Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Love Live! Sunshine!!
Season One BD/DVD
Chika Takami has never possessed any quality that made her special - nothing unique to her, nothing to make her shine as anything more than an ordinary high school girl. But when a trip to Tokyo introduces Chika to the music of u's, she feels inspired to form her own idol group, and discover something beautiful in her own far-away town. Gathering a collection of unlikely fellow students, Chika will fight to find her own special something, that intangible quality that elevates us beyond our everyday lives. Chika is determined to shine, and she'll do whatever it takes to succeed on this dazzling new stage.
How do you follow up a megahit? After the first season of Love Live! turned into a sales juggernaut, Sunrise initially followed it with a second season that was essentially “Love Live!, but moreso.” Love Live!'s sequel doubled down on both the madcap comedy and unabashed melodrama that defined the first season, resulting in an often hilarious but also deeply unbalanced and far too self-impressed production. Love Live!'s reverence for its own success ultimately became a bit of an albatross for the show, resulting in a last act that wasted full episodes in lamenting just how sad it was that Love Live! was ending. After the final victory lap of the Love Live! film, the franchise underwent a sort of generational reset with Sunshine, presumably offering a new platform for all of the strengths and none of the baggage the show had gathered over the years. So how does Sunshine actually fare?
Well, it does okay. Sunshine's premise is a close echo of the original Love Live!, focusing on a starry-eyed orange-haired girl who dreams of becoming an idol. Our heroine Chika Takami feels insecure about her own mundane life, and after seeing Honoka and the other members of u's shining at the second Love Live!, she decides becoming a school idol will be her own route to stardom. Over the course of these episodes, Chika gathers unlikely fellow idols, ultimately assembling a crew of nine stars to compete in the next Love Live! tournament. Eventually the girls learn that their school is in jeopardy of closing, and thus it once again falls to these scrappy idols to promote the school they love. Songs are sung, friendships are forged, and everyone has a generally cheerful time.
The first thing you'll probably notice about that description is that it is pretty much note-for-note the same plot as the original show's. A show like Love Live!, whose appeal is more centered in its characters, comedy, and music, doesn't necessarily need a totally fresh plot, but the familiarity of Sunshine's story beats does chafe from time to time. And on top of the overt plot mapping up so exactly, Sunshine regrettably maintains a fair amount of the indulgent self-reverence that made the original series' second season drag. Sunshine is burdened with far too many callbacks and shoutouts to the original series, often struggling to find its own identity.
The good news is, “being burdened by the radiance of the original cast and struggling to find our own identity” is actually a compelling plot point within the series itself. Where Sunshine succeeds over the original Love Live! is in its articulation of genuinely imperfect people, people lacking the irrepressible power of someone like the original's Honoka. Unlike Honoka, Chika is driven by a feeling of deep personal insecurity, and struggles with her self-image throughout this season. Additionally, while the operatic melodrama of this group's third year trio can often feel a little out of place with the rest of the show, it's actually well-executed melodrama, and succeeds both as over-the-top comedy and genuine character drama. Sunshine manages to find relatable nuance and emotional substance in its characters' trials, propelling their adventures to a more emotionally resonant tier of storytelling than the original series.
Of course, Love Live!'s principal strengths tend to apply mostly to its comedy, and Sunshine doesn't disappoint there, either. Love Live! has always possessed a keen eye for visual comedy, elevating canned sitcom gags through great expressions, clever compositions, and generally active camerawork. While the exodus of original series director Takahiko Kyōgoku (who'd later go on to canonize his visual brilliance through the exemplary Land of the Lustrous) certainly hurts, Kazuo Sakai does a fine job of living up to his legacy. Sunshine is full of charming character quirks, clever comedy beats, and standout visual sequences, maintaining a consistent flow of inventive jokes from start to finish. My one complaint on the comedy front would be this season's increased reliance on repetitive character gags; while a character like Nico Yazawa could express her silliness in a wide range of ways, characters like Yohane and Hanamaru often feel constrained by their central gimmicks. That said, watching Hanamaru furiously munch on snacks during every crisis meeting got me laughing every time, so perhaps there's something to that choice after all.
Outside of the visual comedy beats, Sunshine's aesthetics remain relatively true to the Love Live! style sheet. The show's characters have a clear homogeneity of design, but in motion, all of them express themselves through distinct character acting that sets every single lead apart. The show's background designs are more clean and precise than beautiful, but Sunshine still occasionally rises to moments of visual splendor, and makes great use of Chika's picturesque home town. Additionally, the show's CG dance models have improved significantly over the original series. The show's dance segments still aren't an active highlight of the production, but they no longer feel like an unfortunate constraint, either - with Sunshine season one, Love Live!'s CG has officially surpassed “distractingly bad.” The music likewise maintains the show's unexpected balance, with the actual idol songs coming off as fairly routine, but the active backing tracks that facilitate the comedy keep things energetic through the show's everyday scenes.
Love Live! Sunshine!! comes in a fairly standard release, with a slipcase and blu-ray case housing the show on both DVD and bluray. The extras are relatively restrained, limited to a few promotional videos and commercials, along with the textless opening song and a full show dub.
Sunshine's dub is an altogether reasonable production, headlined by the energetic and extremely Chika-appropriate Jad Saxton. Apphia Yu's You feels like a somewhat odder choice, as her soft tone doesn't necessarily match the boisterousness of Shuka Saitō's original take. The rest of the leads all feel like reasonable interpretations of their original tones, and I was particularly impressed by how Sarah Weidenheft managed to match the squeakiness of Ruby's personality without going into grating, faux-childlike territory. Like with the original Love Live!, the loose adaptive script works well for a show like this, matching the natural banter of the original without sacrificing any meaningful intent (though Hanamaru's “zuras” making it through intact do feel a bit stranger divorced from their dialectical context). And also like the original, the abrupt jump between english conversational voices and Japanese songs never really gets easier; it's an awkward fact of the genre that will pretty much always present a slight speed bump.
Ultimately, Sunshine's greatest strength may be its fragility. There's a sense of real desperation to Chika's struggles with her identity, and no certainty she and her friends will actually succeed. That fragility grants an emotional weight to Sunshine that often elevates it above its predecessor, in spite of its own issues with narrative familiarity and character writing and all else that drags it down. Love Live! may be too in love with itself, but when it constructs moments like Hanamura being inspired by Rin's own hard-fought confidence from the first series, that franchise reverence seems like a natural consequence. Simultaneously too similar and extremely different, suffering many of the same failings but rising to its own dramatic heights, Sunshine is ultimately a rewarding show and a fine followup for the Love Live! franchise.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Maintains the unique comedic charm of the original series, bolstered by welcome emotional vulnerability
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