Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 5th 2013
Love Live! School idol project
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Otonokizaka High School is going under. Plagued by low registration, the venerable girls' school declares that it will stop accepting new students and shut down completely when the current freshman class graduates in three years. Upbeat oddball Honoka is deeply saddened by the news. Her family has attended Otonokizaka for generations and she loves the old school. Never one to let impossibilities stand in her way, she decides to singlehandedly save the day. The plan comes to her when she visits a popular school with a thriving school idol club. Student idols are popular. If her school had an idol group, it would be more popular. If it was more popular, registration would go up. If registration goes up, the school is saved. Bingo! All she has to do is create a successful, nationally famous school idol club and all will be well! So she ropes best friends Umi and Kotori into her new project and is on her way. Just one little problem: becoming famous idols is hard.
A word about idols. Idols are everywhere these days. Idols compete at prestigious idol schools in Aikatsu!. They fight alien beasties in Symphogear, save fairytale worlds in Lilpri, resist galactic fascists in AKB0048, and have precious slice-of-life adventures in The Idol Master. They even get transformed into blobby pet-things in PUCHIM@S. They are, in short, an omnipresent blight upon the earth. A glittery, short-skirted, cutesy-gesturing, synchro-dancing blight. Every time another sugary show about girls aspiring to be grossly artificial, sadly ephemeral pop puppets comes out you want Joan Jett to crush your TV with a guitar. Shows about idols don't benefit from being about idols; they have to succeed in spite of it.
Which is why it's so remarkable that Love Live! is the enjoyable confection it is. Perhaps it doesn't climb the heights that truly superior shows do, but because it starts at negative altitudes the climb is in some ways more impressive.
At its heart, Love Live! is your basic underdog-makes-good school comedy. It's sugary and optimistic and as predictable as the tides. The endangered school, the group of friends out to save it, the training, the improvement, the accretion of comrades until the team is complete… We haven't yet gotten to the part where the scrappy team of newcomers must face opponents more experienced and skilled than them, triumphing (or barely losing) on heart alone, but it's coming. Or at the very least, we'd be shocked if it didn't. And if those opponents weren't from UTX, the school that gave Honoka her idea in the first place.
The show can be pretty weak as it chugs through all the requisite developments. The episodes built around the acquisition of new members—namely episodes four and five—are amiable fluff of a most disposable sort, while episode six, designed to celebrate the newly enlarged club's rapport, chokes on the girls' stilted camaraderie. All three episodes share the same base cause for their weaknesses: the girls just haven't the depth to carry an episode on their own—as episodes four and five ask of timid fan Hanayo and contrary idol researcher Niko, respectively—nor the texture and strength of personality to work up really good group chemistry. They're all embodiments of certain basic character types (the sensible girl, the sweet girl, the spunky leader, the tsundere prodigy, the mothering meddler) and the show makes no real effort to have them relate in interesting ways.
And yet for every bad move Love Live! makes, it tends to make one or two surprisingly good ones. Honoka's family for instance, which is colorful and fun and surprisingly realistic in its we-don't-have-to-be-nice-to-care warmth. It's a family that could actually produce someone as odd yet well-balanced as Honoka. The show also addresses idol culture in more or less precisely the right way. It freely acknowledges the culture's excesses—the fun it has taking potshots at the artificiality of idol personas (via idol purist Niko) borders on the unholy—and it doesn't shy away from the less glamorous aspects of the life. Honoka and her partners spend a lot of time running up and down stairs and doing pushups in addition to their more traditional dancing and singing practice. As they point out, dancing through a concert is as much about stamina as skill.
If you're looking for a single overriding reason why Love Live! works, however, you need to look to rookie director Takahiko Kyōgoku. Kyōgoku is a director who trusts the power of visuals. So much of Love Live!'s charm is purely visual. The cast is hugely cute, but in a strangely subtle kind of way: as much tied up in the oft-humorous way they move, and in the expressiveness of their eyes and faces, as in the raw attractiveness of their designs. Though that's not to be sniffed at either. Kyōgoku's attention to shape, proportion, and articulation makes the girls sometimes uncomfortably attractive. Not to be outdone, their school is a gorgeous old thing, radiating a kind of stately, understated grace that makes the girls' affection for it easy to understand.
And Kyōgoku marshals his visuals just as skillfully as Sunrise illustrates them. Beautifully animated character goofiness, mild but well-timed jokes, a light touch with tone, and a difficult-to-describe facility for humorous editing all contribute to a style that is sprightly and fun yet not weightless or frivolous. Episodes just flow well, passing effortlessly without sacrificing impact. Sometimes he lets an episode sag, or turns a dance-number creepy with ill-considered 3D animation, but sometimes too he brings everything together—design and editing, music and pacing, visual rhythm and narrative flow—for a moment of purest perfection. The heart of the first episode is probably the best such example, when he turns the simple act of flipping through a picture album into a wordless upwelling of love, sadness, respect and nostalgia that reaches right into you and squeezes 'til it aches. At those moments you really look forward to his future.
Tomonori Nakamura's score, for the record, is a standard-issue thing more remarkable for its sensitive use than its objective quality. And the idol-pop songs are about what you'd expect: upbeat, nondescript and synthesized to within an inch of their lives.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Well-directed and consistently fun. Takes a slightly more realistic approach to idol groups. Hits you right in the heart every once in a while.
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