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Giving me flashbacks to my own boarding school days, Maria Watches Over Us (or Maria-sama ga Miteru, if you're a stickler for Japanese titles) takes us to the Lilian High School, where the all-female student body are calm, refined, and - if you're watching through "yuri goggles", as the show's fanbase seems to - irresistibly drawn to each other. Let the fun begin...
Flick forward to page 2 onwards for the episode summaries and screenshots. If you're going with the streaming release of the show, bear in mind that at time of writing, only the first two episodes are permanently available - Nozomi stream the rest on a schedule, which you can find here. If you can't wait for the streams, it's also available on DVD. With that public service announcement out of the way...
This is a shoujo series, which means more talk & plot, less action than most series. The story revolves aroung Lilian's student council, the Yamayuri Council - led by three girls elected by the student body - and the two generations of "soeurs" beneath them. That's the first word that requires definition: each girl in Lilian above first year can take a soeur, or "little sister", to mentor and lead through the school. In this series, taking (or becoming) a soeur is a major decision, as it's intended to last for your time at the school, and the bond between a girl and her soeur is portrayed as being very close. In the case of the Yamayuri Council, while the council is elected and technically anyone stands a chance of getting on the council, in practice the Council members will always be succeeded by their soeurs, so being chosen by someone connected to the Council is a big deal. Star of our show Yumi Fukusawa, a little bundle of cuteness that you can't help but love (and this applies to the girls in the series as well as the viewers), has just been chosen as a soeur by Sachiko Ogasawara, a junior member of the council - but the circumstances around that decision have raised more than a few eyebrows.
The main criticism that can be had against this series is that it's quite slow, with the story seeming to go in multi-episode arcs, rather than having things tied up in one episode then moving on. That said, there's a good range of characters here & the way they play off against each other is fascinating in its own right, even without plot concerns. And let's not forget the yuri / shoujo ai undertones between certain characters, which always adds a certain amount of spice to proceedings. Yumi very quickly settles into her role with the council, which seems to be somewhere between being the plaything of the senior members and a sounding board and devoted friend to the other first-year girls, and once the initial hubbub over Sachiko's decision to take her is over, the show quickly finds its routine: present a problem (usually something that causes problems or conflict for one of the council), show it beginning to get out of hand as things tend to do in school, and follow it to its resolution, as seen through Yumi's eyes.
That may not sound particularly interesting at first glance, and if you look at it purely from a story angle you would probably have a point. The story is almost gravy for the main dish that the relationships between the girls on the council provide. The nine girls of the Council each have very different personalities, and the joy of watching the show comes from seeing them play off against each other, and watching them deal with the problems that putting those different personalities into one place creates. Of the nine, there are four that are particularly interesting - and in turn get most of the show's attention: Yumi herself, whose naievety makes her thoroughly adorable and easy to tease; Sachiko, who comes off as quite aloof at times and whose inability to open up about her feelings to Yumi causes many misunderstandings; Sei, one of the senior Roses whose attitude to live really doesn't fit with what's expected of her role - she loves teasing Yumi, despite the annoyance it causes to Sachiko, and has a skeleton in the closet that's uncovered late in the series; and finally Yoshino, another first-year girl who has more than a touch of the tomboy about her and, while very determined, is prone to over-reacting - usually in ways that are very funny to watch.
Now, I can't avoid that, when this series was first airing in Japan and doing the rounds of the fansub circuit, a lot of people were drawn to it by the prospect of yuri fanservice - girl-girl relationships, however lightly they're hinted at, see to be candlelight to the moths of fandom. I also can't deny that the yuri undertones are certainly there - the girls go on "dates", have the sort of problems relating to each other that you'd find in any romantic relationship, and in at least one case such a relationship is shown on-screen. Most of it, though, is done by nudges and winks, happenings and conversations that you can read things into rather than having it explicitly laid out. You get out of it what you want to see going into it, if you know what I mean, and it's not an aspect of the story that should worry too much if girls-love stories aren't your thing.
If you can handle the slow pacing, then, there's quite a bit here to keep you entertained, with the whole thing being driven by a wonderful group of characters. But if you're looking for more in-your-face comedy or something that zips along, this is not the show you're looking for. It's been a few years since I last watched MariMite, but it hasn't lost much of its appeal in the intervening years - still worth watching, even if you opt to shell out for the DVDs.