The Secret of Love Live's Success

by Nick Creamer,

So recently I've been thinking about a question I get from time to time: “what's the deal with Love Live!?”

It's not a surprising question. I'm normally a person who gravitates towards really personal character dramas, or thematically heavy shows - my favorites are generally shows like The Eccentric Family, or Bakemonogatari. So why, then, am I such a fan of this goofy idol show with silly characters and lots of pratfalls? Even among idol shows, it doesn't really have the thematic bite of Shōnen Hollywood, or the total aesthetic splendor of The [email protected]. What actually makes Love Live! work?

In the end, Love Live!'s appeal can broadly be summed up as “fun things are fun.” And yes, I know that's not very helpful. “Fun” isn't some ephemeral quality that can't be scrutinized or explained - fun things are fun for actual, meaningful reasons. But I think framing Love Live! as a show that generates fun is important, because I feel fun is often minimized as a valuable goal that demands just as much technical excellence as any other. So let's dive into the nitty-gritty specifics of what makes Love Live!'s fun work, starting with the show's overall personality: that dorky friend you can't help but like.

Love Live! is a Lovable Dork

Love Live! is absolutely aware it is very silly. The original show was about a group of nine teenagers who saved their school by becoming idols, and Sunshine actually has the gall to repeat that exact conflict, except with protagonist Chika now excitedly declaring that this is cool, because it will let them be like the original cast. It's saccharine and full of moments of True Friendship, and conflicts are regularly solved either through wacky capers or the magic of song. All of that stuff is the dorky, cheesy core of the series.

And that, once again, is not a bad thing. Love Live!'s dorkiness, or more precisely its embrace of camp, is a legitimate strength of the franchise. From JoJo's Bizarre Adventure to many shows that take themselves far more seriously, there is an element of camp inherent in the majority of anime. Using giant robots to solve either emotional or geopolitical conflicts is silly, but we love it. Giving names to your sword attacks or discovering the real monster was us all along is cheesy, but still charming and often dramatically effective. Many anime try to deny their inherent camp factor through grim aesthetics or shocking plot twists, demanding they be taken seriously… but more often than not, this really just highlights the disconnect between their attempted affectation and their true nature, much like chuunibyou idol Yohane calling for dark spirits while she stands on top of her high school desk.

Love Live! doesn't mess around with stuff like that - it embraces the camp. Its characters are overtly silly, and often made the butt of small running jokes. Its drama is often corny, and so the music supports this by laying on the schmalzy strings. Its overt, immediate conflicts are constantly undercut by great jokes of framing, either through background characters sighing at the stars' antics (Hanamaru is generally more concerned with snacks than drama), or the other members of their school laughingly cheering them on. u's and Aqours efforts are often treated like the determined activities of a silly pet, in a way that somewhat evokes how K-ON's stars were seen as goofy mascots by the rest of their school.

Of course, a show that was simply saying “haha, look how silly this story is” from an outside perspective would just be mean-spirited and likely tedious. But even though it may seem contradictory, Love Live! matches its constant balloon-popping goofiness with extreme sincerity.

The closest parallel for Love Live!'s dramatic style is probably found outside of anime, in musical theater. Musical theater is over-the-top and often silly, but it also believes in its characters. Like much of anime, the vehicle through which musical theater conveys its characters and drama - song and dance - is inherently heightened, potentially goofy, and obviously far from how human beings actually interact. But having to translate human drama through an unnatural conduit happens to be something we humans are very good at; we can see the emotional truth even in dramatic events festooned with all manner of convoluted stylistic trappings.

The link between Love Live!'s heightened dramatic style and musical theater is actually underlined in the show's second season, which opens with the cast literally singing through the plot of the first season as they dance through their school. Love Live! is not afraid to be silly, and because of that, it often comes across as more genuine than self-consciously serious shows. Its drama may be ridiculous, but its characters believe in what they're doing, and their energy is absolutely infectious.

Before moving on, I should clarify that Love Live!'s drama largely being goofy doesn't mean it's totally ineffective in an emotional sense. Frankly, the show's early attempts at serious drama were one of the show's weakest points, because they leaned so far away from what the show is actually good at, but Love Live! is actually capable of pulling together a surprisingly effective character vignette when it wants to. And Sunshine has significantly improved this issue, partially because in comparison to the original's Honoka (who was such a powerful protagonist she could literally yell the clouds away), Chika comes across as an extremely vulnerable and relatable group leader. It is very easy to care about these characters.

But that's enough about dramatic style. Let's get into aesthetic nonsense!

