The Moment I Waited For: When Love Live! Sunshine!! Acknowledged Mari’s Love of Industrial Metal

One of the small but perhaps inevitable issues I’ve had with Love Live! Sunshine!! is the incongruity between the characters from one medium to the next. This is even noticeable when looking at different side stories in the School Idol Festival mobile game, where character behavior in the early ones are more subdued and safe compared to the later ones or the anime, as if the actors and writers were trying to feel out the characters. While I largely prefer the anime due to its overarching story and the chance for more character interaction, there was something missing from Love Live! Sunshine!! Ohara Mari’s official profile describes one of her interests as industrial metal, but the show made no reference to it at all.

Fortunately, that changed in Love Live! Sunshine!! season 2.

In an episode focused on the personality clash between the introverted first-years and the extroverted third-years, Mari’s music pops up as an illustrative gag. When they try to write a song together, they look for influence from the music they enjoy, and Mari plays a favorite from her collection that knocks the first-years off their feet. It’s not an entirely throwaway joke, but rather a way to emphasize their personality difference and increase the conflict of the episode.

Beyond the simple fact of it happening, I also enjoy the acknowledgement of Mari’s musical tastes because it brings into the world of Love Live! a very different music genre from what’s typically expected of a series focused on pop-y idol music. Love Live! as a franchise has some songs that go off the beaten track, like “After School Navigators” and “Suki desu ga suki desu ka?”, but they’re a rarity—much like men in their world.

Mari’s metal is actually one of many cases where season 2 of Love Live! Sunshine!! started to reflect the characters’ personalities from other mediums more, while also pushing those characters forward. Kanan seems specially serious in the first season because they had to develop the backstory of the third-years and it requires some tension between them. In the second season, she’s more balanced between jokey and stern, turning up one or the other when necessary. Similarly, Hanamaru’s personality has gone from shy bookworm to gluttonous memelord, and it feels like a natural progression because of how much she hangs out with Yoshiko. In a way, it’s fascinating to see a franchise find its feet over time, and I wouldn’t mind seeing another form of Love Live! go through this again.

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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.

Aikatsu Stars! and Nikaido Yuzu, the Ultimate Kouhai/Senpai

At first glance, Nikaido Yuzu in Aikatsu Stars! is not an especially unique character. She’s an energetic, bubbly character in a show filled with energetic and bubbly characters, in a genre (idol anime) conducive to energetic and bubbly characters. One or way or another, however, she comes to stand out over time, especially with the slight shift in her role between seasons from kouhai to senpai.

I previously wrote a little about how the heroine of Aikatsu Stars!, Nijino Yume, undergoes a similar transition. At the start of the series, Yume’s the new girl aiming for the top. By the time Season 2 rolls around, Yume’s at the apex as a member of the elite idol group S4. In contrast, Yuzu starts off already a part of S4, going from the youngest member to the oldest between seasons. But unlike Yume, who has to get used to being looked up to, Yuzu’s personality and approach to life transitions almost seamlessly.

To the former members of S4 who graduate, Yuzu is a bundle of youthful enthusiasm. But to the younger members of S4 who come in after her, Yuzu is an eccentric wise man of sorts, her decisions seemingly bizarre but ultimately with some underlying purpose or reasoning—even if Yuzu herself doesn’t quite know what that is herself. This balance is on display in episode 67 of Aikatsu Stars!, when Yuzu sets up an elaborate treasure hunt on Aikatsu Island.

Yuzu tells the participants, many of whom are her underclassmen, to find a treasure that’s so well hidden that even she can’t remember its true location. As one hint after another comes up to help the hunters along, there’s a certain sense that they’re not just clues, but philosophical ideas about what it means to live. In a twist straight out of “The Purloined Letter,” the actual treasure is revealed to have been disguised as an overly obvious giant treasure box-shaped prop at the very beginning, and the treasure within is…friends. Literally. Out of the enormous box comes the three former members of S4. In that moment, between S4 girls new and old, Yuzu is simultaneously the wide-eyed “kid” and the experienced “adult,” so to speak.

