Love Live! School Idol Project is one of the most memed and most maligned anime series. As part of the Love Live! franchise, the two-season anime aired from 2013 to 2014, produced by animation studio Sunrise. The world of Japanese idols and the lives of people as seen in the 26 episodes could fill volumes of description and analysis; this review will focus exclusively on the anime.
Love Live!, in short, is surprisingly interesting. It’s simple and sincere, but also self-aware enough to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally watch a show about dancing schoolgirls.
Otonokizaka High is going to close down because of a lack of new applicants. Honoka, a second-year student, has an idea: she starts a school idol group with her friends Umi and Kotori, to make girls want to join their school. They’re soon joined by others, including a few they didn’t expect. Together, they form μ’s, named after the nine Greek goddesses of the arts. In the meantime, they hear about the idol contest, Love Live!, which they decide to enter to draw new students. The first season, surprisingly, leaves the story hanging; the second follows the friends coming to terms with the seniors leaving, and continuing to work towards winning Love Live!.
The animation is the first pleasant surprise. Pause any frame, and you’ll see how well it’s drawn (I’m saying this to remind us of a certain 2016 disappointment). The colours are bright but not flashy, and the contrast is fine and subtle. Several scenes are tailored for visual effect alone, and they don’t fail to satisfy. The openings and endings are especially fun to watch. Backgrounds serve their purpose. The dance scenes, while unexceptional, are beautifully animated. The CGI used in the dances improves rapidly from ‘tolerable’ to ‘beautiful’. As in all things, this anime simply does well: you’ve seen better animation, but you’ll still like this. Sometimes, it even surprises you, like the scene in Episode 8 where Eli’s sister’s room is in darkness, or the same episode where a new member joins μ’s, and the music stops while the camera scrolls.
There’s nothing new about the girls of μ’s, and there doesn’t have to be. Each of them strikes us as a lifelike individual.
There’s a scene in Season 1, Episode 10 that many people will relate to (especially if they live in Asia). The seniors tell the other idols to use just their first names, and, as expected, their juniors get very uncomfortable!
Without a good line-up of characters, a show with such a simple plot would be boring. Maybe more than anything, Love Live! is the story of its nine protagonists. For a show to be called original, it doesn’t have to invent something completely new; that would be impossible, anyway. There’s nothing new about the girls of μ’s, and there doesn’t have to be. Each of them strikes us as a lifelike individual.
Honoka is the energetic one who hates working. Umi is the serious one. Kotori secretly has confidence issues. So does Hanayo. Rin has similar problems that are depicted well, but you’d think she’d be over them by Season 2. Nico Yazawa – the widely hated and little-known face of the series – is partly a study of an eldest sibling’s life trying to be extraordinary, and partly the focus of self-aware, deliberately cringy moments. At first, everyone seems to be a stock character you’ll forget after the episode, but at the end of two seasons, you see them as people with stories, even if they’re only human like the rest of us.
It’s genuinely interesting to see how characters change, no matter how predictable it might be or how minimal an episode’s plot is. Something as simple as Hanayo wearing glasses, or Umi pointing out (to our satisfied concurrence) that she’s like another character, gives the viewer a slight jolt by bringing these character arcs into prominence. Characters’ friendships, like Honoka and Umi, are explored with just the right amount of sentiment. Perhaps Love Live! is an excellent example of what Virginia Woolf would call ‘Chloe likes Olivia’. Keep in mind, though, that there is no canon yuri; sorry to disappoint.
The music, produced in collaboration with Lantis, is one of the main points of focus in the anime. You’ll start out with liking the music a little and end with listening to it on repeat. The opening and ending themes are perfect for the show; the dance scenes are a little short, but great to watch and listen to (that is, of course, within the confines of the genre). The lyrics are completely family-friendly, unlike certain idol songs; when they decide to write a love song, the girls write about the passion of teamwork and friendship. While you might expect the show to be mostly about the music, it’s actually more about the story, with the music coming in at strategic intervals – almost like cutscenes in a good video game.
Shall I name this heart-rending pain “Snow halation”?
I can’t wait for our feelings to resonate; it’s frustrating, but it’s a pure-hearted devotion called love
Even in this mild fever, I can’t hesitate
I’ll accept the courage to dive in; it’s about to start!
The plot of any anime is, as Aristotle might have said, its soul. Without a sequence of actions binding each moment to the next, we wouldn’t have a reason to watch the show. Love Live! is very conscious of its potential public image as a tired story of underdogs winning a dance contest. So it gives us slightly different portrayals of what we’re used to. When it does get boring and tired, such as the first few episodes of Season 2, it’s focusing on individuals a little too much. Most of the time, we either get a solid but unsurprising episode, or, occasionally, a few surprises.
For one thing, sometimes the anime repeats, a little implausibly, the opening of the first episode. Episode 11 (Season 1) gives us a recap from Nico where she talks about herself. Just once, someone gets slapped. Episode endings are especially well used, segueing into the ending theme; in Episode 8, this makes the ending seem like the song that was written. One small issue, however, is that most problems are solved without much explanation by the end of the episode.
Sometimes the anime is in on the joke. Maki loves pointing out how terrible Nico’s little acts are (the others agree). In Episode 6, Nico seems to pull a megaphone out of thin air. Honoka’s dad is basically the only male person we see (and we never see his face).
Every now and then, we get a genuine twist. We might see the squad looking with concern at a screen, facing the viewer, making for good suspense. One episode begins unexpectedly with a dream. A rival’s defeat and the big win are barely mentioned, because the audience expects them; instead, we’re treated to the events that followed. The finale does a good job of avoiding tear-jerking sentimentality with juice, dancing, and happy alpacas.
Love Live! has its faults: the plot is very simple and often uninteresting; a few things, like what the final ‘emergency’ was about, remain unclear; the reality of the business side of idol life is not only ignored, but arguably misrepresented. There’s an almost 100% lack of visible male characters, let alone speaking ones (although this doesn’t really affect the story itself).
Nonetheless, the nine girls of μ’s are colourful, rounded characters, and their actions and motives, if childlike, are real and engaging. The animation does what it needs to flawlessly. The music is good enough, and takes second place to the plot, which is surprisingly well-wrought. Love Live! might not be the best anime of the season, but if you give it a chance, it might win your heart.