Love Live! is the Whole Package

One of the things that makes Love Live! difficult to sell is that it's much less about individual hooks than it is about the overall effect. Many anime are enjoyable specifically for their art, or their characters, or their dialogue. Many shows surprise you with cool plot twists, or present an inherently compelling universe to explore. There's generally at least one “single thing” you can point to that makes one of your favorites stick out.

With Love Live!, it feels like avoiding that “single thing” is actually part of the point. Love Live!'s scenes uniformly prioritize dialogue, visuals, and music all working in tandem, so that either jokes or dramatic turns are felt in every way a show can make you feel (like in the shot below, where Dia's antagonism is matched by dramatic strings and the wind actually blowing the other characters backwards). Love Live! is a remarkably, surprisingly holistic production.

The way this is most clear is likely its musical score. Instead of relying on a consistent, separately composed stable of songs, Love Live! generally uses small orchestral flourishes that match the drama itself. These tricks range from classics like the “DUN DUN DUN DUN” strings timed to match a dramatic twist (a trick that again leans into the show's gleeful camp), to the smarmy horns that accompany slapstick or conversational jokes. And when the cast actually perform, it's almost always staged as a great dramatic peak. Love Live!'s performances aren't necessarily the show's best moments, but they still offer strong dramatic punctuation to the episodes' various conflicts.

Love Live!'s direction is similarly dedicated to active, spunky motion. The show generally avoids leaning into the flat, mid-distance shots that define many sitcom-like series; instead, shots are generally framed to set up visual jokes even as the characters are talking about other things. Scenes are visually driven by the needs of jokes and drama, and the show is actually willing to twist its visual execution into entirely new genres when necessary.

Sunshine's third year stars offer possibly the strongest example of how seriously Love Live! takes its holistic approach. While most of Sunshine's scenes adopt a similarly upbeat and comedy-oriented perspective, the sequences involving the third years exist in a different genre entirely. Those characters seem like they're playing out a hardboiled crime drama or tragic romance that just happens to occupy the same town as Chika and her friends' adventures. From the music to the dialogue to the melodramatic framing, everything works together to sell a specific tonal space - and though this is more dramatically portrayed in the third year scenes, it is equally true of the rest of the show's material.

The show's aesthetic execution doesn't just aim for “polish,” it aims for being an active participant in the show's fundamental storytelling. The director and composer are as much members of the gang as anyone else. And speaking of being part of the gang...

Love Live! Belongs to All of Us

Perhaps the last major pole of Love Live!'s appeal is that it basically encourages audience participation. The show is refreshingly free of many of the tropes that can make anime less appealing to broader audiences (otaku self-awareness, perverted male leads, etc), but that doesn't mean it ignores the presence of its own specific audience. Love Live!'s character-vignette structure actively encourages picking favorites, and its framing even offers nods to fans who'd like to pair up its characters. This pairing instinct is maybe most clear in the evolving framing of Nico and Maki - from general sorta-antagonists in the first season, the two transition to moments like “Nico and Maki's potato marriage” in the second, and conclude with Nico getting hilariously jealous about Maki being stolen away in the movie.

There's an ambiguity in that choice, of course. Framing girls as potentially romantically paired without offering in-universe acknowledgment plays into a safe fantasy of fetishized gay romance that's endemic in anime, and is not the same as true representation. But Love Live!'s potential failing there is a failing of the industry at large, and that its fan-facing pairings are kept in a safe ambiguity does not prevent many fans from finding personal meaning in those relationships. Narrative confirmation aside, Love Live!'s characters consistently build meaningful relationships with each other in all of the language mainstream anime can provide.

And beyond their general appeal in terms of everybody loving romance, the ways Love Live! plays with its character relationships is also just funny and endearing. The first series' second season offered poignant context for characters like Nico and Nozomi, and in the second, characters like Hanamaru are fully defined as people before they start leaning into their sillier quirks. The show leans into specific relationships in ways that feel perfectly natural; Hanamaru and Yohane develop a rapport based on their prior friendship, while Kanan and Mari basically drench the show in their overwhelming feelings. The ways Love Live! indulges fan drama are core enough to its style that they actually feel like an entertaining key segment of the whole. And the fact that Love Live!'s “fiction” even extends beyond the show, to stuff like the many small dramas of the Love Live! mobile game, all help to encourage a social and interpretive personal relationship with what the show offers.

And that social relationship is likely the last piece of the puzzle. Love Live! is an entertaining experience on its own, but it's even more fun when shared with friends. The show is silly and joyful and well-constructed and deeply endearing, and the way it brings fans together is a laudable act of communal celebration. Love Live! is exactly the kind of goofy entertainment it wants to be. Sometimes fun things are fun.

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