Although this post isn't entirely spoiler-free, it's pretty close.
Lillian Academy, a private Catholic school for girls in Japan, has a special system in which older girls choose younger girls as their petite soeurs, or younger sisters, by offering them their rosaries. If the rosaries are accepted, the older girls are then responsible for the behavior of the younger girls they choose and are expected to guide and nurture them.
One group of girls is particularly admired by all the others - the Lady Roses, their Rosebuds (the petite soeurs of the Lady Roses), and the petite soeurs of the Rosebuds. At any other school, this group would be considered the student council. Yumi has always admired Sachiko, Rosa Chinesis en bouton ("Rose Chinesis in bud," likely to become the next Rosa Chinesis), but she never expected to speak with her, much less become her petite soeur.
That's why it's so shocking when Sachiko suddenly declares Yumi her petite soeur. The two had only spoken to each other once before, and Sachiko didn't even seem to remember that time. It seems Sachiko may only be offering to become Yumi's soeur because she hopes to get out of playing Cinderella alongside a male Prince. Both Sachiko's father and her grandfather have had mistresses, so Sachiko now hates men.
Although Yumi would like nothing more than to be Sachiko's petite soeur, the thought of having a soeur who doesn't truly care for her is painful. Eventually, things get sorted out, and Sachiko offers Yumi her rosary again, this time truly wanting her as her petite soeur. And, this time, Yumi happily accepts.
Sachiko is not always very open about her feelings, so Yumi still has times when she fears her soeur is disappointed in her, and that sometimes leads to misunderstandings. The rest of the series shows Yumi dealing with various moments and milestones in her relationship with Sachiko, including Valentine's Day and their first date (get your mind out of the gutter - I'll try to explain in the commentary). The series also reveals a bit about the other girls and their relationships. Of particular interest in this season are Rei (Rose Foetida en bouton) and her petite soeur Yoshino, and Rosa Gigantea and her petite soeur Shimako (not nearly as much information about her as I would have liked, I'm afraid).
"The maidens, who flock to Maria-sama's garden, pass through the tall gates today yet again with innocent, angelic smiles. Their pure hearts and bodies are clad in deep-colored uniforms. So that the pleats of their skirts are not disturbed and so that their white sailor collars are not set aflutter, it is customary here to walk slowly and with decorum. The Private Lillian Girls' Academy, a garden of maidens."
When I first started watching this show, I both hated it and loved it. Somehow, I got sucked into it and watched the first 10 episodes of the 13-episode season in one day. There was something mesmerizing about these girls and their melodramatic lives and relationships. However, there was also something about it that rankled, and the above quote, from just before the opening credits of almost every episode, seemed to be a distillation of what I hated about the show.
The girls in this show are not the kind of girls I have ever met. They are all beautiful, and they are all perfect in some way. Rosa Gigantea may be overly fond of pushing others' buttons, but she always knows the right thing to say. Sachiko is the perfect lady, and Rosa Chinesis is like what Sachiko could become once she learns to be a little more approachable. I could go on, but basically only Yumi seems even close to being anything like an ordinary girl. If you don't count Sachiko's cousin, Yumi is the only character who has any on-screen family members to indicate that she has a life outside Lillian and the girls who go there. With few exceptions, the Lillian girls try to behave as the above quote describes, and the result is a show that appears filled with the kind of ideal maidens one usually sees smiling shyly and gently at the heroes in harem anime.
I'm glad I took a little time to allow myself to process this show, however, because I began to see it in a different light. The above quote, along with the setting, the girls' behavior, and how the soeur system is depicted, really just boils down to an indication of purity. No, these girls aren't realistic, and I'm sure several of them are supposed to be considered "ideal" girls, but I'm not sure it's correct to say they are the same as the "shy, gentle" type characters found in harem anime. You're not meant to be waiting for the inevitable fanservice moment in which the poor girl inadvertently and embarrassingly shows her panties.
The soeur system promotes incredibly close relationships, so close they often resemble romantic relationships. In fact, the relationship between a soeur and her petite soeur is often spoken of in the show in words usually reserved for marriages. However, the girls never obsess about the wrongness of their love for each other. Actually, they don't even think about it, period. No one ever tells petite soeurs that what they feel for their soeurs is unacceptable. Yumi frets about her upcoming date with Sachiko, which she even refers to as a date, around her brother, and he never bats an eye. The nuns and teachers look upon the relationships with smiling indulgence, only interfering if a pair of girls appears to be unhealthily attached (shirking responsibilities, not pursuing outside friendships, etc.).
