In a certain online community I’m part of, there’s a person known for his “incorrect opinions.” He likes eating cereal with orange juice instead of milk, he likes humid weather because it “feels like a warm hug,” and his favorite anime is Love Live! School Idol Project. Having finished the other shows I was watching at the time, and after hearing about different characters from Love Live! for quite a while, I decided it was going to be the next show that I would start. About five seconds into Episode 1, my thoughts were: “Yeah, I see why people give him shit for liking this.”
To be fair, that thought occurred when I accidentally started the episode with an English dub– after switching the audio track to Japanese, the voice acting became immensely more bearable. But make no mistake, Love Live! is a stereotypical high-energy anime. On many occasions, it feels like it was made for children, and that’s what keeps it pinned below a number of other shows on my list. That said, it’s still enjoyable and has enough going for it to be one of my not-so-guilty pleasures.
Premise & Story
The premise of the first Love Live! show is that Honoka Kosoka has just started her second year at Otonokizaka High School when she finds out the school will be shutting down the following year due to low enrollment. Honoka decides to start a school idol group in order to increase the school’s publicity and drive more prospective students to apply.
While this sounds straightforward, I found the first episode to be a shaky opening to the franchise. Honoka doesn’t seem to have much connection to the school in the first place, but rather wants to save it simply because she happens to be there– her immediate exclamation after the closure announcement is “No, my dazzling high school career!” (We later learn that the school is Honoka’s mother’s alma mater, although her mother doesn’t seem too attached and her younger sister wasn’t planning on applying there anyway.) Thus, the execution of the “Save Our School” trope felt a bit obvious, as opposed to other shows that have done it better, such as Girls Und Panzer.
Honoka’s clumsy but gung-ho personality is balanced out by her two best friends, the graceful and easy-going Kotori and the more uptight and bashful Umi. Together, the three of them form a group they call μ’s (pronounced “muse”). Throughout the first few episodes, they convince a music-endowed classmate (Maki) to compose a song for them, and they perform their first concert– in front of a nearly-empty auditorium.
The concert does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the season. While they didn’t have much of an audience, the girls did attract the attention of a select few other students, who would become instrumental in their success later on. I liked seeing everyone’s reactions to the performance, and how those reactions foreshadowed each student’s approach to the group.
As the club continued to grow, the plot started to get repetitive with the recruitment of new members– each girl seemed to put up some token resistance to joining, but was convinced one way or the other by the end of the episode. This repetitive, weak conflict is the downfall of the Love Live! franchise.
As an example, let’s look at Eli, the student council president who initially vowed not to allow a school idol club at Otonokizaka High. I was particularly drawn toward this character– she puts up a cold facade distancing herself from the others, but shows signs of loneliness in private.
Eli claims that a school idol group would be a waste of resources for the school, but Honoka sees through this claim since the school’s going to close anyway if it stays the course. We later learn that Eli enjoyed dancing when she was younger, but she gave up on her dream of being a ballerina after placing poorly at competitions and never making the cut. Eli sees Honoka’s amateur group (and all school idols) as inferior to her own classically-trained skill level, and at the same time, is jealous of how much attention μ’s and other idols are getting.
With the combined pressure of Honoka and Eli’s right-hand woman Nozomi, she’s eventually forced to allow the school idol club, but still tries to keep her distance. Although Honoka could have simply continued on her way, she instead makes an effort to get Eli involved in the group, reaching a climax at an impressively striking scene: Eli’s sitting alone in a classroom looking out the window as she wishes there was some way things could be different. When she looks the other way, the musical score stops entirely, as Honoka and her friends are there extending their hands in friendship. It felt so surreal, it almost seemed like her imagination before the silence was finally broken.
I applaud that scene for the emotion it conveys. However, I didn’t enjoy how quickly Eli’s personality rebounded after that. After joining the group, Eli basically dropped all earlier criticisms and stopped being shy whatsoever about her enjoyment of being an idol. In Love Live, once a plot point is resolved, it is resolved, no questions asked. No callbacks, no reflection, we’re just on to the next section.
