|Somewhere, Captain Ginyu cries a tear of joy...|
This part is "Season 1, First Half" and it will cover the first 6 episodes of Love Live! Season 1. I used a similar "break up" review approach with Angel Beats!, Sola, and True Tears in the past. So hopefully this will work with LL! as well. But there will be one key difference...
The difference is that I will go episode by episode, involving screenshots and brief commentary, on all the episodes of Love Live. This is to tightly tie together a tale that I think is not as fully appreciated as it probably deserves to be.
Love Live's colorful personalities are made much more explosive by literally colorful visuals, which paves a yellow brick road to lovely lighthearted comedy and flawless moe in order to create something that many modern anime fans will find very easy to love and appreciate at a purely surface level. And there's nothing wrong with that. Fun is a good thing unto itself, and a piece of entertainment that is harmless and fun is something worth celebrating regardless of other factors.
At the same time, it is good when what we watch or play can inspire us to think more deeply about ourselves, and the world around us. And, as laughable an idea as some may find this, I think that Love Live! succeeds in doing just that. Let me explain why as we begin this adventurous sight-seeing review through Love Live! Season 1...
"Wha...? Why are you starting with this screenshot, Triple R?!"
Because this is a symbolically critical moment. The first one in this episode, and hence in the series as a whole, in which a door is opened between reality and fantasy.
UTX High School is a towering structure, reflecting modernity itself. Also reflecting modernity is the jumbotron. The jumbotron is, I think, one of the greatest and most telling devices of our time. It reflects the commercialism and pop culture of our age. Athletes, music stars, Hollywood actors, pro wrestlers, and numerous company logos, are all made larger than life when showcased on the jumbotron.
And on this jumbotron, we see the music stars A-Rise - living a life that blends modern reality with a fantastical fame that is the stuff that dreams are made of. UTX High School, and its A-Rise, represents the might and hopes and dreams of the modern world. It stands in stark contrast to the pressing problems plaguing Honoka Kousaka's school, as we learned about earlier in this episode.
By being able to represent both dream and reality, A-Rise is able to bring them together in a way that fully engages the hopeful imagination. So there is inspiration there, inspiration superbly represented in the very name of this group - ARISE! That is the challenge to Honoka. The challenge to arise, to not give in, to not let her school fade into obscurity.
Here it should be said that the "save our school!" plot of Love Live!, simplistic and child-like it may seem, is nonetheless reflective of serious darker realities in actual Japan. Japan is a country facing considerable demographic challenges, as Japan's Lost Decade of the 90s has continued on to seem endless, leaving the country enduring a powerful sense of ennui.
So Love Live! should not be seen, I think, has just a fun-filled flight of fancy, an amusing distraction on a relaxing afternoon. No, I think it speaks deeply and directly to the real challenges of modern Japan. Honoka is faced with one of the more likely side-effects of those challenges - Schools closing down. A-Rise represents a far-off dream, perhaps reflecting the cultural residue of Japan's rise in the 80s. A-Rise is just realistic enough to keep hope alive, but nonetheless far enough away to represent a great fantasy challenge and inspiration to Honoka.
One of the more wonderful things about Love Live! is its ability to seamlessly fuse comedy with meaning, and in a way distinct from simple standard satire. Even while μ's is ever sincere and earnest in what it's driving for, its members are nonetheless able to notice the more amusing and silly side of that. It makes me think of a pro wrestler that is serious about his profession and being a great performer for the crowd, but also recognizes the inherent comedy and lampoon value of that profession. This does not undermine "school idols", but rather strengthens them. It takes a sense of security to poke fun at yourself like this, while still being entirely comfortable being yourself, in your own skin.
That is one of the greatest charms of the μ's girls in general. They have hopes and dreams and goals that truly matter to them, but they don't take themselves too seriously.
The original trio of "Land, Sea, and Air" - i.e. Honoka, Umi, and Kotori - make for a good parallel to A-Rise. And in Episode 2, we see them and their new school idol group in its infancy stage, full of potential but with a very long way's to go. In this hopeful zeal, the original trio meets the ideal challenge in the person of Eli Ayase.
Eli serves an an antagonistic foil to Honoka in the early going, reflected in how the OP chooses to frame them together. Eli is an excellent counter-point to Honoka - the constant reminder of harsh reality getting into the face of Honoka's far off dream. And Honoka, to her credit, does take Eli's words seriously.
So when Honoka soldiers on it really is soldiering on. For all its lightheartedness and comedy, Love Live! never loses sight of that. Especially in...
And so here we Honoka tested - truly tested - by the fearsome reality of what she is really up against.
The screenshot above is, I think, a great reflection of what this means to Honoka, and to her friends, especially Kotori. Kotori is looking over to Honoka, and you can see the deep concern and caring and intensity in Kotori's eye. Kotori is looking to help Honoka, but also longing for leadership from Honoka.
"How will Honoka take this?" is a question that hangs uneasily in the air, even if it isn't stated out loud.