For someone used to the constant "but we're both guys!" wail prominent in anime and manga featuring romantic relationships between guys, it seemed odd that there wasn't a corresponding wail in an anime featuring romantic (or at least really, really close) relationships between girls. It could just be that the writers (or writer of the original light novels) just chose to ignore the issue the way the OVA Fake ignored it. However, I think a better explanation might be purity.
No one comments on the girls' relationships because those relationships are pure, just as the girls themselves are pure. Romantic relationships abound in this show. Sexual relationships do not. There is one couple that could unquestionably be called a lesbian couple - however, as close as they are and as deep as their emotions run, there is no indication that they've ever done anything more except hold hands and maybe kiss (I can't remember if there's an on-screen kiss or not). Sex and sexual attraction don't enter the picture, not with any of the relationships. This is not Loveless' Yamato and Kouya. Just like the bit before the opening credits says, these girls are pure in every way, from the way they act to their properly demure outward appearance.
Rosa Gigantea may occasionally behave inappropriately with Yumi, but she's open about the fact that she does it because Yumi's reaction entertains her and because she likes to ruffle Sachiko's feathers. To me, her actions seem more playful than sexual. The only relationship in this show that edges into impure territory is Sachiko's relationship with her cousin, Kashiwagi. In one of the few times he interacts with Sachiko in this season, he makes it plain that he expects the two of them to have a physical relationship once they are married (he and Sachiko are betrothed). Although Sachiko once loved him, Kashiwagi couldn't return her feelings, so his moment of pretending to feel passion that he doesn't, in front of Sachiko's friends no less, is practically a mockery of her feelings. His words and actions cause a horrified Yumi to cover her eyes and earn him a slap from Sachiko. Rosa Gigantea's past romance may have been close to the point of being unhealthy, but this is the only relationship portrayed in a truly negative way. (A stray thought: There aren't enough males in this season for me to say for sure, but I wonder if, in the world of Maria Watches Over Us, the only truly pure relationships are those between women?)
I had owned this boxed set for a while before finally watching it - actually, I started watching it because the other seasons were on sale at RightStuf.com and I wanted to know if it was worth it to buy them. I wasn't sure about the show at first, because, like I said, the girls seemed like the sort who should make me gag. I didn't entirely like Sachiko in the first few episodes, because she seemed unnecessarily harsh towards Yumi. As far as the look of the show, although the girls and scenery were often beautiful, sometimes things seemed a little off (in ways I can't quite describe, although I could point to particular moments if I had to) and sometimes all that beauty was less beautiful than kind of creepy (I consider Shimako a good example of this).
The show, with all its melodrama, really grew on me. This is one of those shows where characters and their emotions are of paramount importance, above and beyond any events that are going on, and I got caught up in that. I did end up buying the other seasons (although I'm still waiting on the US Postal Service), and I hope that they end up growing on me, too.
It's interesting: even though I feel like the girls can only really be shown to be happy when the shows focuses on the present, part of me hopes that the later seasons reveal more of the girls' pasts and what's expected of them in the future. Aside from Yumi (I have no idea why a girl like her is attending such a prestigious school), I think many of the girls come from wealthy families that have already mapped out their futures for them. Some of the girls might not necessarily have restrictive futures ahead of them, but they've had to overcome painful pasts. Sachiko's got a little of both going on: coming from a wealthy family set her apart as a child, making it difficult for her to open up to others, and, although her present as Lillian Academy is enjoyable, eventually she will have to deal with a future in which she is expected to marry Kashiwagi. As much as I enjoy watching the girls take part in the usual pleasant school anime activities (we've done Valentine's Day, a first date, and Christmas, so Golden Week and cultural festival episodes are a possibility in the later seasons), it's also kind of fun to watch them deal with their tragedies of their pasts and futures.
The extras are pretty good, although some should be viewed with caution. The character bios, for instance, include spoilers. I waited until after I watched all the episodes on a disc before viewing the character bios on that disc, and that still turned out not to be good enough. If I remember right, the character bios on the third disc spoil some of the events on the fourth disc.
