Some of the most critically-acclaimed anime share the same basic setup: A young girl on the edge of womanhood struggles as her ideals and the harsh realities of the real world collide. Take that, mix in medieval warfare and you have Maria the Virgin Witch.
Set near the end of the Hundred Years War between France and England, Maria the Virgin Witch follows the titular witch Maria as she puts a stop to battle after battle by using her vast magic powers to force both sides into terrified retreats. While efficiently putting a stop to the fighting whenever she appears, the accompanying chaos she causes eventually draws the attention of Heaven itself, forcing the Archangel Michael to intervene and deliver a punishment and an ultimatum.
Maria will forever lose the magical powers the moment she loses her virginity -- and if she is ever witnessed using her powers in public again, she will be struck down by Michael himself. However, Maria isn't about to let a little thing like an angelic watchdog stop her from doing what she knows is right.
While Maria the Virgin Witch could have been a simple tale of right versus wrong, it is far more than that. On the surface, what Maria is doing seems good and moral: If she doesn't allow any fighting, then no one will die. The peasants living near her will be able to return unharmed to their families and the land will be at peace.
Of course, her actions don't leave everyone happy nor do they serve to alleviate the underlying conflict causing the war in the first place. We see mercenaries angered as they are robbed of coin and potential spoils in battle after battle. The nobility likewise becomes furious as, unable to win any meaningful victories, the war will never end. Even her fellow witches are more than a little annoyed as they can make a pretty penny themselves in the aftermath of a battle.
Surprisingly, the anime shows Maria's detractors in a somewhat understanding light -- even as they stand opposed to our heroine. It is quite clear that Maria's constant interference causes almost as many problems as it solves.
Maria herself acknowledges these faults in her own actions. She is not trying to end the war. To her it is just a simple fact: She doesn't like fighting and won't allow it to happen near her. Moreover, Maria doesn't try to drag anyone else in to her crusade -- be they normal people or fellow witches. It is a personal choice and nothing more.
Even when facing heavenly wrath, Maria is not deterred. As long as she has her power, she will do what she wishes with it -- and she's more than smart enough to find various ways to prevent Ezekiel, the angel tasked with watching her, from actually witnessing her casting battle-disrupting spells.
The supporting cast of Maria the Virgin Witch is as varied and nuanced as Maria herself -- no one is simply good or evil. Joseph, for example, longs to be a loyal vassal to the local lord. However, as he is also in love with Maria, he finds his loyalty torn between the two when popular opinion begins to cast Maria as a villain. Ezekiel, on the other hand, is by nature a tool -- the literal sword of Michael. But living with Maria day in and day out causes her to question the divine will of the heavens -- leading to Ezekiel having to make the choice between what she is and what she longs to be.
But the most excellently developed character is Garfa. Growing up with nothing, Garfa longs to become a noble (with all the riches that entails). The only way to achieve this, however, is through battles -- battles that Maria keeps interrupting. At the start of the series, he is almost comic relief in his misfortune, and his friendship with Joseph is simply touching. However, as the anime continues, we see Garfa's fall step by step as he goes from good man with a dream to a being overcome by jealousy, greed, and rage -- eager to do even the most unspeakably cruel things to Maria.
Another intriguing aspect of Maria the Virgin Witch is its portrayal of both the kingdom of God and the church of man. Heaven sees Maria as a product of a time that has passed -- i.e., an age of magic -- and therefore she is viewed as a being who is in conflict with the natural world. And while Maria is unable to simply watch those near her die brutal deaths, the angels -- and presumably the Almighty himself -- have no issue with man killing man. It is simply the way of the world -- the natural order that Maria and her magic keep disrupting. Thus, it is their responsibility to stop her.
It is the church on earth that sees itself as responsible for the salvation of the people -- and so the priests are quick to see Maria as a threat to what is as much a war of religion as it is one of warring countries. She also offers more tangible results than religion -- i.e., protection of the weak and healing to the sick. So, as you might expect, the priests use any methods available to them (even those that go against their own faith), to first use, then destroy Maria.
Set during a medieval war and involving members of the Inquisition, it not exactly surprising that there is more than a little violence in Maria the Virgin Witch. The plot includes rape, murder, torture, maiming, and lots and lots of death on the battlefield. Yet, while never pulling punches with its content, the actual visuals are rarely graphic. Rather the direction tends to show the aftermath rather than the violent act. The result is an anime that forces your imagination to fill in the blanks -- which almost serves to make it even more disturbing when you have an active imagination like mine.
Instead of a simple story of black and white morality, Maria the Virgin Witch is a story full of grays. It shows the true nature of war -- that there truly are no good options, and even people who act with the best of intentions often leave collateral damage in their wake. Observing the cast deal with the repercussions of their actions is often painful to watch. However, the series manages to hold on to an underlying message of hope and understanding that really makes the series feel like something special as the final credits roll.