Love Live! Sunshine!! and Improved CG

Animating nine girls dancing onstage is hard work. It’s why the Love Live! anime usually reserves 2D animation for moments with three girls or less, and has 3DCG do the grunt work when showing the entire ensemble. One consequence of this is that, throughout the original Love Live! anime’s run (as well as the music videos made prior to the anime), the transition to 2D and 3D would look fairly awkward. However, what I’ve noticed from the first and especially the second season Love Live! Sunshine!! is that its CG portions are a lot better at removing the kind of “plastic” feel from the characters.

While I think the CG has just generally gotten higher in quality, making the models just look better overall, one major change I noticed that I think goes an extra long way in smoothing the switch between 2D and 3D is how the eyes are portrayed. In the 2D sequences, the girls’ eyes have a kind of soft glow that gives them an appearance of liveliness, of soul and depth. In the two Love Live! openings, when the CG switches occur, their expressions just look much blander, as if they’re puppets in the shape of the characters. With Love Live! Sunshine!!, the girls of Aqours have very pronounced and bright eyes even in the CG portions of their performances. In the second Sunshine!! season, the performance scenes keep the angles of backgrounds more consistent to make the transitions much less jarring.

This reminds me of a talk I went to at Japan Society in New York City, where anime writer Sato Dai (Eureka Seven, Battle Spirits) was giving a presentation on 3DCG in anime. One of the things he mentioned was that capturing “kawaii” in 3DCG was a major step in its implementation in Japanese animation, and I think we’re seeing the fruits of it. If the appeal of characters approaches appealing to the inner feelings of its viewers, then having eyes that appear to reciprocate emotionally would serve that direction quite well.

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Love Live! Sunshine!! and the Complexities of Anime Tourism

Love Live! Sunshine!! Real Escape Game in Numazu

Love Live! Sunshine!! is a media-mix property whose purpose, apart from pushing its stars and profiting from a match of anime fandom and idol fandom, is to promote tourism to the region around the city of Numazu in Japan. What I find fascinating about its approach, however, is that it not only encourages people to visit Numazu, but also reflects and tries to address many of the problems facing Japan in terms of the link between sustaining population, community, and business.

There are three main issues brought up in terms of population in Japan in recent years. First, and the one that gets the most attention, is declining birth rates. Whether it’s “herbivore males” or the difficult choice many women have to make between starting a family and having a career, theories abound as to why fewer Japanese people are having children. Second is the post-3.11 decline in tourism; a nuclear meltdown scares off not just international visitors, but those from within Japan as well. Third, and perhaps the most familiar to people around the world, is people moving out of rural areas into urban ones, leaving the old towns a shadow of their former selves with little new blood coming in.

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The ways in which anime have been used in response to these problems are myriad. Famously, the popularity of the anime Lucky Star led to people visiting the very shrine featured in the show, Washinomiya Shrine. The first Love Live! School Idol Project anime had a similar effect on Kanda Myoujin Shrine in Akihabara, where the character Nozomi works. But there are also anime which try to show the splendor of Japan whether directly or not. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Flying Witch was made into an anime a few years after 3.11 when Japan was trying to revive tourism to the affected Tohoku region. Taking place in Aomori (a prefecture in Tokyo), Flying Witch features lovingly crafted shots of picturesque landscapes as if to say, “This area is lush with life.” The studio P.A. Works used the series Hanasaku Iroha to create the fictional “Bonbori Festival” and then bring it into the real world. Their more recent work, Sakura Quest, is an anime explicitly about trying to deal with a declining population in a small town through tourism and promotion.

Official Love Live! Wish Board from Kanda Myoujin Shrine

Love Live! Sunshine!! takes place in the small town of Uchiura, near Numazu. Much like the first franchise, the main characters’ school is threatened with closure due to declining attendance rates. The girls, inspired by the group known as μ’s (from the original Love Live!) attempt to replicate the latter group’s success in saving their own school, and form their own idol group called “Aqours.” Already, it’s clear how Love Live! Sunshine!! touches upon issues of population movement and tourism, but it’s especially notable when comparing the series to its predecessor.

Consider where the two properties take place. The μ’s girls of the original Love Live! are centered around Akihabara, which is both the spiritual center of otaku in Japan and, as a result, already a popular tourist destination. The Aqours girls of Love Live! Sunshine!!, on the other hand, are situated near Numazu, which has a population of under 200,000 as well as a recent history of absorbing nearby towns—a major plot point in Sakura Quest and a potential future for Uchiura. Unlike Akihabara, Numazu is hardly world-famous. And yet, if Love Live! had started differently—if it had decided to go with Numazu from the start—then I don’t think it would’ve reached its original success. Much like AKB48, it relied on the notoriety of Akihabara to build itself up, and is now paying it forward, in a certain sense. Love Live! used tourism, and now tourism is using Love Live!

