“In this moment, I had the greatest epiphany!”
-Honoka Kousaka, Love Live!, Episode 1
Unlike The Idolm@ster, which already had a legion of fans from the original arcade game prior to the anime’s 2011 debut or the 2012 series AKB0048, which drew on the pre-existing AKB48 fanbase, Love Live! was still a relatively new multimedia project when the anime aired in early 2013.
Love Live! has always operated on a few different conceits than other idol series, even back in its first season when it was this weird and corny thing with janky computer generated animation. The Idolm@ster poked a bit at the exhausting lifestyle of an idol and AKB0048 prodded at the creepiness of it all while both sold their respective products and tie-ins, banking on the fact that audiences would resonate with one or two girls — or in the peculiar case of AKB0048, support them because of their real-life counterparts.
Meanwhile, Love Live! wants to charm you from the get-go, in the same vein of a hammy musical production. The latest iteration of the series, Love Live! Sunshine, is no different.
Love Live! Sunshine‘s premier sticks to what is now the Love Live! formula, but thankfully avoids presenting a palette-swapped new µ’s. Sunshine’s first episode, more than anything, reiterates that Love Live! is now wholly its own entity — multiple anime series and a movie, a manga, a highly successful game, and countless singles and albums later, Love Live! is now the multimedia project promised by the original anime series.
I mentioned earlier that Love Love! operates on a different set of conceits from other idol series. The first of these is a complete lack of drama that’s made up for by character interactions.
Even in the first episode of the original Love Live! series, there’s very little by way of legitimate dramatic tension despite the obvious and somewhat convoluted setup to get Honoka started on her way to school idoldom. The more poignant moments are small — Honoka glancing through her mother’s high school photo album the night after she learns that their high school, Otonokizaka Academy, will close down — and the rest of the time is filled with over-the-top acting and silliness.
This isn’t to say that dramatic moments don’t exist, but that our expectations as Love Live! viewers are shaped by monologues from Honoka — and now Chika Takami in Sunshine — to look forward to how it all unfolds rather than what will happen or even why things are happening at all. Thanks to their narration, we can presume that they achieve their goals of forming an idol unit and saving their school. Just as we know that headliner Judy Garland and Gene Kelly’s characters will inevitably fall for each other in a musical, the girls in a Love Live! series will get their group and attempt to compete in the Love Live! competition. As Love Live! viewers, and probable fans, our primary role is to watch fun characters that we’ll eventually grow to love — and who will be developed beyond their initial archetypes through the course of the series.
Sunshine‘s first-episode formula is very reminiscent of Love Live!‘s premiere, down to both Honoka and Chika’s personal realizations in front of a public television screen while watching A-RISE and µ’s respectively. What makes Sunshine enjoyable is that it follows the Love Live! script but ensures that its cast has their own chance to shine. Chika may fill Honoka’s role in Sunshine, but she’s not Honoka, something that the series makes abundantly clear through more intimate character moments.
“Well . . . they look normal. I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I just thought they’d look more like celebrities since they’re idols.”
-Riko Sakurauchi to Chika Takami, Love Live! Sunshine, Episode 1
Otonokizaka transfer student sums up another conceit specific to Love Live! when she sees µ’s for the first time — despite presumably having attended school with them — the idea of a school idol rather than a larger industry idol.
While Love Live! indubitably sells merchandise to a similar crowd, the inherent creepiness of idol culture as a whole seeps into the franchise less than other series. The Idolm@ster, AKB0048, and Wake Up Girls! all shine a light on the darker corners of being an idol at different moments — some are more incisive than others — but Love Live! doesn’t have to because its idols are all shown as normal girls. Honoka’s initial impetus for becoming an idol was to save her high school, not to pursue a career as an idol. Similarly, Chika wishes to be a school idol in search of something meaningful and wholly her own, rather than remaining firmly in the background. The fact that the girls of µ’s are so ordinary is actually what initially inspires her.
This does mean that Love Live! is very pro-idol. If you’re looking for another property that skewers idol culture, Love Live! is not what you want to watch. Yet, sometimes you just want to watch a good popcorn flick, or see something fun. Love Live! is pure fun with strong character interaction, surprisingly effective quiet moments, and musical performances that toe the line between a movie musical and an idol concert.