Love Live! School Idol Project
Honoka Kosaka finds out that her beloved high school is about to be shut down due to low enrollment. In order to save the school, she teams up with her friends and begins recruiting for the latest trend: "school idols", pop idols and idol groups representing their schools in song and dance competitions. But the difference between wanting to be an idol singer and actually getting there is vast, and Honoka must make new friends and overcome many obstacles in order to save her school and hopefully lead her group, μ's ("Muse") to the national idol singing competition: Love Live!
First, a little background on why this second opinion even exists:
A while back, Stig and Tim posted their review, and I subsequently dismissed this as another K-On cash-in with idols, which completely obviated the need for me to ever watch this, as my spare time had become rather sparse due to taking on a government contracting job. Or so you'd think.
About a year later, I started seeing a bunch of posts of ridiculously cute photos from this cell phone rhythm / card collectible game that Mippa and Kara were playing, and I naturally joined in. That game, of course, was Love Love! School Idol Festival, and I immediately latched onto the characters. Then I revisited our original THEM review, and I was gobsmacked, trying to reconcile the two-star rating with the fun experience I was having with Nozomi and Nico and the gang.
So it was, admittedly, with some trepidation that I decided to go ahead and take a look for myself and see if the show held up to either the criticisms of the original review or the rather effusive praise I was seeing elsewhere. And about three days later, I'd finished marathoning both seasons back to back, which is just about the last thing I expected to be doing. What happened?!?
Now, before we go too far here, this is not in fact intended as a rebuttal or repudiation of the original review. In fact, if you do not like Japanese idol culture, then this is absolutely not the show you should be watching, as Love Live revels in the whole idol phenomenon like a kid in a candy store. Strangely, though, while Love Live depicts a lot of the hard work (practice and exercise) that actually go into being an idol group, it actually excises what I believe are the creepiest parts of idol culture: the micromanagement of the idols' lives by often morally questionable music producers and the even nastier "purity fetish" that is imposed on these idols by their predominantly male fans. This is largely because the creators of Love Live have opted to set this in an alternate-universe Japan where there are about as many men as Sakura Trick and YuruYuri. Seriously: there is literally one male character of note in this anime's two seasons-and-a-movie - a rarely seen parent - and we never even learn his name! Instead, the girls fangirl over other girls, which highlights the elephant in the room that the director and writer (very carefully, and I believe, erroneously) try very hard to avoid (unlike the manga and the game):
Love Live is actually supposed to be that weird unicorn of genre-blends, an idol yuri franchise.
The original light novels and manga, it turns out, were written by Sakurako Kimino, whose most famous works are the entertainingly trashy Strawberry Panic and the equally trashy (but more squicky) Sister Princess. So when she (yes, she) was tapped to do the conceptual work for Love Live, yuri was definitely a central part of the main idea.
"But wait, Stig and Tim didn't mention anything about yuri!"
That would be correct, because in the first season, the creators, wanting to play things safe (ostensibly a la the highly successful K-On), minimized a lot of the romantic aspects of the character interactions, which pretty much made a lot of character motivations suddenly not make nearly as much sense, or sometimes, any sense at all. Why would these nine girls, many of whom were just meeting each other, be so heavily invested in each other personally? Sure, they could be really good friends but we don't actually get to see as much of that as we'd like, because having to devote so much of the 12-episode run time to (sometimes awkwardly meshed 2D-3D) dance sequences leaves less time for character development. And we get to see that, for example, Nico really wants to be an idol really badly but gives us too little indication as to why she's so weird about Honoka and her friends at the start, or why there's a throwaway shot of her sharing a lover's milkshake with tsundere redhead Maki. We barely even really meet Hanayo and Rin, and the subtext between Nozomi and Eli is so brief, it's easily missed. The characters, full of personality and quirks in the game and the manga, come off initially as stereotypes in the anime, worst of all overly optimistic ganbatte-queen Honoka, who is, dismayingly, our viewpoint character throughout the anime - and honestly, one of the least interesting characters to me, though I still ended up rooting for her anyway.
The other disappointing thing is the music: it's front-loaded with the "safest" and most conventional pop songs of the μ's oeuvre, according to the tastes of fans circa 2012 (the songs having been written before the anime came out), so you're not going to hear the quirkier, more unique material that sets them apart from other idol groups when you play the game. It's hard to imagine from the songs they picked for the first season that this would be the franchise that would win awards for "Best Anime Music" within just a couple of years. The live shows, moreover, veer at times into Uncanny Valley territory with the inclusion of not very well integrated 3D amongst 2D segments, made all the more jarring by the fact that the 2D actually got a pretty decent budget.
All of this indicates to me that the anime staff were so unsure of this ever getting a second season, let alone being part of what has very suddenly and surprisingly become a global cosplay phenomenon, that they didn't really give Love Live much room to be itself, and that's a shame: because there is the germ of a good rah-rah story in here along the classic "sports anime" vein: a plucky young girl gathers, through sheer force of will and a lot of hard work, nine girls, in order to save the school she loves. It's very Princess Nine. I dig that. And in these stories, there is always some scenario (someone moving away, someone getting ill) that gets in the way of their immediate goals -- I've seen enough of these kinds of shows to expect that to happen.
Yet, even this flawed iteration of Love Live, against all these odds, never failed to make me smile.
Sure, Nico's "Nico-Nico-niii" schtick is silly. Nozomi's propensity for glomping other girl's boobs is a weird, alien Japanese comedy trope that I have never been able to comprehend. These are characters that, in any other franchise, would annoy me to smithereens, and yet somehow, these are my two favorites out of what I found to be ultimately a very likable ensemble, played by a bunch of voice actresses who genuinely seem to be having fun. It's clear they've got familiarity and chemistry thanks to the game and the various PVs (and obviously, songs) they've done together.
As much as I enjoyed this first season (at times), it's clear by the end that μ's - and this anime - have more growing to do in order to fully reach their potential. I don't blame Stig and Tim for having jumped ship at this point, what with all of the teething issues with the animation, the really confused and superficial handling of the characters and plot, and the unwillingness of the anime staff to really let this series stand out as being more than just another series of cute girls doing cute things.
Fortunately, there was a second season made, and that will be discussed in another review.
Overly restrained and conventional, especially given the source material, the first season of Love Live strains to distinguish itself from any number of superficially similar series, and almost succeeds despite the best efforts of its directorial staff. Remove one star if you dislike idol singer culture; add one star if you enjoy it. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: Some mild fan service (namely in the obligatory beach episode and some of the girls' exaggerated chest sizes), but otherwise suitable for most audiences.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Love Live! School Idol Project © 2013 Love Live! Project
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