- The Yin and Yang of Schoolgirl Experiences:Maria-sama ga miteru and Azumanga Daioh
Maria-sama ga miteru (The Virgin Mary Is Watching over Us), or Marimite as it is more commonly known in the anime community, is unusual as much for what it is not as for what it is. While the young female characters in many anime are energetic, hypercute, and generally endowed with magical powers or involved in loud adventures piloting robots or spaceships, in Marimite the characters are ordinary students (echoed by the animation's subdued color palette). The story focuses on the interpersonal relationships of eight high school girls. For thirteen episodes, nothing much happens, and that is the beauty of the show. Instead of following a high-powered story line, we observe the interior lives of these girls as the school year unfolds.
The story is set at the Lillian Girls' School, an elite all-girl Catholic school in Tokyo. The opening monologue in each episode describes the students there as maidens with angelic smiles who wear a "dark-colored school uniform [that] covers their pure minds and bodies." With further comments about how "they make sure the pleats on their skirts are not disturbed . . . [and] their white sailor collar is always kept orderly," we realize this is a very proper place for the education of young women.
The story centers on a school tradition: an older student picks a younger student as her petite soeur (little sister) and then acts as a mentor to the younger student. At the top of the school's social structure are three third-year students who head up the Yamayurikai, the equivalent of a student council. These top officers are elected, which means they are the school's three most popular third-year students. They are always referred to by their positions on the council, which are named after roses, so they are known as Rosa Chinensis, Rosa Gigantea, and Rosa Foetida. In fact, it is only after the halfway mark in the series that we discover the proper name of Rosa Gigantea. The rest of the Yamayurikai is composed of the second-year students who are the petite soeurs of the third years, and the first-year students picked as the petite soeurs by the second years.
The central character is Fukuzawa Yumi, a mousy first year who is unexpectedly picked by Ogasawara Sachiko, the most elegant and admired of the second-year members of the Yamayurikai. Through Yumi's point of view, we see the events and interactions of all the other girls. As this is a shôjo anime (based on a series of novels by Konno Oyuki rather than a manga serial), the emphasis is on romance and emotion—but it is a romantic world without males. In a desire to promote the ideal of pure female friendship, the school's social structure centers on the soeur system. The system is further romanticized by the rituals surrounding it; for instance, the grande soeur gives the petite soeur her rosary as a formal symbol of their bond. (For Yumi and Sachiko, the romance is further emphasized by doing this in front of the statue of Mary in the school's garden.) Thus friendships, crushes, jealousies, and quarrels all play roles in the story. In one plotline the school newspaper runs a Valentine's Day contest for which the prize is a half-day date with one of the three Rosas en bouton (the petite soeurs of the three top Rosas). This is a moment of great anxiety for the first-year members of the Yamayurikai, who are upset over the thought of other girls having a date with their grande soeurs.
In such an environment of all-girl romantic friendships, homoeroticism is never far from the surface, and toward the end of the series it becomes part of the main story line. Lesbian themes are hardly new in anime...