Love Live! School Idol Project

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Thursday, December 26, 2013

NIS America has been releasing anime for over three years now, but it wasn’t until recently that they began to put all of their licenses on streaming services like Crunchyroll and Hulu Plus. Quite a few of their recent pick-ups haven’t been given specific home release plans just yet, but NIS has put them up streaming for viewers to watch. Since I’ve enjoyed the majority of the anime they have chosen to bring over to North America, I decided it was time to start watching some of their series that are streaming only. As these come out on DVD/Blu-Ray later on, I will be updating or re-reviewing as necessary to make note of what extras are put into the Premium Editions. The first streaming series I will be looking at is Love Live! School Idol Project, which is a Sunrise produced anime about a group of high school girls who become idols in order to try and save their school from shutting down. It tries to balance the super sweet happy vibe of K-On! with quite a bit of character drama, and while it doesn’t quite reach the same level of memorability as that show Love Live! ended up being a bit more engaging than I initially expected.

Idols have been a pretty big thing in Japan for a few decades, but it seems like this has been amplified in the anime industry over the past few years. Not only are there now a considerable amount of voice actors and actresses performing in bands and contributing to opening and ending themes on a regular basis, but anime specifically about idols has been on the rise. Love Live! is the first one I have seen, although it is focused specifically on the world of school idols. The story revolves around three girls, Honoka, Umi, and Kotori, who attend Otonokizaka Academy which is on the verge of closing due to a significant decline in the student population and prospective students. Honoka loves the school and doesn’t want to see it close, and after seeing some of the most famous school idols on a big screen TV near one of the more popular academies she decides that the three of them should form an idol group. Naturally none of them has ever done anything that involves coordinated singing and dancing so it takes a good deal of training to get their group together. After the initial couple episodes, the storyline focuses on their idol group μ’s (muse) as they add more members.

Unlike K-On! which had a fairly small main cast and a handful of secondary characters, Love Live! has nine girls in the main cast. It takes a decent amount of episodes for the entire group to come together, though the additional characters are introduced before they actually join μ’s so it isn’t like they are simply thrown in out of left field. However, since there are only thirteen episodes the primary focus remains on Honoka, Umi, and Kotori and the rest of the cast doesn’t get that fully developed. Considering that a second season has already been announced I am hoping that this is an issue that will get addressed with additional episodes, but compared to some of the other lighthearted anime of this type I felt like the character personalities weren’t in depth enough to make them truly distinguishable. They were all fairly likeable and did start to have some unique quirks by the end, but for the first five or six episodes there wasn’t a whole lot personality wise that really gave this series a unique feel and it seemed a lot more reliant on the musical numbers.

To give a quick rundown of the cast, I think it’s easiest to split them by age as that’s how they are introduced in the show itself. Honoka, Umi, and Kotori are second year students and are essentially the leaders of μ’s. Honoka’s the energetic, outgoing type that seems to rush headfirst into situations without thinking them out, Umi’s the shy, easily embarrassed girl that is also the voice of reason, and Kotori’s a bit of an airhead. The next batch to be introduced is all first years, and this brings the tsundere light Maki who is extremely skilled at the piano but doesn’t like to acknowledge it, the extremely shy Hanayo, and tomboyish Rin. Finally, third year students are added into the mix with school council members Eri and Nozomi and Nico. Eri’s the most obvious tsundere as she is secretly interested in being an idol but hides her feelings for most of the early episodes, and Nozomi is a shrine priestess who likes to do fortune telling. She also has a tendency to grope all the other girls when they’re feeling depressed or are distracted, and I think she was my favorite character just because she didn’t fit into any of the stereotypical roles that are common for slice of life and comedy/drama anime of this type. Nico’s kind of the odd one out, as she likes to imitate the cute, outgoing personality of idols but is actually a bit bossy. I did like all of the characters by the time I finished the 13 episodes, but you can probably tell by the aforementioned descriptions that a lot of them sound quite similar to the character types that have appeared in just about every other anime that’s in the same mix of genres as Love Live! What this series needs is more moments that really make the viewer connect with a particular girl and leaves them with a lasting impression.

The tone of Love Live! changes pretty significantly from one half of the series to the other. Based on the first episode or two, I thought I was getting a lighthearted comedy with a lot of musical numbers that was similar to K-On! Where Love Live! differs is in the way the idol group actually fails early on and stays determined to keep going, and I was quite pleased to see that it wasn’t just letting them succeed in everything to go towards the “cute girls being cute” route. The balance of comedy and serious training to become idols works well, but a little after the halfway point the drama gets upped significantly and there are quite a few moments where it seems like the writers are trying to put together some tear jerkers. While there was nothing wrong with shifting over to a more serious direction, it doesn’t work as well as the lighthearted comedy because of the underdeveloped characters and found myself wanting them to get back to the musical numbers and comedic elements towards the end. This first season sometimes felt like it wasn’t completely sure of its identity and just what type of series it wanted to be, and I hope that the sequel addresses this.

Sunrise used a mix of traditional animation and CG, which is most noticeable during the performances. Love Live! is a very eye catching series, as everything is bright and colorful and all of the characters have the cuteness factor that helps anime like this attract a fan base. The animation seemed consistent throughout the series, but the one thing that bothered me was that the CG seemed a bit too awkward. I’m not entirely sure how Sunrise put the scenes together, but whenever the girls are dancing on-stage and the viewpoint shifts to the side their movements seem awkward and I felt like I was looking at animatronics or video game models. I felt a disconnect between these scenes and the rest of the series, as the transition over to the CG just didn’t feel completely natural and it became a distraction during the performances. Some of the other reviews I’ve seen have praised the idol sequences so perhaps this is just my personal taste, but it continued to be a minor annoyance all the way through.

Considering that Love Live! is based almost entirely around music, it is crucial for it to have strong voice work and catchy musical numbers. This is the one area where it succeeded on every front, as not only are the voice actresses well suited for their respective characters but they also have strong singing voices. In the past if an anime featured a song within the series a voice actor or actress might be replaced by a singer for that scene, but here you can tell that the respective actress is also the one singing. Each of the songs (including the opening and ending) are upbeat J-pop and quite a few of them are likely to get stuck in your head by the time you’ve finished watching. Sunrise definitely seems to have put together a good deal of voice and singing talent for this project, and viewers who enjoy J-pop are likely to get more out of this show.

I like Love Live! School Idol Project but I don’t love it, as it nailed the musical and performance elements of school idols but didn’t go into enough depth with its characters. This first season is missing that instantly charming and memorable feel that made anime like K-On! become some of my favorites, but with further development down the road there is still room for Love Live! to reach that level. It’s definitely above average though, and I did enjoy the time I spent watching μ’s try and save their school. Season two is scheduled to start airing in April, and my hope is that Sunrise will really flesh things out a bit more and help the storyline and characters reach their full potential.

Love Live! School Idol Project is streaming on Hulu and Crunchyroll

http://nisamerica.com/index.php?nav=a
http://www.hulu.com/love-live-school-idol-project
http://www.crunchyroll.com/love-live-school-idol-project

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