The latest season set to be released by Nozomi and Right Stuf Internatiaonal is a bit unique. Maria Watches Over Us is a shoujo-ai show, a girl-love programs that's the feminine counterpart to shonen-ai anime (like Gakuen Heaven.) Revolving around the events at an all-girls school where tradition is very important, the show is slow-paced and tends to veer towards the melodramatic yet it's also filled with engaging characters that make it enjoyable to watch.
Yumi Fukuzawa has just been admitted to a celebrated Catholic all-girls school in Tokyo, the Lillian Girls' Academy. One of the traditions that the school has is that first year students get paired up with an upperclassman who becomes their "seour" ("sister" in French.) Seour's have a special relationship; the older students help the younger girls become socially connected, but the acts of one seour can reflect upon the other. So it's important to pick a good match.
Yumi, much to her surprise, is picked to be Sachiko Ogasawara's seour. Sachiko is the daughter of a very rich and powerful man, and is also a member of the important student council. It seems to be a poor match at the beginning, Yumi is quiet and unassuming while Sachiko is one of the big students on campus. The fact that she's paired with such a prominent person sends Yumi into fits of terror. After all, if she makes a social blunder it would look badly upon Sachiko, and she couldn't have that.
The show is all about atmosphere and getting the audience to feel what the characters are feeling. To that extent the program works surprisingly well... if you can let yourself just go with the show and not question it too much. It's easy to get engrossed in the characters and their problems. The people who populate the show are fully realized (for an anime series) and it's hard not to like them. Seeing Sachiko wrestle, in her early years at the school, with wanting to be friendly and just one of the girls but still feeling to maintain the aloof and dignified demeanor that her parents expect of her can bring out feelings of pity and sadness faster than most other anime I've seen.
Yet that identifying with the characters is also the series weak point. If you can't get into a character's mind for one reason or another and get pulled out from the emotion the series can appear overly melodramatic. That's a real danger since the stories (told in two or three episode arcs) are really superficial for the most part. When a girl becomes filled with angst and worry because she's not sure if someone liked their Valentine's day present it's easy to think "Geeze, just go ask." There are a couple plots that revolve around simple misunderstandings too, and these can get a little tiresome. If someone would just say "What did you mean?" everything would be cleared up in an instant.
Even with the fact that the show takes itself a bit too seriously at times (there's little humor and practically no action at all) it's a well done show. The girl-love aspect is (with one exception) never explicitly stated, only hinted at in very subtle ways, which is nice. Obviously character driven, that aspect works very well and though the plots occasionally leave something to be desired, this is a show unlike many others.
This set comes with the original Japanese audio track and optional English subtitles. Like The Right Stuf's other recent releases, there is no English dub track. The show itself is very calm so there are no impressive audio effects and the dialog-driven program has its soundtrack firmly anchored on the screen. There aren't any common flaws, distortion and background noise are totally absent, making this a solid sounding show.
The program arrives with its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in tact. The show looks good, with only some minor aliasing to mar the presentation. The color palate used is rather subdued with mainly quiet tones used. There aren't any bright vivid costumes or scenes to jump off the screen, but these DVDs reproduce the creator's intention well.
The set also comes with a series of character profiles, some liner notes, and seven "specials" short gags based on the show featuring SD versions of the characters. I found these very enjoyable as they poked fun at the show itself and did a good job of it.
This show is a hard one to rate. It is very good for what it is:
a clam, slice-of-life show that takes place in a girl's school. The
only problem is that I didn't care for shoujo-ai too much. Taking
that into account, I did enjoy many of the episodes in this set, while
I would occasionally roll my eyes at some contrived plot devices.
In any case I can't say that this gentle character driven story isn't worth
checking out, so I'll recommend it, especially to fans of shoujo-ai
programs. They shouldn't miss this one.