Love Live! Sunshine!! can be seen as another arm of the “Cool Japan” concept, which uses Japan’s fame as a symbol of cultures both traditional and popular to promote itself at home and abroad. It appears to be succeeding, at least in the short term. In fact, over at Apartment 507 where I also write, one of the most popular posts is a guide to visiting Numazu. But as Gundam director and Anime Tourism Association chairperson Tomino Yoshiyuki has warned, short term success is not enough; permanent change is necessary, even if it’s to come from anime. The fact that Love Live! went from being supported by pop culture to being a pop cultural influence that can potentially make a change is a big deal, and I’m curious to see if this experiment has any long-term impact that goes beyond the cute idols of Aqours.

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[APT507] School Idols vs. Pro Idols: The Hints of Sobering Reality in Love Live!

Something that’s stuck with me for a long time is the distinction that Love Live! makes between idols and school idols. I find that it hints at the harshness of the idol industry, though in a very, very indirect way. I wrote a short article on it over at Apartment 507, if you’re curious.

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[APT507] The Canon of Kanan: Love Live! Sunshine!! Character Controversy

I wrote a followup to my previous Apartment 507 post on Love Live! Sunshine!! character Matsuura Kanan. It goes into the character’s differences across various formats, and my own disconnect from other aspects of Love Live! fandom.

[APT507] How Love Live! Sunshine!!’s Least Popular Character Rocketed to #1

I wrote a bit about the change in fan opinion over Love Live! Sunshine!! character Matsuura Kanan over at Apartment 507. I know she became one of my favorite characters by the time I finished the anime, but did you find your impressions changing as well?

Good Idol/Wise Sister: Dia, Ruby, and Notions of Ideal Japanese Women in Love Live! Sunshine!!

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Following up my character spotlight articles for the girls of Love Live!, I’ve written a post analyzing Dia and Ruby from Love Live! Sunshine!! and their relationships with the concept of the “ideal Japanese woman.” Spoiler alert: It can be hard to be the perfect wife when men seem to barely exist in the world of Love Live!

Media vs. Mix: A Journey Through Love Live! Sunshine!!

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NOTE: Spoilers for Love Live!, Love Live! The School Idol Movie, and Love Live! Sunshine!!

When I first watched the original Love Live! anime, I approached it with a healthy dose of skepticism. I may have enjoyed certain idol anime, but I’m not terribly fond of the concept of idols itself, and so premise alone isn’t enough. In the end, though, Love Live! won me over with a surprisingly solid presentation that emphasized both characters and narrative, along with what I found to be rather clever humor. Many months later, I now walk around with a Love Live! phone case.

So when Love Live! Sunshine!! was announced, and with it a set of new primary characters in the form of school idol group “Aqours,” it presented me with something of a conundrum. I’m now a fan of Love Live!, but I didn’t want to give the sequel a free pass. On the other hand, I also didn’t want to judge the series too harshly, scrutinizing it unfairly for not living up to the lofty heights of its predecessor. I still don’t know if I hit the right balance, but it was a situation I was consciously aware of.

Because the main way I experienced the first Love Live! was through its anime, I decided that this would be my entry point into Love Live! Sunshine!! as well. However, the Love Live! Sunshine!! itself didn’t make it easy. Character profiles came out months prior, each with detailed information and self-introductions. A trip to Japan and its otaku goods stores made it even clearer: pick your favorite, and devote yourself to her greatness. But I couldn’t! Descriptions alone are not enough to endear me to any character. I need to experience them interacting with each other. Otherwise, they become flat entities floating in a space of simple desire. That’s all well and good, but not how I decide who to root for.

Nevertheless, from what little I gleaned (and with a nudge from fate thanks to a random shikishi signboard), I went into the show curious about two characters. The first was Kurosawa Dia, the student council president and someone who, according to her profile, revels in the idea of competition and achieving total domination in any endeavor. In a way, she has a very fighting game community-esque “play to win” mentality. The second was Ohara Mari, by virtue of being half-Italian American (thus making me imagine her talking like people I meet on the streets of New York City), and because she enjoys industrial metal.

Then the anime debuted. It was finally time to see how these characters behave when fleshed out and moving. But as the characters and their world opened up, and I got to see things like Watanabe You’s cute-but-odd obsession with uniforms and chuunibyou Tsushima (Yohane) Yoshiko’s antics, I noticed something. For both Dia and Mari, elements of their stated personalities existed, but the show only hinted at bits and pieces of it. Their “true selves” were, to a certain extent, hidden behind the plot. For example, while early on Dia shows that she secretly loves μ’s (the original girls of Love Live!) by basically acting as a fandom gatekeeper against main heroine Takami Chika, that love of victory doesn’t really shine through. There was no trace of Mari’s fondness for industrial metal, either.

