The Mike Toole Show
Love Live! The School Idol Column

by Mike Toole,

“You are awake and about to head to the theater, yes?” my wife, Prairie, texted me. I turned to the four women in front of me. “Hey, can I take your photo?” I asked. They quickly agreed. So I texted back this picture of (left to right) Starlightslk as Eli, Isisia as Umi, Princess Gigglesnort as Kotori, and Teragarm as Sailor Eli.

It may have been two hours prior to the movie's 1pm showtime, but I wasn't just rolling out of bed or getting myself cleaned up-- I was number six in line to see Love Live! The School Idol Movie, dammit.

If you've been reading my work for a while, you know that Love Live!, a vast entertainment franchise all about cute, plucky high school girls and their idol group-driven attempt to save their high school from closing, ain't exactly in my wheelhouse. I take a broad view of the anime medium, but my personal tastes lean towards serious science fiction and artful comedy. Still, I am part of Generation Robotech. (I say we toss out all of this Gen X/Gen Y/Millenniual nonsense in favor of Generation Speed Racer, Generation Robotech, and Generation Pokemon.) Robotech's bowdlerized take on Macross presented its character Minmay as a pop singer, but she was obviously an idol singer, something that was noticably a breed apart from a typical pop star, in spite of the changes. So the idea of idol singers, of utterly charming and ruthlessly marketed young performers who shine bright and burn quick, is something I'm pretty comfortable with.

Idol singers in anime is something of a tried and true approach, in fact. Macross used Minmay as a hook to get fans interested, but later productions like Idol Densetsu Eriko built the entire show around the singer, helping make the real-life performer a star in the process. The 90s would yield old favorites like the idol/magical girl hybrids Fancy Lala and Full Moon o Sagashite. But the first show I recall that really dug into the idea of breaking into performing as the story is something called Chance Pop Session. Rather than presenting performing as something surreal and almost magical, this series (which included none other than ADV Films, spending some of their Evangelion money, on the production committee) dished out a story about young girls trying to make it as pop idols.

Chance Pop Session struck me as forgettable, but it was definitely a harbinger of bigger things. One of those things was something called The Idolmaster. If you're not really into this stuff, you might know this video game/music/anime franchise as the thing that keeps making Kentarou Miura stop working on his decades-spanning opus Berserk. Productions like this one can really hook people, even big talents with famous creations of their own! Anyway, Idolmaster's hook is that the video game player character is a young entertainment producer, and his job is to turn a young idol singer into a superstar. This involves adroitly scheduling music lessons and public appearances, chiming in on musical and artistic decisions, and just being a friend and advocate to the girls. That's the idea, anyway. In practice, the video game is a series of addictive rhythm-based minigames. Unsurprisingly, video games soon led to anime, though while we in the west can go check out the alt-reality Idolmaster: Xenoglossia and comedic Puchimas, the original TV series is still off the radar, at least as far as a physical DVD release is concerned.

Love Live! is something that sprang forth from a collaboration between Sunrise, record label Lantis, and Dengeki G magazine. It was the magazine that really led the charge, actually, hooking readers with a combination of fun short stories about the characters, classy artwork by Yuhei Murota, and most tantalizingly, the ability for readers to vote on aspects of the story, music, and characters themselves. You might remember that the TV anime debuted in 2013, but Love Live!'s actually been a thing since 2010, when Dengeki G readers helped pick the name of this fictional idol group (μ's, pronounced “Muse,” which really makes me want to hear a Love Live version of “Starlight”), and even vote on which adorable character archetypes got to take center-stage and sing lead vocals during parts of the first set of singles. The first Love Live! animation, a music video set to the “Bokura no LIVE Kimito no LIFE” single, dropped in August of 2010.

But really, why did Love Live turn into the phenomenon it's become? I'd venture that it's all down to the characters. The nine girls that make up the main cast have some pretty obvious boilerplate traits-- nominal main character Honoka is cheerful but a bit overbearing, her buddy Kotori is kind of an airhead, Umi is the traditional Japanese lady, Maki is the rich girl, Rin is the tomboy, Hanayo is the fat kid (she's certainly not drawn that way, but she's really into food), Eli is the student council president, Nozomi is the weirdly-serene fortune teller, and Nico is trash.

Alright, I'm being unjustifiably mean to Nico. A lot of the fandom actually reinforces this negative image of one of μ's oldest and most dedicated members! Despite being sort of a pompous jerk, Nico's arguably the most fun character in Love Live-- she's the Dunning-Kruger Efffect in the form of an anime character, an obsessive idol nerd who's convinced she's going to be a huge star. Her raw musical talent is actually middling, though, and she considers her weirdly childlike features and image to be a drag on her 'career.' Still, Nico's spent more time than anyone else in the group studying stagecraft and performance, and is part of the engine that drives μ's.

Every other member of the group also has some deeper angle to their personality-- it keeps them from feeling boring and one-note. The appeal is only bolstered by the excellent character artwork, which has evolved in some interesting ways over the course of the franchise. Take a look-- on the left, there's Honoka from 2010. On the right, there's 2015 Honoka. Interesting progression, isn't it?

