Tuesday, 21 June 2011

マリア様がみてる/ Maria-Sama ga Miteru (seasons 3&4)

MariMite, that most unlikely of cult hits about the meaningful relationships between earnest young girls in a Japanese Catholic unisex school, not only followed up its second season with no less than five OVA episodes, each the best part of an hour long, but then bucked the trend for series that end up with OVAs by returning to televisions for a fourth season. The story, as might be expected, continued to follow the light novels that are the series’ origins, following Yumi and her circle as the oldest ‘roses’ leave and they have to make the transition from sweet ‘petite souers’ to responsible, respected figures within the school’s structure – and look for younger girls to take under their wings themselves.

On the other hand, the maturity of the presentation took something of a dip as the story went on. What in the first seasons was elegant, melancholy and very sweet has become…somewhat obvious, even exploited, to the extent that it lost a great degree of its sweetness. What made Maria-sama work was its self-belief, its straightforwardness, the cluelessness of Yumi and the fact that it really took some digging under the surface to find out that this was not at all an ordinary shoujo series (as numerous English reviewers labelled it) but aimed at the seinen audience who follow magazines like Dengeki Daioh and collect figurines and body pillows. When that was all tacit, obscured and vaguely inappropriate, everything was presented perfectly. When we started to have nude Yumi and Touko with their lips inches apart and hands clasped as part of credits sequences…it’s all a bit obvious and vulgar, and that knocks the charm back a lot. Marimite doesn’t suit fanservice in its canon. Well, at least, not fanservice of that sort.

Speaking of credits sequences, the fourth has probably the most bizarre and misleading the show could have chosen short of all-out surrealism or some sort of epic battle sequence. It involves Yumi and co teleporting through magic portals all over the school. Certainly confusing for anyone who might randomly check out an episode as it aired – although I suppose that given you had to get hold of DVDs to be up-to-date with the story thus far, they expected that by this stage it was really a series for the fanbase.

With Eriko, Sei and Youko having graduated, the Yamayurikai are reduced to five: Yumi and Sachiko, Rei and Yoshino and Shimako alone as Rosa Gigantea. In her typical style, but not without some lovely drama about religious beliefs, Shimako finds her petite soeur Noriko without too much fuss. After all she struggled for independence at first, Yoshino is too close to Rei to consider a younger sister just yet. Meanwhile, Yumi is conflicted: she has gotten closer to the prickly but vulnerable Touko, but never knows quite where she stands with her, while the hilariously tall Kanako is a fan of Yumi and may share a similar personality to her beloved onee-sama.

The loss of subtlety is not purely in the opening and ending sequences. It creeps into the dialogue and character interactions too. The girls end up daydreaming about one another and getting giddy over ‘dates’ in a way that could have worked played just right, but get presented in a way not many steps above the poor imitation that is Strawberry Panic.

On the other hand, while these elements prevent the series living up to its first seasons, that is not to say the episodes are not highly enjoyable, or that I would not eagerly watch each of them. I may not have liked Touko much, even after her reasons were revealed (not sufficient excuses), and I thought the way Noriko was manipulated was horrible and not at all like the dignified Yamiyurikai of old, I accepted both storylines and the decisions made by the characters. And enjoyed all of it – I care what happens to Yumi and Yoshino, and where the relationships go. The gentleness of the relationships and the soft character-based humour (as well as the zany omake DVD extras) always made me smile, and the pacing, acting and art remained distinctive and enjoyable.

Not, perhaps, everything it could have been, but still part of a favourite series, and highly enjoyable to watch.

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