The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
Love Live! Superstar!!
How would you rate episode 1 of
Love Live! Superstar!! ?
What is this?
Yuigaoka Girls High School is a newly established school that lies between the Omotesando, Harajuku, and Aoyama neighborhoods of Tokyo. The story centers on its first batch of students. With no history, no upperclassmen or alumni, and no reputation, it is a school full of unknowns.
Five girls, among them Kanon Shibuya, have a fateful encounter with school idols. Kanon decides, "I love singing. I want to make something come true with song!" Many feelings converge upon a star that has only started to grow. The future is blank and full of possibility for these girls, and their story that everyone will make possible has only just begun. Soar with your wings, our Love Live!
How was the first episode?
My lifelong status as an unabashed theater nerd and musical geek is on the record, which is why I have always been frustrated with how rarely I'm able to get “in” to idol anime. With some exceptions (*cough* Zombie Land Saga *cough*), I've historically had trouble buying into the authenticity of the stories and the characters that so many of these idol anime focus on. This makes sense, since there's a distinct sheen of artificiality to the whole of idol culture that, at least to me, seems to be seen as a feature, and not a bug. It doesn't help that Japanese pop-idol music is maybe my least favorite genre of Japanese music in general. It all feels too samey to me, and the reliance on vocal archetypes means I have a hard time telling any of the innumerable idol groups apart (The one act I've been into in real life is Babymetal, and I'd be even more enthusiastic if one of these studios made, like, a Melt Banana idol anime, or something).
It might seem like I'm gearing up for yet another “James Just Doesn't Get Love Live!” hot take, but here's where I might end up surprising you (at least, those of you who didn't see the score at the top of the review, somehow): I really liked the premiere of Love Live! Superstar!! A lot of this comes down to Kanon, who immediately presents herself as a great protagonist for an idol anime. She's got a killer singing voice and a passion for music, but wouldn't you know that she literally collapses on stage whenever she has to perform for a crowd? And on top of that, the fancy new school she's attending, the Yuigaoka Girls' School, doesn't even allow idol groups. That means that when Kanon is repeatedly courted by Keke, the incredibly idol-obsessed exchange student that wants to get on stage and sing her heart out, it's nothing but an uphill battle. An uphill battle that will inevitably be won by the power of pop music videos and the power of friendship, no doubt, but a battle all the same!
Point being, there's just a little spark of conflict here that makes the premise more interesting to me, and Kanon is a delightful character to frame that conflict around. She's spunky, her sense of rubbery comedic timing is quite excellent, and she has the talent to make it to the big time, if only some of Keke's chutzpah could rub off on her, too. The production work from Studio Sunrise is also eye-catching as heck — the whole world looks like a watercolor painting half the time, and the character animation is first class. Plus, Love Live! has long been paving the way forward when it comes to making CGI performance scenes that don't completely suck. I'll admit that the more “Let's Put an Idol Club Together” focused half of the episode is where the show started to lose me, but I can still appreciate the craftsmanship of that final music video on a technical level.
Am I going to become a Love Live! convert that obsessively keeps up with the adventures of Kanon and Co.? Probably not. But if I was going to dive headfirst into the Love Live! canon-with-a-c, I think Superstar!! would be an ideal place to start, at least for me. All of you bona-fide LL! Out there will probably eat this up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and for the first time, I maybe, kind of, sort of, get it.
I've come to a realization. Love Live! premieres are always going to be hard for me to review because at the end of the day, no matter how good or bad they are, my reaction will be a simple shrug because I'm just not into Love Live!.
I can see what they're going for. There's a particular mood and atmosphere to them, with a gentle world that's almost Disney-esque in its lush art and characters with a tendency to break into musical numbers are diegetic no matter how implausible the sudden costume changes seem. It's a world where their struggles are real, but gentle and low-stakes enough that they can be resolved with a well-placed song and dance and just the right kind of determination. It's nice and chill and I can see why people like it, but it's just not for me.
In this case, the low-stakes conflict is that Kanon loves to sing, but her stage fright makes performing impossible and, after a botched admission, she's now in the general student population of Yuigaoka Private Girls' High School rather than in the music program. As she's wandering down the street singing, her classmate Keke Tang overhears her and decides to try to recruit her to form a school idol group. But since this is primarily a music school, most of the students are too busy or too snobby to want to join an idol group, including two girls who are very obviously going to join because they're featured in like every single promotional image and get a lot of airtime in the episode.
There's nothing wrong here and to be honest there's a lot that's done right, but it still completely fails to grab me. The companies behind it have managed to build a remarkably consistent brand, and if it works for you, it works; if it doesn't, they don't really care because they're too busy swimming in their pools full of money a la Scrooge McDuck.
It's very simple: if you like Love Live!, you'll like Superstar. If you're not into Love Live!, you'll probably feel very much the same way I do: completely neutral.
When I put this latest entry in the Love Live! franchise as my #1 with a bullet for the season's most anticipated, it wasn't (just) because of fondness for the IP. Rather, it was because director Takahiko Kyōgoku was making his long-awaited return to the series after departing when the original School Idol Project anime called it quits. I genuinely think he's one of the most underrated directors working in the industry right now, capable of effortlessly balancing madcap comedy and bleeding heart sentimentality like few others, and his presence made the second season of OG Love Live! one of my all-time favorite anime comedies. And as of this first episode, it seems like his skills have only gotten sharper in his absence.
Don't get me wrong, Nijigasaki was great and an interesting spinoff from the formula and tone established by previous series, but it was also set on being its own thing, and part of me always still craved that classic Love Live! goofy bullshit. Superstar!!'s premiere has that in spades, flitting at breakneck speed through a classic tale of an overly excitable orange-haired girl falling head over heels with the sparkly world of School Idols...and then flipping the script by having our central heroine Kanon faceplant her music school audition and spend the rest of the episode coping with depression through avoidance and snark.
See, while much of the rest of this premiere is the exact brand of wackiness I've come to expect from this property, it's that extra bit of depth to Kanon that has me seriously excited for where this series will go. Previous centers Honoka “Honkers” Kousaka and Chika “Menace to Society” Takami were forces of pure Idol-Lovin' energy that steamrolled the world around them into assembling an octet of fellow dancing idiots, but Kanon has just that bit of a hard edge to make her feel interesting as a person in her own right. It's actually Chinese transplant Keke who's head over heels for School Idols and running roughshod over the school to recruit members, with Kanon as the character who has to be convinced to give her dreams a second shot after getting burned. That, plus the decision to reduce the main idol group to five members, makes me hopeful that Superstar!! can pair the series' established comedic chops and over-the-top sentiment with stronger personal characterization, and has me waiting with bated breath for the rest of the season.
If there's one criticism I have of this premiere, it's that it's absolutely stuffed to the gills. There are comedic antics, callbacks to those comedic antics, funny faces galore, musical numbers, sentimental flashbacks, foreshadowing for future character beats – all wrapped in a bright and glossy bow. If that sounds like a blast to you, it will be, but it's so jam-packed and moves with such ceaseless energy that I can see it easily putting off people new to the franchise who might use this season as a jumping-on point. The story and characters are perfectly easy to follow without any prior Love Living experience, but coming this strong out of the gate could be intimidating or outright annoying to those not inoculated to its brand of heart-on-sleeve writing.
For me though, this was just a great time from start to finish, and has put the show well atop my watchlist for this lean summer season.
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