The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club
How would you rate episode 1 of
Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club ?
What is this?
Nijigasaki High School is known for their diverse subjects and the freedom they give to students. Second-year student Yu Takasaki has been turned on to the charms of school idols, so she knocks on the door of the School Idol Club with her friend, Ayumu Uehara. Sometimes friends, sometimes rivals, the members of this club each contribute their own thoughts and motivations to the group.
How was the first episode?
Though I am certain that I've covered some iteration of this franchise before in one capacity or another, I honestly cannot recall what the past Love Live! seasons were like, so I could be completely off-base when I say that Nijigasaki High School Club seems to be bringing the production values up to a whole new level of sheen and sophistication. The character designs and animation for the majority of the episode are as clean and appealing as I would have expected from a top tier Sunrise production, but I was especially impressed by the incredibly well-integrated CG and creative set pieces that we got for the two major musical numbers. They basically amount to full-blown music videos, complete with complex choreography and scene transitions to fiery, fantastical dream worlds. Even taken entirely out of context, these sequences would be great fun to revisit.
Yu and Ayumu also make for perfectly likeable protagonists. The chemistry they share as friends is palpable, and Wikipedia tells me that the games these shows are based on are known for getting pretty overt with the gayness, which I hope is something that these adaptations retain — though, I've long since learned not to get my hopes up. Still, I could honestly see myself getting way more into shows like Love Live! if there was an honest-to-God, no-foolin' love story that anchored the usual “rise to stardom” narrative.
At the end of the day, though, I continue to struggle buying into these overly saccharine idol series no matter how well-made they are, even if they ought to perfectly pander to my inner theater geek. I sort of understand the appeal of treating these virtual pop personalities like “normal” teenagers in order to make them more relatable (even if, by the looks of their obscenely fancy digs, Nijigasaki High School is exclusively attended by the children of oil barons and international royalty). I just personally have very little buy-in to groups made up of interchangeable, generic anime girls; if you've seen one, you've seen them all, you know?
I'm more of a Gorillaz guy when it comes to cartoon bands; if we're talking idol anime, give me some loveable losers who don't know what they're doing, or a bunch of adorable zombies, or some kids trapped in an Utena-esque nightmare world. Me being a curmudgeon doesn't make this new season of Love Live! any less successful at what it is trying to do, though, and if I had to watch a full season of wealthy would-be pop star teens doing their thing, then Nijigasaki High School is probably the place to be.
If you told me eight years ago that the upcoming anime Love Live!, a show about a bunch of high school girls singing and dancing to save their school from closing down, would somehow spawn a decade-spanning, best-selling multimedia franchise that makes more money than god, I certainly wouldn't have believed you. I also wouldn't have believed that the series would become one of my all-time favorite comedies or that I'd be greatly anticipating its third anime installment. Yet here I am, once again ready to watch in rapt amusement as a new gaggle of anime girls just *clenches fist* love those lives.
Though it'd be inaccurate to say that Nijigasaki is identical to its predecessors. Indeed, where the defining aspect of Love Live! Sunshine!!'s premiere was its reverence for its preceding series, this new entry seems happy to just do its own thing, iterating on the now-standard Love Live! formula but not being as strictly beholden to the archetypes or storylines of what came before. There's still a bunch of girls who will all doubtlessly end up in frilly costumes singing their hearts out, but our central character Yu is decidedly more subdued than idol-loving demigoddess Honkers or idol-loving public menace Chika. Yu likes idols, certainly, but there's no sign yet that she wants to be one. Rather her role seems similar to the Producer characters in the [email protected] anime, though she's just a fledgling idol stan rather than a businessman. That dynamic seems pretty interesting, as it allows her a place in the other characters' narratives without having to make time for her own musical numbers, and strikes me as a pretty smart change to make for this series, which seems like it'll be focusing more on the characters as individual performers rather than an ensemble.
Speaking of the music, that's still here too. We get two numbers this episode, both of which mark a subtle but important shift in style from previous LL music moments. Where those series sought to craft semi-diegetic music videos with the full cast, both pieces we get here are solo performances that take on a form closer to traditional music videos. Ayumu's solo song is equal parts musical soliloquy and album visualizer, while we see Setsuna's street concert through Yu's perception as a larger than life, showstopping performance. It's yet another shift from the franchise formula, and for my tastes a good one. Most of the song sections of Love Live! slide off my brain once they're done, but both of these have stuck with me, especially Setsuna's belting stadium rock opener. It's still recognizably J-pop anisong material, but has some real backbone that the harmonizing cheerfests Love Live! is known for often lack. Also the once maligned CG dancing has gotten yet another upgrade, and is now something I'd call unequivocally great, which is a damn good sign for the rest of the show.