This lack of lasting consequences keeps the anxiety down, but it lessens the strength of the show’s conflicts. Every time it seems like an important problem or challenge might have appeared, it’s solved disappointingly easily.
About halfway through the season, the origin of the show’s name is explained. (Yes, the show’s name was not addressed for six entire episodes.)
In the show, “Love Live” is the name of a national school idol competition– basically a tournament where dance teams perform and attempt to out-rank the others in audience votes. The top-ranking groups are featured in TV and other media, and winning this competition seems like a great way to get more students interested in attending the school (and thereby avoiding a closure.)
Even after these new stakes are revealed, the show continues to lean towards light, fluffy stories in which the characters learn about each other and themselves. Enjoying slice-of-life is a prerequisite to enjoying Love Live!. While I do like these kinds of shows in moderation, it can get old after a while. There’s only so many times you can hear about how strangers started getting along (especially when they’re also strangers to you.)
I was excited by the return to (relative) seriousness that “The Greatest Concert” (Episode 11) brought; looking back, this is also where the show starts focusing on Honoka as a character again. When the group reaches rank 19 in Love Live (where the top 20 advance to the final event), Honoka becomes increasingly motivated to ensure their success. In her zeal, she starts blatantly overworking herself, but nobody wants to say anything since she’s enjoying herself so much. This episode brings my personal favorite song of the first season, “No Brand Girls” (it’s a tad more mature and developed than the previous tracks.)
In what I’d rank as the second-most-impactful scene of the season (behind Eli’s that I described earlier), Honoka, who’s been feeling under the weather after overworking herself, manages to put on a flawless smiling idol performance… until her body doesn’t let her anymore. When she collapses at the end of the song, the few audience members who were previously putting up with the rain begin to disperse, and their online stream is cut prematurely, both of which will likely impact their rankings.
I’ll leave the story here– if you’re interested in what happens next, then you might as well watch the show for yourself. What I’ll say is that it continues the trend of building up a seemingly-dramatic storyline, then resolving it in an underwhelmingly less dramatic way. The slight turn of events that followed Honoka’s illness felt illogical to me, and it seems like the overarching plot got cut short only because the 13-episode season was almost up; the way that Season 2 resumed the story all but confirmed this.
I haven’t talked much about the music side of Love Live! yet. To put it simply, it’s not the strong point of this series, which is disappointing, given that the series is about a group of singers/dancers. The music itself is decently produced, but nothing special, and feels like “cookie-cutter” J-pop. The dancing is fairly simplistic, and relies on inter-cut footage to maintain a sense of action. The lyrics– well, let me just quote a few lines from “Susume→Tomorrow,” the first song of the series (and, admittedly, an earworm):
Let’s go! Do! I do! I live! Yes, do!The lyrics are always simplistic, but they’re not usually this disjointed.
I do! I live! Let’s go, let’s go! Yeah!
The songs are tools used to advance the story. They certainly don’t tell a story in themselves. As far as the score went, it had a few good moments, but it was fairly forgettable, not helped by the songs themselves taking the spotlight away. I did enjoy the cue leading into the credit sequence that played at the end of each episode; it always made it seem like something important would happen in the next episode (which, of course, the next episode rarely lived up to.)
While my descriptions may seem negative, I don’t think this show is all bad. It’s just not on the “changed me as a person” level that some other anime has reached. If you want something casual that will take up your time but not upset or worry you, this is an average show that you might enjoy.
My biggest frustration with the entire Love Live! franchise is that I see a potential greater than what was delivered. If it’s going to be unrealistically happy and care-free, then it might as well have gone a little further in detaching from reality to open up the door for a more complex story. Stay tuned for my follow-up post about Love Live! The School Idol Movie, where I’ll expand on this idea and give a more detailed (but spoiler-filled) analysis of exactly what Love Live! School Idol Project‘s themes were supposed to be.