The TV series didn't arrive until 2013, long after μ's had established themselves with a chain of hit singles, and even a lavish live performance by the group's seiyuu. The seiyuu is another angle that keeps people interested in Love Live!-- the voice cast is made up of an interesting mix of established talents, like Umi's voice Suzuko Mimori, career-switching entertainment biz lifers like Rin's actress Riho Iida, and then performers like Nozomi's Aina Kusuda, a relatively unknown actress who was scrambling to get good roles before Love Live! took off. The show is well-crafted, delivering most of its performance set-pieces with heavy use of CG. Some traditionalists moan about this sort of thing, but I think that it's probably the only way you're going to get good-looking ensemble musical numbers in TV anime. It also makes sense given director Takahiko Kyogokμ's background-- he came up as a CG and visual effects artist.

Still, though: how did this series show up on my radar? Simple-- it gradually became impossible to ignore, largely because of the mobile game, which launched in 2013. The game is one of those freemium deals, where you can install and play for free, but stat-building goals and playing time can be extended and accelerated by buying the game's gems. It's a fairly simple but fiendishly addictive rhythm action game, driven by μ's songs, which you can also buy on iTunes. Diabolical, right? It was actually the fandom that really got my attention, though-- specifically, this piece of composite artwork, pasted together by a young man on twitter.

What you see above is an example of #ユニコラ or “uni-kora,” the simple practice of creating or photoshopping artwork of your favorite anime characters in your favorite team's sports jerseys. If you search the hashtag on twitter, you'll find a broad range of anime cutie-pies wearing the shirts of everyone from the Yakult Swallows to the San Antonio Spurs. The notion of an anime character wearing my favorite soccer team's jersey was too much to resist, though it was my wife who led the charge, first getting hooked on the game and then painting this.

Yes, that's a large canvas banner of Rin Hoshizora. Yes, that's hanging from the railing at Gillette Stadium. Yes, that's Revs striker and sometime US national team star Charlie Davies in the foreground, hoisting last year's conference final trophy. Images like this were soon picked up by the Japanese board Yaraon, where one user responded succinctly with “日本の恥” - “Japan's shame.” The team was great last year, and so we made the trip out to Los Angeles for MLS Cup, where, on the outskirts of Japan Town, we stumbled upon a small cosplay gathering that was just wrapping up. Guess who was there?!

This particular Rin wasn't sure why we wanted her to hold the scarf up, but she played along. That's the kind of nonsense that's kept us engaged since then, and it's the sort of thing that you'll see all across the globe, whether it's fans in Japan bickering cheerfully about the best colors of cyalume glowsticks to wave during certain songs (the only consensus seems to be that all sticks used during “Snow Halation” must be white) or English-speaking fans referring to Honoka as “Honkers.” This spirit was writ large at the Love Live! movie screening, where fans lined up for a good couple of hours, with more than 20 in cosplay. The giveaway item, a small imageboard featuring one of the girls, was eagerly shared and traded in the run-up to the film, and the audience spent the entire screening laughing, sighing, and applauding their heroines. I was right there with them, clapping along with the musical numbers.

But how was the movie, though? That's the thing-- it wasn't even that great. Now, let's be fair-- Love Live!'s appeal lies in its characters, not in its story. Anyone tuning in already knows that μ's are going to prevail in their quest to save the school and become the next school idol champs, they just want to get to know the characters and watch them overcome their own problems and play with the fluffy alpacas that the school is raising. But the movie, narratively, felt like two mini-movies-- the first involves the gang going to New York City, and while it's frequently pretty funny (I really wanted the girls to respond to a local hollering “Konnichiwa!” at them with a chant of “Weeaboo! Weeaboo!”), it's completely superfluous. The second half of the narrative is something of an exclamation point on the story-- there was closure at the end of the second TV series, but this brings the gang (and even their rivals!) back together for one great big performance before it's time to start thinking about college and going their separate ways. It's a nice spectacle, but it's really just repeating themes and ideas that we heard at the end of the second series.

So yeah, the Love Live! School Idol Movie was a bit middling, as a movie. But as an experience, it was this manic, hilarious, heartfelt celebration, not like anything I've ever experienced at a movie theater. I'll get the blu-ray, to try to recapture some of that magic, but I'm not sure it can be done. Going to the movies to see anime is always a valuable and fun experience, but this time was in a league of its own. One last note about the film: even moreso than the TV series, there are quite literally almost zero men present. Only a handful are visible in the background, only one gets to do anything (Honoka's dad), and there's pretty much no dialogue by men. On the one hand, this is kind of funny and strange; I idly wondered what super-virus had wiped out all men in Love Live's world. But on the other hand, it's liberating to the characters, who pass through restaurants and concert halls filled with women. They never talk about men, but instead about their own goals, dreams, and friendships. Like an idiot, I said to Prairie, “it's kind of odd that there are no men in this film…” She quickly responded “Welcome to watching every movie ever, if you're a woman!” She had me there.

Now, with the main story wrapped up, fans are starting to wonder: will the sixth μ's live performance be the final one? Will the characters 'retire,' and the mobile game's main storyline yield in favor of the brand-new Love Live Sunshine? They've had the spotlight for five years, after all. I don't think they're going anywhere, personally-- if my beloved Sakura Wars has taught me anything, it's that the show will go on just as long as the fans want it to. What still gets me about Love Live! is how insidiously it's constructed-- the mobile game drives sales of the music and anime, which drives people to the game, which tempts fans into buying character goods, which remind them to watch the anime, which drives them to buy figures, which…. it's the entire entertainment business in miniature. I'm not quite ready to be done with μ's-- I'm still chewing on the TV series, trying to gain a deeper understanding of the characters and really figure out who is best girl. Who do YOU think is best girl?!

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