So this is a critical moment. A moment that I'm sure many actors, artists, athletes, and musicians can relate to. Do you let early defeats destroy you, and crush you? Or do you overcome them, and push on?
Love Live! is honest enough to recognize that even emotionally strong people need that glimmer of hope in the darkest of hours, and so Honoka is pulled back from the brink of defeat by Hanayo arriving to watch the μ's live peformance.
But logically, Hanayo is just one person. As an audience member, she is the proverbial first step of a thousand miles. And the antagonist Eli Ayase shows up to remind Honoka, and us viewers as well, of that important point.
μ's had its emotional victory during this dark hour, but Eli shows up to remind Honoka and the viewers that this victory alone is certainly not enough. μ's must grow from here, it can't stay here, for if it does not grow, it will die.
Honoka responds with impressive force and resolve to Eli, but talk alone is cheap. Will Honoka be able to walk the walk? But before Honoka can walk the walk...
...Maki must tumble the tumble. ;)
Love Live! has an excellent sense of balance. Balance between reality and fantasy. Balance between realism and optimism. Balance between goals and dreams. But it's most important balance, from an entertainment standpoint, is its balance between drama and comedy.
If Key's Jun Maeda is "Too Comedy!", and if AnoHana is "Too Drama!", then Love Live! is just right. Every episode has at least a bit of comedy in it, and almost every episode has at least a bit of drama in it. But beyond that, Love Live! always has a good sense of when it's time for an episode to be mostly drama or to be mostly comedy. And after the emotionally intense first 3 episodes, Love Live! wisely gives us a few episodes of mostly comedy, starting with this one.
And in so doing we get a better sense of the other major cast members. Their quirks and idiosyncrasies and character types add wonderful diversity and crisp crackling chemistry to Love Live! Maki's rich red hair and rich lifestyle makes for a nice addition to the Love Live! cast. While the duo of Hanayo and Rin adds an effortlessly cute friendship, and greater internal dynamics, to μ's.
Hanayo, Rin, and Maki are the stars of Episode 4, and they definitely don't disappoint. They add levity and diversity when it was needed most. With impressively creative pratfalls, and with voices that make me think of sweet and sour sauce, they amuse and delight while μ's doubles in size.
Episode 5 and 6
And then there is the ~Nico Nico Niiiii!
Further zealous zesty zaniness to add to an already amazingly amusing show. But this also has a more serious factor behind it.
In many ways, Love Live! is like a sports drama. It's just that the "sport" is "school idol".
And every good sports drama needs at least one character that is truly passionate about the sport itself. And here is where Nico is truly invaluable and indispensable to this show (though Hanayo helps in this area as well).
Nico is the school idol nerd, while wanting to be an idol herself. So here we have the one character, more than any other, that the otaku viewer can relate to and connect with.
The recruiting of Nico also makes for a very nice and comedic episode. As far as personality conflicts are concerned, Nico proves to be the toughest challenge to Honoka yet. With that in mind, "the μ's recruitment drive" of Episodes 4 through 8 do a great job of supporting the momentum and overall drive of Love Live! as a whole. Each recruit (or pair/trio of recruits) is tougher than the last, giving a sense of μ's and Honoka getting stronger through leaping over steadily growing hurdles. It's like a video game where each new level boss is tougher than the last, giving a greater sense of accomplishment with each new boss victory, and for when you "beat the game".
But after the Nico success, the μ's recruitment drive is briefly put on hold, in order to celebrate the successes to date. To step back, and take note of how far "we've" came. μ's makes regular stops (to smell the roses) along the journey of success, which I think makes this show easier to connect with, as I think that's how most people would be in their own personal drives for success.
Kotori, Honoka, and Umi display growing happiness and contentment here. They have now walked many steps down the long journey to their dream. And the source of that dream comes back into the picture with Nico's recruitment, given the "Idol Research Club" room that comes with her. After all, the source of that dream is right there on the wall, behind Kotori and Honoka and Umi.
With smooth skillful subtlety, the anime never lets you completely forget about them. They are celebrities in the wind, in the very air that Nico breaths.
Pamphlet promotion, short music video, jumbotron appearance to the fans, and poster on the wall. But that is all, so far. Love Live! does a masterful job of highlighting what a true celebrity is like to fans looking to follow in her or his footsteps. And so the dream is perceptible, but only in video and images. Far away distance is still there, but the image is close enough to rouse the imagination.
μ's continues to arise.
But not everybody at Otonokizaka Academy is amused by the singing bird of Kotori, the dancing plane of Umi, and the super-achievements of Honoka...
Like a classic villain, she jealously watches over the heroes from afar, in her earned and prestigious office, flanked by her right-hand man (or woman, in this case).
Tall, beautiful, logical, smart, proud, the leader of the student community. She is a great representation of rational doubt to challenge the boundless hope of her rival.
In Love Live! Season 1 Review Part 2, we will see what comes out of that rivalry's conclusion, and how it goes on to add much shape and meaning to a wondrously emotional resonant work.
Please join me, as a super idol challenges an intellectual leader.
8.5/10 for the first half of Love Live! Season 1