Tuesday 27 September 2016

Anime REVIEW: Love Live! Sunshine!!

Love Live! Sunshine!!

When you've created a juggernaut like Love Live! School Idol Project, you can't just end things when your idols retire. Although μ's seem just as popular as ever, their time in the spotlight is over as a new idol group takes to the stage in sequel series Love Live! Sunshine!!. Once again animated by Sunrise in a joint project with ASCII Media Works and Lantis, this new series takes place sometime after Honoka and co have gone their separate ways, paving the road for a swarm of prospective idols in the titular tournament. Forget about μ's, now comes the time of Aqours.

Aqours arise!

In the beach side city of Numazu, Shizuoka lives Chika Takami – a girl who’s always considered herself nothing but ordinary. But after viewing μ's winning performance at the Love Live tournament, she is inspired to start her own school idol group and follow in their footsteps. Initially starting the group with her best friend You Watanabe, they are soon joined by Otonokizaka transfer student Riko Sakurauchi and first years Yoshiko Tsushima, Hanamaru Kunikida and Ruby Kurosawa. Though initially facing opposition from Ruby’s third year sister and student council president Dia, the six eventually become nine as Dia joins with her classmates Kanan Matsuura and Mari Ohara.

Naming their group ‘Aqours’, the wannabe idols quickly learn that aiming towards the Love Live has become much tougher since μ's rise to fame. As well as learning of the third years’ own failed attempt at school idoldom, Aqours also have to deal with the threat of their own school’s closure and discovering how they should break away from their predecessors and forge their own path. 

Chika encounters the music of μ's
Never (letting you) forget.

It’s undeniable that following on from Love Live! School Idol Project is a pretty daunting prospect. The show and its characters took fans by storm in a way unseen for a quite a while in the world of idol anime, firmly planting itself as a fan favourite on both sides of the pond over the past few years. Sunshine may bare the Love Live! name, but this isn’t a continuation – it’s an all-new story with an-all-new cast. That’s true in theory anyway, as Sunshine is determined to make sure no one forgets about μ's anytime soon. From the parallels between the two groups, the constant referencing and posters obnoxiously plastering Chika’s bedroom wall, the show never lets μ's out of sight. Plotting a story around a new band trying to live up to their predecessors makes for a good premise in theory, but Sunshine goes for it in a way that’s so heavy-handed that almost every key event has to link back to μ's in some way. Even when this leads to similar scenes being delightfully subverted (such as Aqours’ first performance, or Chika’s glee at the prospect of her school being shut down), the show’s insistence to draw as many parallels as possible can feel overbearing. Eventually this progresses in Aqours trying to break away from all of this, but by the time they’ve realised this there’s barely any time left to take it forward. 

Aqours take to the stage for the first time
This all looks very familiar...

However much like the original’s first season the actual Love Live event doesn’t play an especially big part in the show – once again portrayed as an end goal that will undoubtedly be brought up when the show rolls around for a second season. Instead there's a far bigger focus on getting all nine members together, and it rather fittingly isn't until the ninth episode that we finally get a full group musical number (opening notwithstanding of course). Despite starting out like a carbon copy of μ's going head to head with the school council president Sunshine's version of events unfolds into something far more interesting and developed - as we discover a more detailed backstory for the third years and their previous experiences as school idols. There's also the usual episodes where members feel unsure of themselves and the like, but the conflict doesn't feel anywhere near as forced as it did by the end of Love Live!'s first season. It also feels far more realistic, with Aqours having a far tougher time of things than μ's did when it comes to exposure and performance. It's a lot to get into 13 episodes, which means other elements like the introduction of rival idol duo Saint Snow (presumably posed to be Sunshine's equivalent of A-RISE) feel rushed and don't really go anywhere. For the time being anyway.

Saint Snow
(Insert rival here)

It's a shame that the overall story progression often lets Sunshine down, because it really has a lot going for it in terms of cast. Nine main characters means there's a lot of space for different personalities, and enough variety for everyone to find a 'best girl' among the group (mine is Dia for the record, with Ruby in close second). However verbal ticks and general quirks have been amped up considerably, which can quickly become grating over time. Mari's boob grabbing and over the top Engrish outbursts are the biggest offender, and as fun as Yoshiko's delusional outbursts as the fallen angel "Yohane" can be they can also fall as flat as a poorly timed "Nico-nico-ni". In the usual "first three members take priority" fashion Chika, You and Riko are the ones that take centre stage, but everyone gets some sort of development or moments to ingrain themselves. Even the largely dull Kanan plays a big part in the third years' backstory.

One thing Sunshine DOES definitely have over the original though is the visuals. Although the divisive CGI numbers may still be around here they’re considerably better, offering smoother choreography and less obtrusive character models. Outside of these the show’s beach setting is the heart of its aesthetic charm, offering summery visuals and bright colours that help both the show and viewer alike maintain a feel-good atmosphere when the drama isn’t getting too heavy. However musically things are a little more problematic for Aqours - although as a unit Aqours come across far superior to μ's vocally, the songs simply aren’t as memorable and are far more fleeting. Other than the show’s incredible opening (entitled 'Aozora Jumping Heart') the songs don’t offer a lasting impression, their insertion clashing with the narrative and in some cases feeling like a stitched on musical number (a problem not unique to Sunshine, but present nonetheless). When flashback footage of μ's 'START:DASH!!' has more emotional resonance than the characters’ own songs, that’s a real problem. 

Dia & Ruby
Best girls

Sadly Love Live! Sunshine!! isn’t as good as the original, but it’s far from simply a case of Aqours being inferior to μ's. In fact if anything the series showed that they have the potential to be even better than their predecessors, providing they’re allowed the opportunity to properly step out of their shadows. But by the time they were given this chance, the show was pretty much over. Love Live! Sunshine!! is a fun series that has built up its cast well, but an unhealthy preoccupation with what has come before means they’ll need the inevitable second season to truly shine.

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