The beautiful start of everything
Thanks to the break in anime over Christmas and New Years, I was kind of hunting for something to watch so I figured I’d give some of the stuff in my backlog a try. I don’t know why, but I was on a bit of a yuri kick. Maybe it was the Hidamari Sketch OVA’s that had come out with Hiro’s and Sae’s graduation, or maybe it was the upcoming Sakura Trick, but first I gave Simoun a try, got two episodes in, and then decided to switch to something else. And when I finished, I really wanted to write about this special show.
Maria Watches Over Us
(From left: Shimako, Yoshino, Rei, Eriko, Youko, Sei, Sachiko, and Yumi)
As you can tell, what I switched to was Maria-sama ga Miteru (I actually really dislike the portmanteau it’s usually given of “MariMite”, so you won’t see that again in this piece). I don’t what I was expecting of this series. I don’t even know what I was thinking back in July of 2012 when I downloaded it. But I’ll say that I don’t marathon series. Macross Frontier took me about 2 months to watch 26 episodes of. Most backlog shows I’ll watch one or at most two episodes in a night, every couple nights, so it takes me two weeks or more to get through a season. Well, starting New Year’s Eve, I finished the first season on Jan 2, the second season on Jan 4, and the whole series, almost 4 cours worth, on Jan 8. I really don’t know if I’ve ever watched a single show that quickly, especially not 4 cours of it.
My intention here is to be a bit different from the myriad “This is a show about X, produced by Y, starring A, B, and C.” There are plenty of those articles about this show around, especially since the first series started in 2004 and the fourth was in 2009 (and it could totally use a fifth if you ask me). The series is licensed in the US, and is even available in full on Nozomi Entertainment’s official Youtube channel. Interestingly, the third ‘series’ was a set of 5 double length OVA’s, and then it went back to TV for the fourth. The animation is at most times barely animated, but the whole series has a wonderful soft look, and the music for the series is just outstanding. But the technical stuff is not what the main hook of the series is, and now that that’s out of the way, I really want to talk about the things that drew me into this series. There will be some spoilers, but I don’t think they ruin the experience of watching this great show.
Even soeurs can have arguments
For those who haven’t seen the series, or really heard about it, it’s a series based in the Lillian Girls Academy, a Catholic escalator school (you can attend the same school from grade school all the way through college) in Japan, and based on a series of light novels. But the real hook in the show is the soeur system, whereby older students take a younger student as their little sister for support and friendship throughout the school, and this is signified by offering / accepting the rosary of the older girl. Sometimes there is competition to become a first year’s soeur, sometimes the rosary is refused, and sometimes the younger students try to become someone in particular’s soeur. If this was a different anime and story, this could be a source of lots of abuse, backstabbing, catfighting, and intrigue, but in this one it’s played as really a developmental and very wholesome thing. Becoming soeurs becomes a special bond between girls, one that is frequently cherished for life.
The main character is Yumi Fukuzawa, who starts off the series as a first year student at Lillian, although the story doesn’t start until fall, right before the school festival, when Sachiko Ogasawara, also known as Rosa Chinensis en bouton, stops her and reties her collar bow for her. That event is the catalyst for one of the most wonderful relationships that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, even though Sachiko barely remembers it later, and their initial circumstances are somewhat fraught, with Sachiko and Yumi placed in a bit of an adversarial role, even as Yumi greatly admires Sachiko, but is put in a position where she must refuse Sachiko’s rosary, and then later when Yumi asks for it, Sachiko refuses her. But after they make it through the presentation of Cinderella, this somewhat unlikely pair does become soeurs, as the pressure that has been on them before is lifted and they can now do so without any external encumbrances, just because they both want to.
Tsutako, perhaps the most important non-Yamayurikai character. Much of the plot is driven due to her pointing things out.
The growth of Yumi and Sachiko’s relationship is really the centerpiece of the series, and it really is beautiful. It’s never sexual, and even the allusions that the OP and ED sequences sometimes put in are, in my mind, exaggerations. It really seems like the sort of deep, close relationship that I think everyone would want to have. And the even better part is that throughout the show, we’re treated to the growth of this relationship, from two people who seem significantly different to two people who come to rely on and cherish the other. Their early days are marked by misunderstandings and failures to communicate, but the story just does a great job at moving them past those things, and in later episodes the combination of Yumi and Sachiko is almost unstoppable. It’s remarked more than once that Yumi has gotten good at ‘handling’ Sachiko, but Yumi doesn’t really agree with this, it’s just that she has come to understand Sachiko, her stubborn and embarrassed moods, and her somewhat sheltered history. And for her part, Sachiko is just as good for Yumi, helping to bring out her natural confidence, but also temper it with maturity and conscience.
