Love Live! Sunshine!!
Chika Takami lives in the sleepy seaside town of Uchiura, part of the city of Numazu in Shizuoka Prefecture, about two and a half hours away from Tokyo by train and bus. When she and her friends find out that their all girls' high school is set to close, Chika remembers that her favorite school idol group, µ's, was able to save *their* school by performing in the Love Live idol contest, and decides to get together her own group named Aqours (pronounced "Aqua"), with the help of her classmates ... but in a Love Live contest that is more competitive than ever, do they have what it takes to even compete, much less win?
Oh, Love Live, how you frustrate me so.
I unabashedly love this franchise. It's goofy, it's sweet, the girls are fun, and yet there's always something a bit too cliched, a bit problematic, a bit too melodramatic, and I can never walk away from this with the "oh my gosh this deserves ten stars" attitude that one typically reserves for their very favorite shows.
Let's start with the most obvious problem, which is the incredible over-reliance on "formula" storytelling. Let's count the ways in which Sunshine mirrors the original, WAY too closely: we've got a fiery, book-dumb, but sweet-hearted girl (Chika instead of Honoka) who gets together a costume-obsessed best friend (You instead of Kotori) and a comically serious classmate (Riko instead of Umi) to form a school idol group to save their school (Uchiura instead of Otonokizaka) over the objections of the overbearing student body president (Dia instead of Eli), with the help of that president's mischievous and strangely grabby best friend who is also in a position of authority (Mari instead of Nozomi), and along the way they pick up a couple of ridiculously moe freshmen (Hanamaru and Ruby instead of Hanayo and Rin), a completely random and bonkers wild-card (Yohane instead of Nico), and there's always the sorta quiet one (Kanan instead of Maki) to form an idol group whose name is unintuitive to pronounce (turns out it's pronounced "Aqua" and the "ours" is silent! ... kinda like how it took a while to figure out that µ's was "muse") ...
... and it takes a good three-quarters of the series for Sunshine to fully shake off that nagging feeling of retread, which is a very long time for a show to find its own feet, particularly when the season is only 13 episodes long. Oh, and since you probably already know how long it took for the original group to perform together: yup, the same goes for Aqours -- apart from the opening and closing sequences, you'll only see the nine of them perform together a whole whopping once.
That's not to say the parallels are, indeed, absolute, or even remotely perfect. The girls do often play *vastly* different roles within the group from what would initially seem to be their original counterparts, notably with Riko actually being a transfer student (from, you guessed it, the school from the original series!) drawing Chika's attention in what is virtually impossible to construe as anything merely platonic (and very rapidly mutual), with unforeseen side-effects to group chemistry as the series goes on. There is actually a *lot* more yuri in this iteration of Love Live (lampshaded by references to yuri doujinshi and even the kabedon phenomenon) and it's actually kind of nice to see them pretty much abandon the pretense that they are out to attract any guys (again, largely absent -- I don't remember seeing a single male character this time around). There's also the introduction of some minor (could-they-be?) love-triangles, complete with a twinge of jealousy here and there, just to remind us that this was all the brainchild of the same creator behind Strawberry Panic. The subtext does, indeed, cross over into subtitles, and more than once, and I'm pretty sure if I'd squeed aloud at those scenes, I'd've *really* annoyed the missus. C'est la vie. (I really really wanted to though ...)
I could really go on about the characters (a collection of student stereotypes that are nevertheless a bit different from the usual) but the clear standout here for me is Yoshiko "Yohane" Tsushima, whose delusional image of herself as a "fallen angel" (complete with speaking in a lower register than her normal voice) is treated here as a character feature and part of her charm, not a bug. Even characters that should be annoying, like grabby-hands half-American rich girl Mari, have hidden depths (like the fact that her gratuitous, grammatically completely wrong English magically disappears to be replaced by utterly perfect Japanese when she actually gets serious, revealing her pseudo-American affectations for what they are). If there's one thing Love Live tries to do right that is remarkable in light of Japanese scholastic culture and its well-documented propensity towards conformism, it's the celebration of these characters as individuals with distinctive personalities, and Sunshine ultimately succeeds in this regard. If any characters feel underused, it's third-year Kanan, who spends most of the time at the dive shop and not as part of the team, and first-year Hanamaru gets to do little more than give us a primer on Shizuoka traditional dialect (-zura), and be strangely and woefully undereducated about modernity (It's the future-zura)! I suppose we'll see more of them in the inevitable second season.
Apart from the poor utilization of some of the characters, there are a couple of storytelling flaws that really nag. It's one thing to have the cliche of the absurdly powerful student council, but having one of the girls as the chairman of the school board is a bit much, particularly when it's the aforementioned "dumb blonde" Mari in that role. The inclusion of rival group Saint Snow, who are significantly less nice than A-RISE, strikes a bit of a sour note, though to be fair, it's actually more realistic. One thing that really bothered me was the insinuation that, for all the in-universe adulation of µ's, somehow their alma mater, whom they rescued from closure in the first season, manages to completely lose ties with them in the interim: an assertion that makes no sense given Japanese scholastic obsession with its students' achievements (contrast, for example, the elementary school in Erased and its banner displaying all the championships of its hockey team). It's almost as if the creators are making every attempt not to have to depict or reference µ's, while having the girls of Aqours be their fans, a stance which frankly doesn't make sense in any context. (And, before you ask: apart from stock footage, there are no cameos of the original nine, so, no, you won't get to see what they're up to.) On the flip side, there are several things that could have become overwrought melodrama, that get nipped quickly in the bud because the characters actually learn from their mistakes (which is a nice thing to see in an anime).
We can't discuss Love Live without tackling its music, so before you ask: it really is more of the same, just more polished. The vocals seem cleaner and there don't seem to be any particularly weak singers in the group (an improvement over the first songs in the original, actually), though admittedly they're not asked to do anything particularly difficult. It's still fairly pat idol pop, and as in the original, the best tracks from the game are left completely off the TV show soundtrack (so, alas, no "Strawberry Trapper"). Matching this, the animation is also improved on the first series, especially with the 3D animation being noticeably farther away from the uncanny valley and more fluid and better matching the 2D visuals.
Overall, in a lot of ways, Sunshine! sometimes struggles to refine, rather than simply repeat the Love Live! formula in a way that really makes it really stand out. Still, if you really liked the original, this is a safe bet to entertain, and the new characters are a lot of fun to watch.
While never truly a bad show, Sunshine requires fresher writing and treatment to truly shine. Add a star if you really, really liked the original series. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: There's a lot of hand-holding and you-might-call-it-romantic melodrama, and there's no boys to be seen. One character is a bit grabby with others' boobs which is played for (questionable) laughs, and there's some general fan service as this *is* a seaside town and there *are* swimsuits involved. Should be okay for teens and up, unless you are for whatever reason not okay with the idea of girls being into each other (your business, not ours).
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source, Japanese with English subtitles.
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Love Live! Sunshine!! © 2016 Project Love Live! Sunshine!!
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