I loved the specials. They're set up like outtakes and poke fun at various scenes from the show. Although I don't know if they necessarily spoil anything about the show, the humor in these specials is best understood if you have first watched the original episodes.
The liner notes are nice - without them, I wouldn't have been able to make heads or tails of a few lines from the show.
I'd also like to mention that, although the show is only available in Japanese with English subtitles, there are two subtitle options: one with Japanese honorifics, and one without. I watched the show with honorifics, although I briefly tried it without. The liner notes explain the Japanese honorifics, so I would recommend that anime/manga newbies read that and just watch the show with honorifics. The "without" option means you get subjected to "Miss Yoshino" and "Lady Sachiko," and yet you must still puzzle through "Sacchan" (which only makes sense if you know about "-chan").
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Princess Princess (manga) by Mikiyo Tsuda; Princess Princess (anime) - The main character in this series transfers to an all-boys school, only to learn that the school has a system where the prettiest boys dress up as girls in order to improve the rest of the school's morale. The main character just happens to be a pretty boy. At first, he's horrified by what he's being asked to do, but he agrees to it readily enough once he learns that there are significant perks to doing the job. The series focuses on the hilarious things he and the two other "girls" have to deal with. In their shared situation, their friendships deepen and they learn surprising things about one another. The tone of this series is drastically different from Maria Watches Over Us, more like the Maria Watches Over Us specials than the main show. I haven't read the manga yet, but the anime is more hilarious than melodramatic. I should also mention that, although there isn't really any m/m romance, the relationship between a couple of the characters dances right on the line, and there is an on-screen kiss. I'd suggest this show to those who liked the silliness of the Maria Watches Over Us specials, those who like their melodrama with more humor, those who'd like another show with idealized girls (even though these girls are actually boys), or those who'd like another series featuring a single-gender school with an interesting quirk.
- Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - This series is actually pretty different from Maria Watches Over Us, but I'd suggest it to those looking for another engrossing school romance with lots of interesting and complex characters. The main focus of the series is a couple of students, both of whom are the best students at their school. What no one knows is that they are both wearing masks. Yukino pretends to be perfect in every way because she is addicted to receiving others' admiration. Arima's mask hides a painful past. Yukino sees Arima as her rival at school, but, as she gets to know him, she begins to fall in love with him. In addition to Yukino and Arima's romance, the series also looks at the lives and relationships of several of their friends. The anime is tons of fun, but it doesn't really have an ending. For those who'd like the complete story, I'd recommend reading the manga.
- Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma (anime TV series) - This historical romance focuses on the romance between Emma, a maid, and William, a member of the gentry. I'd suggest this to those looking for another lovely, fairly slow-paced romantic series that, like Maria Watches Over Us, takes itself seriously. The anime, particularly the second season, is a bit different from the manga, but both are good.
- Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - Ouran high school, a prestigious school for the filthy rich, is home to the Ouran high school host club, a group of male students who flirt with and entertain their clients (female Ouran high school students) for a price. The school's only scholarship student ends up being forced to join the club after breaking one of the club's expensive vases. Only later do the club members learn that their newest member is actually a girl. She doesn't really care whether others think she's a boy or a girl, but, if she wants to stand a chance at paying for the broken vase, she has to make sure that no one outside the club finds out her true gender. Although the series hints at romance, the anime (and possibly the manga, although I haven't read much of that) never follows through. I'd suggest this to those who'd like another series featuring a prestigious high school and wealthy students, or those who'd like something else that gradually reveals the stories of all the members of a tightly-knit group. However, the tone of this series is very different from Maria Watches Over Us - overall, the series is very light and humorous, to the point of being silly.
- Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - Tohru Honda, whose mother died a while back, somehow ends up living with Yuki Sohma, the most popular boy at her school, and Shigure Sohma, one of his relatives. She soon learns the Sohma family secret: when certain members of the family become weak or are hugged by someone of the opposite sex, they transform into a member of the Chinese zodiac. Tohru gradually gets to know and love more members of the Sohma family, but the family's deeper secrets may spell the end of her new friendships and budding romance. I'd suggest this to those who'd like another school series with romance and a main character who is a lot like Yumi.