Sei teases Yumi with skinship, and also to make Sachiko jealous
But it’s not just Yumi and Sachiko that exhibit this kind of growth. The show has a wonderful cast of other characters, and even an interesting structure to them. I mentioned Sachiko’s title earlier, but the reason is that the officers of the “Yamayurikai” the student council of Lillian, are referred to as the Three Roses: Rosa Gigantea (Sei), Rosa Foetida (Eriko), and Rosa Chinensis (Youko). The petite-soeurs of the Roses are the boutons and are mostly expected to become the next Roses, although this becomes a story in the first series as Shimako, Rosa Gigantea en bouton (a first-year, rather than a customary second-year), isn’t sure whether she should become Rosa Gigantea. The soeur relationships between all the girls – Sei and Shimako, then later Shimako and Noriko, Youko and Sachiko and Yumi (and later Touko), and Eriko, Rei, and Yoshino – are all different, and all ones that work for each pair of girls. And even if the girls sometimes seem oddly mismatched, like the very outgoing Sei and the quiet Shimako, or are at odds like Rei and Yoshino frequently are, you can still tell there’s deep caring between all of them.
I found the real turning point of the series to be the end of the second season. The show moves amazingly slowly, where at the end of 4 series they’ve only gone through about 16 months. So the first and second season get us to Spring of Yumi’s second year, and the arrival of new students has brought Sachiko’s cousin Touko (who is pretty spectacularly unlikeable, as every character with drill hair is, at least through most of the run, but she does get a bit of an image makeover as the show progresses) to Lillian as a first-year student. It’s a fairly vulnerable time for Yumi, as her most understanding (yet sometimes vexing) sempai, Sei, has graduated, and there’s something happening with Sachiko, but she doesn’t fill Yumi in. Yumi’s crisis of confidence, with Touko seemingly closer to Sachiko than Yumi, as well as what feels like growing distance between the two, brings Yumi to her lowest point throughout this whole series, even running away from Sachiko literally into the arms of Sei. When Yumi and Sachiko are reunited, both now understanding the full truth of the situation, it really is the final forging of this solid friendship.
The single kiss in the entire series, Yumi’s graduation present to Sei
From that point, you can really tell that Sachiko and Yumi love and understand each other far better, and they don’t ever let the same kind of misunderstanding get between them. In fact, the main sources of tension in the rest of the series really comes from outside sources, particularly Touko but for a different reason as the series evolves. And through it all, they support each other strongly and effectively against whatever trials either is facing, whether the fickle and petty posturing of society girls or Yumi’s search for a soeur of her own. And even if there’s declarations of love or fondness (suki and daisuki), I never get the feeling that they would do more than hold the other to comfort. There’s physicality, but the anime really plays down any actual romance. The books actually speak a bit more about the sexuality of a few characters, especially Sei, but it’s not a huge deal.
Noriko and Shimako
Lest my discussion so far give you the wrong impression, the show isn’t only about Sachiko and Yumi (in fact, if I had a second request for the show, the first being a fifth season, it would be more of Sachiko and Yumi), and it does spend significant time on the other members of the Yamayurikai, producing some beautiful stories as well. Many of the characters are well developed through the series, particularly Yumi’s classmates Yoshino (who really becomes Yumi’s best friend) and Shimako, their onee-samas Rei and Sei (although as a third year to start off, Sei’s contributions are somewhat rare in the third and fourth seasons), and the two girls who start off as possible petite-soeurs for Yumi, Touko and Kanako. My favorite story arcs are the ones that bring these pairs of girls together in special ways. Shimako and Noriko’s story really fits this bill, as both are girls who are somewhat ‘apart’ from the rest of the student body, both in temperament and circumstance. Finding that that circumstance (connection to Buddhism) is somewhat shared, they form their own bond, and while there’s a bit of meddling on the part of everyone else to push them together, in reality the foundation of their partnership is, as always, a deep love for each other.