That's my biggest takeaway from this first episode of Nijigasaki. It's still Love Live!, still defined by the odd but endearing mix of calculated marketing and dopey sincerity, but it also feels like the franchise branching out from its own shadow to try at least nominally different approaches. We haven't gotten much from the extended cast so far, but what we've seen are decidedly less exaggerated than Sunshine!!'s gaggle of goofuses, and I'm very much looking forward to meeting these new kids. I doubt this new entry will win over any new folks, but dedicated Livers who don't already know these girls from the mobile game are very likely to find something to love here too.
I have only a passing familiarity with the Love Live! franchise, but based on the first episode of this new entry, you don't need anything deeper than that in order to understand and follow this series. It may use similar themes to earlier content but appears to be a standalone title, as I did not for a second feel lost on what was going on or who anyone was – at least beyond what would be expected of a series which has nine new girls to introduce, anyway.
This is partly a spinoff of a mobile game called Love Live! School Idol Festival ALL STARS, where Nijigasaki High School (which is clearly based in design on Tokyo Big Site) and three of the nine girls that will be the core troupe of this series debuted. Six others were added in later to round out the cast. While all of the girls at least have cameos in this episode, the initial focal point characters are Ayumu (who will be one of the idols) and her best friend Yu (who won't but will likely cheer her on from the sidelines). Both fall in love with a performance by Setsuna, a school idol for their school who does not actually seem to be well-known within the school. Clearly she's the stage identity of the student council president, who for some reason disbanded the School Idol Club after that performance; maybe because the other girls didn't show? Regardless, that sets in motion the crisis that is going to push Ayumu to reform the club, using a plot approach that has only been used about 10,000 times in anime to date.
Snark and lack of originality aside, the execution has a definite but balanced cute factor and a clear appeal. It also features two set piece performances – one by Setsuna and one by Ayumu – where the camera allows imaginations to run wild at the elaborateness of the set that could be backing them; if it wasn't for HYPNOSIS MIC, those displays would easily be the most lavish ones this season. The CG modeling of the movements in the performances are typical for current standards, but the performances themselves are a grade above; if that's really the singing voice of listed voice actress Tomori Kusunoki for Setsuna then she can really belt it out, and Ayumu's Aguri Ōnishi is better than average as well. Idol costume design also doesn't disappoint.
In the end it's still an idol show, but as those go, this one looks to be a solid entry.
Since I've never watched any Love Live! anime, played any of the games, or really taken part in any part of the massive franchise, I have little basis for comparison for this other than the general idol oeuvre, and the real-life idol industry. I admit, I tend to be pretty hard on idol series because I see the industry around them as restrictive, exploitative, and prescriptive when it comes to femininity and gender roles. The music always strikes me as bland, and even if I didn't, I'd have a hard time separating it from the idea of powerful record companies telling young women how to dress and behave in order to force them to conform to a particular image and turn them into products to be consumed.
While watching this premiere, I started to realize just how tidily Love Live! sidesteps those concerns with its school idol setup. By basing the group in a school club instead of a record label, the power structures that make the idol industry so rife with potential for abuse largely dissipate. There's no one telling the girls what to sing or how to dress or act; instead, they retain the power of self-determination and share their power within a more egalitarian, collective group. As Ayumu imagines herself in a music video, singing and dancing in cute clothes, she is starting down the road to self-actualization, not repressing her sense of self in order to adhere to an image.
But y'all knew that already, right?
What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that this is a pretty solid premiere and it shows some decent potential. The animation was quite nice, with appealing character designs and cute costume design (of course, since character appeal is pretty much the entire point of Love Live!), and even the CG dance numbers were unobtrusive and mixed in with some 2D animation to keep it from feeling sterile or uncanny. Though speaking of sterile, their school did feel more like a shopping mall to me than an actual school.
My main issue is that Ayumu and Yu are kind of bland. I understand they're meant to be an audience entry point to the presumably more colorful cast, but since that ensemble is yet to assemble, it made things drag at points. You can really only spend so much time watching two very normal teenagers talk and shop without getting a bit bored, so Ayumu's closing musical number was more a relief than anything else.
I'm undecided as to whether or not I'll really pursue this show, but I'm glad I gave it a chance. After all, it's better to have Love Lived and lost than to have never Love Lived before.
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