Compare this to Yazawa Nico from Love Live!, a character known for being older but acting younger. Nico’s cutesy behavior is meant to contradict the fact that she’s a third-year in high school, and lets her act as a foil to the young-but-mature Nishikino Maki. Yuzu, on the other hand, isn’t really a “contradiction”; she just “is.” Her actions and behavior fit, whether she’s dispensing advice or giving it, because they reflect a generally positive approach to life that’s all about excitement without being beholden to “newness.”

Aikatsu Stars! is generally a fairly lighthearted show bordering on the wacky, and Yuzu fits well within that universe. Energetic and bubbly she may be, but those are surface qualities that open up to a sense of loyalty and adventure, rendering her a unique figure. She’s the kind of character who could thrive in any degree of prominence, whether main, side, or even background figure.

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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.

Flying Witch

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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Normal Girls Ascend to the Throne: School Idol Festival Perfect DREAM Project

In the world of Love Live! and its “school idol” setting, there have traditionally been stars that shine brighter than others. This is by design—in the Love Live! School Idol Festival mobile game, for example, a sharp distinction is made between “rare” characters, i.e. those based on the main eighteen characters of the franchise, and “normal” characters used to level up your stronger cards. Over time, however, the “normal girls” have increasingly encroached on that hierarchical barrier. Their artwork on the cards has improved. They’ve received special gag comics dedicated solely to them. Now, thanks to Love Live! Perfect DREAM Project, a new School Idol Festival endeavor, three of the “Normals” have crossed over to become part of an actual school idol group.

The trio in question are Osaka Shizuku (a yamato nadeshiko type in the drama club, sixth from left), Emma (a Swiss exchange student, first from left), and Konoe Kanata (a perpetual sleepyhead, second from left). Along with six brand new characters, they’re receiving the star treatment: distinct profiles with blood types and ages, more extensive details on their backgrounds, and even voice actresses to play them. They even have a school to call their own, Nijigasaki Academy, instead of just being “students at your school!” in LLSiF. It’s a major step up for characters who started off as experience fodder.

A comparison to The iDOLM@STER Cinderella Girls is inevitable. Cinderella GIrls originally began as a mobile game that expanded the number of idols dramatically, but restricting their format to something more simplistic. Over time, certain characters gained popularity, and when the Cinderella Girls anime was made, a lot of them gained voices and more firm identities. However, a major difference is that all of the later iDOLM@STER characters that began in Cinderella Girls and on were designed to be someone’s favorite, instead of having the sharp distinction between “rare” and “normal.”

Perfect Dream Project seems to be a middle point between the older Love Live! philosophy and The iDOLM@STER‘s. It’s not as if all of the Normal Girls are getting upgraded immediately, after all. This could change over time (as is implied in the phrase “and more…”), but for now only three have reached the other side, as far we know. I have to wonder if they’ll end up in a similar position as the three main girls of the Cinderella Girls anime—aspiring idols who are being thrust into a new and exciting world.

One question I have is why Shizuku, Emma, and Kanata were chosen. I have nothing against them or any particularly strong opinion, but it’s just curious that these would be the first. My initial assumption is that they’re the most popular, but that’s not necessarily guaranteed either. Do they hit upon various elements that have not yet been emphasized in Love Live!? Perhaps the unqiue appeal of Emma that, while she’s of European descent like Eri and Mari, she isn’t half-Japanese and she isn’t blonde. Or maybe they’re directly trying to compete with Cinderella Girls. Kanata’s state of constant tiredness brings to mind the master of sloth, Anzu Futaba.

I find the potential future of Love Live! to be quite intriguing. At the same time, I wonder if going too far off their original formula might lead the franchise to lose its core appeal. Having a smaller core roster to work with has its benefits. As long as Love Live! doesn’t lose sight of itself, I think this will turn into a net positive.

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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.