Rei and Yoshino
Another pair that enjoys quite a bit of time is Rei and Yoshino, perhaps the second most amount of time in the spotlight. Again, these two have a different connection, being cousins, and with the assumption from middle school that Yoshino would become Rei’s petite-soeur. Yet, this already close bond makes waves from its own familiarity, as Yoshino frequently chafes at Rei’s seeming overprotectiveness (stemming from Yoshino’s history of health problems, now mostly in the past), and Rei frequently bears the brunt of Yoshino’s willfulness. Yet even as they get frustrated with each other, there’s always, again, a deep love for each other that always brings them back. And this is a common theme throughout the series: If you love the person, then it will work out. It may seem a little bit simplistic in the real world, but to a great extent it’s truth. If you love another person to not want to hurt them, you will often do whatever you can to make things work out.
Early on, Touko is a pretty hated character, as expected of someone with Electric Drill hair
The other theme that really runs through the four seasons of this series is individual growth. And it handles it extremely well, with consistent progress by all the characters who grow in realistic ways. While there are certain character traits that continue throughout the series, such as Yumi’s expressions (which Sei relentlessly ribs Yumi about, joking about “Yumi’s 100 Faces”), Sachiko’s stubbornness and brusque manner, Yoshino’s petulance, or Touko’s distance, the trend of maturity for all the characters arcs up, with characters learning from their past experience, and changing from girls to lovely young women throughout the show. The ultimate expression of this growth is in how Yumi reacts during the final arc of the series with Touko. While earlier Yumi would have been more bothersome to Touko, and had some misunderstandings that increased the distance between them, this Yumi takes a step back, realizing that the distance between her and Touko isn’t something she can close on her own, and that it has to be Touko who works through her own issues. And even as she’s questioned about this more hands off approach, she’s confident in her self, not that she’s ‘right’ but that she’s taking the right course. And when push comes to shove, she even gives Touko the right shove to move her in the direction she needs to go, maybe not the one she wants to, but needs.
The specials use chibi characters to joke about the show, this one that Youko can’t remember her lines
(in the main show, the scene is shot from the other direction)
I could talk about specific parts of this show that I loved on and on, but I think it’s more that these themes I talked about infuse and enrich the whole series. And the series, even if it was produced over a lengthy period of 5 years, is very consistent and rock steady. There’s very little change from the first series to the last, slight upgrades in animation. Even the OP song doesn’t change through the first three seasons, although the second has ALI PROJECT sing where there’s no singing on the first and third. I was a little worried when the fourth season had a completely different OP, and animation with Yumi, Yoshino, and Shimako magically cavorting across the campus (an idea that’s somewhat laughable for Shimako), but the show itself didn’t change at all. There are also some very fun specials that came with the disc releases, “Keep it secret from Maria-sama” which uses chibi animation to make jokes about the ‘filming’ of the show.
All in all, I really think it’s a beautiful series. At times fun and amusing, at many times making me cry, but not out of any extreme grief, just at the normal pains of growing up. At times I even felt jealous of the characters and the strong friendships they have, the wonderful feelings that you know they must be feeling. It really is that kind of show. I do think it gets a bit of a bad rap, as nearly every article about the show I see online talks about the subtexts of lesbianism within the show, and I really didn’t get that at all. There are definitely some hints about it, particularly with Sei and her past, but heck, there’s only one kiss in the entire show. I really think that it’s just about extremely close friendships, something that’s rare and to be cherished. I’ll heartily recommend this series to anyone.
I wrote this out a couple months ago, at the beginning of the Winter cour, and had been waiting for a while to post it, because we had so many posts all the time. Since we’re now winding down Winter, and especially weekends are light with posts, I thought it was the right time to post it. Interestingly, my love for this series hasn’t faded at all, and I still watch the episodes with regularity, having gone through the whole series a second time, and on the 4th season a third time through right now. I’m even reading the translated light novels (about 2/3 of the 33 novels have been translated on baka-tsuki), and I’m even attempting to read the rest in Japanese (oooo, it’s slow, about 10 minutes per page). I know I say it just a paragraph above, but if you haven’t seen this show, you really should give it a try.