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What I found was a disconnect between the initial profiles provided and the characters as they were presented in the anime, partially because the anime focuses on how the group came together in the first place, instead of having them already assembled as the official character descriptions assume. Granted, it was possible to see how that gap might get bridged, and it also created the opportunity to find new favorites within the anime (like athletic third-year and diver Matsuura Kanan!), but I had to wonder if I had sabotaged myself by just getting too much information, instead of sitting back and waiting for the anime.

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Another minor problem came with the fact that μ’s are essentially considered legends of the school idol world by the time of Love Live! Sunshine!! Their status is almost divine to many of the characters in the show, and while the story develops to show how the girls of Aqours embrace and then move forward from their love of μ’s, it also made me aware that, even as I am the biggest fan of Love Live! whole thing among my own circle of friends, my experience with Love Live! is not to the degree of its most ardent supporters. When I appeared on a podcast about Love Live! The School Idol Movie, my fellow guest Bamboo Dong talked about how she and others in the theater cried as the film reached its conclusion. People like them, the fans who are literally moved to tears, at seeing μ’s ride off into the sunset, are the ones who the girls of Love Live! Sunshine!! resemble. That isn’t me.

One of the results of these conflicts was that it became a bit more difficult to view the characters as being charmingly realistic, which is one of the qualities that drew me into Love Live! in the first place. At first, I thought their appeal lied in their being a little more extreme and bombastic. A lot of this feeling was extremely subjective, of course. You could ask anyone who’s watched both to say which characters they think feel more “real,” and you’d surely get disagreements even within a single franchise iteration. For me, it has to do with how characters resonate and reflect the life I see around me. Koizumi Hanayo is still the best, in part due to the fact that her enormous appetite and the way she can go from shy to intense when on the subject of her passions (rice and idols) is something I empathize with immensely. The divisive nature of Yazawa Nico comes from her being a little too real. I know someone who’s just like Sonoda Umi.

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In spite of that mildly rocky start, and the fact that it is lacking in Hanayo, Love Live! Sunshine!! can count me as a fan. As the show progresses, you get to see Chika face the hurdle that is the dedication of competing school idols. You learn about the past that ties the third-year characters of Dia, Mari, and Kanan together. Friendships are challenged and made stronger, fun is had all around, and they for the most part end up as well-conceived characters who are each sure to attract people who love them to death. A cynical side of me could point to this being the franchise itself playing people like a fiddle, but I think the series makes a convincing enough presentation that even a discerning eye can become a fan of, say, Hanamaru’s speech quirks and “man out of a cave” experience with technology.

What perhaps impresses me the most about Love Live! Sunshine!! is how it handles the inevitable comparisons to the first series. In this regard, the ending of the first season of Love Live! Sunshine!! says it best. Much of the show is about Aqours trying to find its identity, its reason for being. While μ’s was conceived from Day 1 as a way to save their own school, and this eventually becomes a plot point in Love Live! Sunshine!! too, Chika is at first just all about being a μ’s fan. It’s not until the last concert in the final episode that the primary distinguishing feature of Aqours becomes clear, and it’s best to describe it in comparison to both μ’s and the original “boss characters” of the first Love Live! anime, A-RISE.

A-RISE was the #1 school idol group, and by the second season the reigning champions. They were dedicated to being the best they could possibly be, striving for the top and whatever heights lie beyond that. Saint Snow, Aqours’ own rivals, are of a similar mindset. μ’s was all about capturing the spirit of the zeitgeist of their time in high school as school idols, and letting such passion remain fleeting and thus all the stronger. Aqours, in contrast, is about showing love for their community, school idols as a means to share how great it is to live in a city with a fairly small population that is nevertheless full of good people.

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Honoka and the other original Love Live! girls worked to save their school, but there was no need to show the appeal of the already-famous Akihabara. When Chika calls all of her classmates and everyone’s families to get near the stage and cheer for their climactic performance on-stage, it comes with the knowledge that doing so is against the rules. She literally sabotages her chances to progress in the Love Live! preliminaries because it is less important than getting the audience to see the great people who go to Uranohoshi High School and live in Numazu. Ironically, the actual “Love Live!” competition in Love Live! Sunshine!! takes a backseat.

My time with Love Live! Sunshine!! has been, while perhaps not an unusual one broadly speaking, somewhat strange compared to my other experiences with other anime and media franchises. Nevertheless, it’s definitely been worthwhile. Now that the pieces are in place and the girls of Love Live! Sunshine!! are all together, I’m looking forward to seeing Dia wreck some scrubs.

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