focused. They're almost like trials of character in many cases, designed to draw out some element of the focus.
It's also fairly unique amongst the heavy shoujo I've watched in that it's lacking malice. Most of these shows, to increase the drama, tend to have some feud or rivalry, some emotional conflict, to add power to events. This one is sort of odd in that it doesn't. Most of the people involved are complex but ultimately good people. As a result while there are misunderstandings the end result is always amicable, with both sides understanding one another better. It's really rather nice to see an absence of villains, but it must also be said that it does reduce the capacity for epic drama. It makes the whole thing a little bit gentle.
As an example one story involves a character who does something a little bit wrong, but then feels terrible about it and redeems herself. She then spends the entire episode thinking through her actions, and the past that led her upto it. I was expecting confrontation, resolution or perhaps even hostility to Yumi who was innocently in the way. Instead she resolved some issues in her mind, decided things were as they should be, and moved on with her life. The entire episode occurred within a single mind, of a minor character, and had no affect on anyone else. It's awesome in terms of telling a story with such a character centric focus, and such a limited scope, but it's also easy to feel sort of cheated at how small the story actually ends up being. It's rather weird.
The central core of the series is Yumi-chan, an ordinary girl, who is pulled into a rather strange group of tightly wound individuals. She acts at times as an observer, at times as a participant, and even has her evolving personal relationship with Sachiko. She's basically our center of reference as we follow the various individual stories. As such she's required to be innocent, under-confident and good natured because she's the "neutral" element. She does have her own story, and is sort of cute herself, so it works quite well. The fact that this normal girl is even able to show strengths some of the others didn't even know they were missing is also a lovely touch.
I should also mention the rather odd title comes from a statue of the virgin Mary which all the students walk past in the morning. As such she's both the statue, a religious figure, and represented by the nuns who run the school. In other words the protective spirit that the school represents in a more material way. We don't actually spend any time with the formal authorities of the school though, I don't even think we get to see a teacher in the whole series, the social environment being centered on the student council. This council has three members, and their "little sisters" who are also generally their successors, each of whom is named after a species of rose. It's fairly obvious the rose also gives us some extra character information, I can see the effects of it, but I don't really know enough flowerology to say what it is. Together these form the environment for the human stories. I'll also say that some of the affection between certain girls is rather deep, but of course it's all rather restrained and tasteful.
So in conclusion, well, it's serious shoujo stuff. The action fans and those with limited attention spans can safely move on. On the other hand even those who do like shoujo might find it an interesting experience. The stories are extremely small in scale, most of the action occurs within the minds of the characters, and there's no deeper story or confrontation to add power to the events we follow. The large number of characters also mean we don't get to follow any of them, not even Yumi, that deeply. As such I must admit I regarded it a lot like a dessert, rather pleasant to consume but once finished the mind moves on. Watchable seems to suit it very well.
The animation is almost exactly what one might expect. The art style is very much like a shoujo manga and relatively undetailed, emphasised by the relatively simple coloring. Huge eyes, for the empathic characters at least, as well. This, combined with the large cast, can lead to some visual confusion. And the art style is, at first, rather lacking in cute although it improves as you become comfortable with the characters. Movement, and there is virtually no action to speak of, is rather basic and not very smoothly animated. On the other hand the sparseness has a certain elegance and charm and it has an excellent feel for expression and setting. It's also supported by a wonderful voice cast, I can't imagine watching this in English, and tasteful useage of classically inspired music. In short while it's well suited to the content, and the genre, it's not going to be blowing anyone away on production values alone.