In my estimation, Love Live! Superstar!! is the best Love Live! anime from a storytelling perspective. It doesn’t necessarily have my favorite characters, but what it brings is a sense of both personal and interpersonal development that feels satisfyingly cohesive and speaks to real worries that people have.
Superstar!! is the story of Shibuya Kanon, a girl who is a wonderful singer but is constantly held back by severe stage fright. Over the years, her optimism has waned, especially after she failed to get into Yuigaoka Academy’s prestigious music program due to freezing up during auditions. Resigned to enter its general curriculum instead, Kanon thinks singing will only ever be a private thing for her, but that all changes when she’s discovered by Tang Keke, a student from Shanghai. Keke loves school idols (essentially idols who act as mascots for their school), and she thinks Kanon would be perfect for it. However, not only does Shibuya feel that she simply doesn’t have it in her—the school itself forbids school idols as something that would drag down its reputation.
Kanon’s sense of defeat at the start of the series feels all too real, and it’s what makes the generally positive attitude of Superstar!! that much more poignant. Kanon stands out from past Love Live! heroines because her struggle reflects a genuine doubt that comes from believing she is physically and mentally unable to pursue her dreams. But thanks to the friendships fostered with Keke and the other eventual members of the group (not a spoiler because they all appear in the opening), as well as the way they help each other rise to the occasion, her gradual steps to overcoming her situation feel well earned.
All this applies to the other girls as well. Whether it’s Keke’s enthusiasm often running ahead of her ability, Arashi Chisato’s relationship with both dancing and her childhood friend in Kanon, Jeanna Sumire’s frustration with being a former child actor who always seemed destined to never shine, or Hazuki Ren’s conflict between upholding her family’s honor and her own desires, there are challenges each of them face that feel simple yet profound. The hope they give each other fights back against the fear in them, and helps them stand.
The fact that there are only five girls (instead of nine or more) also helps greatly with making the series feel more complete. Not only does it give more time for each character’s story to develop, but there’s a far better sense of how they complement one another. When you have nine-plus like Superstar!!’s predecessors, they often seem like well rounded groups just through sheer brute force. With a smaller main cast, their connections feel deeper without having to delve into ancillary material (drama CDs, etc.). It also results in what I think is the most robust cast overall—it’s hard to pick a definitive favorite, but I lean towards Keke.
Unlike Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club, which began with character designs more in line with the previous series and then given a different spin for its anime, the Superstar!! designs have been their own thing from the start. This gives this generation a somewhat different visual impression overall, and the animation does a great job of having both that idol sheen and a sense of the personal. The songs are standard idol/Love Live! fare but fun and uplifting, while the physical performances are portrayed incredibly well. They do an especially good job of showcasing Chisato’s superior dance skills compared to the rest of the cast.
Out of all the Love Live! anime, this is the one I would most readily recommend to people unfamiliar or wary of idols and idol-related media. The story of Kanon and the others feels like it exists a little beyond the parameters of idoldom, and thus more accessible while also just being really solid and beautiful overall. While this season ends well, there’s little doubt that a second season is coming. I can’t wait.