Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Love Live! School Idol Project
Sub.Blu-Ray - Season 1 [Premium Edition]
High school second-year Honoka is distraught when she learns her school is on the verge of closure, but she's not going to take this sitting down. No, Honoka's going to do the only reasonable thing she can - create a school idol group in the hopes of drumming up attendance and saving the school. Her plan may be ridiculous, but her energy is beyond question, and that energy may end up dragging any number of girls into her school idol dream. Will Honoka and her friends be able to overcome a hostile student council, untrusting idol club president, and all manner of other hurdles to come? DO IDOLS HAVE BIG DREAMS?
Idols are unstoppable these days. Their economic might is legend, a heavy fist of show sales that crushes all else underfoot. Their shows prompt sequels and then movies, their songs filling theaters and echoing from smartphone speakers. Their shimmering eyes stare out from addictive rhythm game screens, the pursuit of rare cards and special event bonuses making slaves of us all. Love Live! arrives at the head of a rumbling idol train, the vanguard of a force fueled by Shining Hearts and soaring dreams. The idols may yet destroy us all, but for now, Love Live! is as convincing a missionary as they could ask for. These idols are pretty great.
Love Live! exists in a charmingly ridiculous (or perhaps soon to arrive) world where school idols are trend-setting icons, and even have the power to save struggling educational institutions. Their power is what inspires our protagonist Honoka, who in the first episode learns that her school is soon to be shuttered due to a lack of new applicants. Energized first by her fear of having to reapply to a new school, and then by general school spirit, she convinces her best friends Umi and Kotori to join her, and together they set off on an adventure towards fame and fortune, gathering new idolmates and admirers along the way. By the end, Honoka and her full idol team of Umi, Kotori, Hanayo, Rin, Maki, Nico, Eli, and Nozomi stand together, ready to take on the high school idol world.
In spite of the absurd nature of the plot, Love Live! absolutely nails its narrative fundamentals. For the show's first two thirds, time is split between the immediate trials of becoming idols and the small character conflicts that erupt from each new member of their group. With an eventual core cast of nine idols to get through, it'd be easy for Love Live! to come off as either busy or disjointed, but the show manages its conflicts and characters with expert grace. The cast members are all relatively simple, but most of them bring something unique to the team, both in their personality and their talents (one songwriter, two idol experts, one ballet dancer, etc). Almost none of Love Live!'s characters are simply there.
Friendships between the cast build naturally as the conflicts that keep each new member from joining the group are resolved, and those personal conflicts are tied in turn to issues like creating an original song, finding places to practice, or becoming sanctioned by the school. The way the show focuses on each new character as their moment arrives helps in ensuring each member feels meaningful, like an earned friend who pulls their weight in the overall dynamic. Not all the characters shine (in spite of the show's multiple attempts to give her a personality, Kotori is still largely “likes Alpacas” by the end), but they perform their jobs well, and certainly give the audience plenty of endearing girls to relate to. The show's plot is routine and dramatic moments saccharine (outside of a few standout moments, like the group's brilliantly composed first performance), but just like for the idols themselves, the earnest craft and hard work on display are the hard sell.
Equally key in Love Live!'s early success is its standout visual direction. Scenes are set from dynamic angles, the inter-scene cuts are energetic and often creative (Nozomi slams down a set of books on top of a previous scene, Eli shuts a door on another), and the dynamic direction really aids in both elevating the show's humor and making it feel more like a living world than a stage play. Scenes are almost never shot to minimize the necessity for new frames - the camera's angle will shift consistently throughout for the sake of emotional effect. The show also has a great variety of silly faces to accompany its crisp character designs - everyone's extremely emotive, and characters pop off the screen. And scenes don't ever rely on pure silliness - the show's ear for comedic and visual timing means virtually no scene drags, no joke is overplayed, and no line is extended that could be cut short for self-effacing comic effect. Finally, the show's use of lighting is also quite effective, with dramatic scenes being sharply lit through excellent use of spotlights, soft lines, or heavy shadow. Not only does Love Live! look like a top-tier production, its polish is consistently used to effective dramatic purpose, keeping energy high even as the show runs through fairly obvious dramatic material.
Love Live!'s traditional animation is also impressive, though unfortunately the CG integration used in the idol performances leaves a lot to be desired. The show attempts to jump between closeup moments of traditional animation and mid-distance CG shots during the performances, and it's always a jarring shift - the CG characters lack grace or personality in their movements (which is partially a credit to how good the normal animation/design is), and the moments feel separated from the usual world, like we've cut to a sound stage. Hopefully CG anime characters will eventually reach a point where they don't look like lifeless, terrifying mannequins, but we're not there yet, and what should be some of Love Live!'s most triumphant moments suffer as a result.
On the music side, Love Live! displays equal confidence in its big performances and everyday material. The idol songs are uniformly catchy earworm material, backed by simple synths and acting as a showcase for all the characters' diverse voices. The non-idol material is even better, as the show's control of incidental music does great work in elevating the humor, drama, and even self-awareness of the show's storytelling. Many of the show's jokes rely heavily on classic pratfall-style piano progressions, the score shifts gracefully between guitar, horns, percussion, and piano, and moments of heavy drama are never oversold by the music - in fact, some of the show's best moments are elevated through the judicious use of dramatic silence. Love Live! generally presents a polished, cohesive front - plot, character, visual direction, and music all work together to make its humor sting and drama soar.
The show unfortunately stumbles in its last third, once the entire team is assembled and their immediate conflicts have been resolved. Without enough runtime to include the titular Love Live! school idol tournament, the show treads water with smaller conflicts, leaning on character relationships and drama injections that both fail to consistently engage and sometimes move into contrived territory. Love Live! is at its best when it's juggling several high-energy conflicts at once, and by both narrowing the focus and dampening the mood, the show shoots itself in the foot after an opening segment that displayed a real gift for narrative grace. But that certainly doesn't do anything to diminish the earlier material, and doesn't cripple the show overall - and even within that weak stretch, there's still plenty of good material that helps enrich the various character relationships. The few missteps in serious drama only highlight how well the show normally transitions between light drama, comedy, and almost musical-esque theatricality. Even if it sometimes falters, there's a combination of earnest joy and practiced execution in virtually everything this show does that makes it impossible to dislike.
Love Live! comes in a beautiful and defiantly shelf-unfriendly cardboard box, which includes the show on two discs and a hardcover Love Live! journal. The journal has bios for all the characters, small interviews with each of their voice actresses, a rundown of all the episodes, and plenty of screenshots and bonus images. There are no on-disc extras, but this is still a very lovely collection. Overall, in spite of its last-act slump and questionable CG animation, Love Live! is still an excellent show, demonstrating great aesthetics that elevate a simple but expertly told story of school idols and the love lives they live.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Expert direction and storytelling elevate its tried-and-true narrative; smart pacing keeps energy high and comedy crisp; great music both on and off stage.
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