After their music video has gone viral, Aqours are invited to Tokyo, where they will be performing alongside other debuting school idol groups in preparation for the grand Love Live competition. Given that every single member has the attention span of a 3-year-old, however, things soon go haywire.
Continuing its longstanding ambition (or lack thereof) to be little more than an extended, overpriced advertisement for the original Love Live!, Sunshine!! takes its cast on a trip to Tokyo for an enjoyable episode of wacky shenanigans and constant reminders that a lot of said wacky shenanigans mirror the wacky shenanigans espoused by
Muse µ’s. It remains a baffling display of complete lack of confidence in Aqours’ power to stand on its own. Reminding viewers of the beloved show this new series is trying to replace is a bizarre way of generating goodwill, like butchering a healthy cash cow only to replace it with the scrawny runt in its litter. It’s unfair not only to the viewers who’re still wondering why they had to let Muse µ’s go for a bunch of suspiciously similar substitutes who themselves can’t seem to let go, but also to fans who did have hopes for a different take on the formula, but ended up with the exact same thing. Yet most unfair of all this slapdash approach is to the characters themselves, as this episode showed that they’re actually a pretty entertaining bunch whenever they’re not evangelizing the Gospel of Saint Nico Nico Nii.
So yeah, things have gone uphill for Aqours pretty damn quickly, haven’t they? Last week, they were still filming a crappy promo video for their backwater hometown, and now they’re suddenly in the top 100 most popular school idols in all of Japan. Pretty impressive for a group with only two songs. Love Live! Sunshine!! doesn’t really bother explaining what exactly the event the girls are attending is supposed to be – Is it an official preliminary for the big Love Live tournament? Is it just a festival à la Tokyo Idol Festa? Are all the other 98 groups ranking above Aqours performing as well? Does the Geneva convention even allow people to be subjected to ninety-nine idol performances in a row? – but that hardly seems to matter much, as any excuse for dorky comedy is a good one. The best comedies are the ones where the entire cast acts like a complete dolt, and when on Tokyo ground, even the usually most straight-laced members of Aqours are quick to amp the quirk up to a maximum. The result is Love Live! Sunshine!!‘s most enjoyable episode to date, but also one that only strengthened my dislike for its ever more apparent flaws.
Without obligation to preach a heavy-handed core moral at the end, this episode managed to significantly tone down the writers’ penchant towards the melodramatic and focus on a far more subtle kind of character building amidst all the antics. Chika and Riko having the umpteenth midnight heart-to-heart about their hopes and dreams turns out to be far more endearing when it’s not bookended by pseudo-cathartic flourishes straight out of Dramatic Writing 101, and as much flak as I like to give Dia for her ungenerous and thoroughly mean-spirited behavior, I appreciate the show acknowledging that her allowing Ruby to join Aqours didn’t suddenly make things all hunky-dory between the two of them. For a show that’s often so artificial and otherworldly, Love Live! Sunshine has surprisingly believable, if not exaggerated, characters, supplementing traditional anime archetypes with welcome twists, like Yoshiko’s self-awareness, or genuinely endearing quirks, like You’s weird obsession with uniforms. Any opportunity it gets to focus on the characters themselves, rather than on the inspirational yet thoroughly banal message they embody, is one it should grasp. Unfortunately, for as good as Love Live! is in doing so during its comedy bits, it completely fails to do so in its capacity as a show about idols.
You see, one of Love Live!‘s biggest strengths is, in my opinion, how it keeps its finger on the pulse of the modern idol industry. No matter how cringeworthy its idealization of idolhood and how dubious its attempts to hide the fact that it’s still targeted primarily towards straight men, Love Live! at least superficially contributes to the recent movement in the idol industry that seeks to reclaim idols from the male gaze and the shady corporations that seek to gratify it. Like many new idol groups on the block, Aquors are essentially independently produced, with the promo materials frequently pointing out who is responsible for which aspect of the band’s overall image. It’s a strong message to send, and the only aspect of the show that could actually be called empowering, but unfortunately, we never get to see You designing costumes, Riko composing songs, or Hanamaru writing lyrics. For all its attempts to highlight the personal efforts its characters invest into their budding career, the results are as impersonal as they come. The actual stage outfits, performances, songs, or even the competition against other school idols are just kind of… there. They appear out of nowhere just to keep the plot on track, and contribute absolutely nothing to the cast’s journey, neither to its comedic, nor its dramatic facets. Even K-ON! used all these elements as plot devices, while Love Live! can only make people care about its characters whenever they’re operating on a single shared brain cell, and the whole thing about them chasing their dreams and saving their school might as well be background noise. For a show so hell-bent on being inspirational, that’s a very strange position to be in.
Similarly, the introduction of Saint Snow, Aqours’ soon-to-be rivals for the school idol crown is an almost laughably low-key affair, and bar none this episode’s biggest failing. While introducing them with an actually rather neat – though audibly doctored – a capella performance somewhat unintentionally makes Aqours look like talentless hacks, Seira and Ria are designated, punch-clock rivals at best. They’re not comically mean enough to make us want to root for Chika and co. to take them down a notch, nor do they have any real incentive to compete against our main characters aside from happening to meet them right before the event. They’re not former friends or bandmates or scorned lovers or hell-bent on revenge for whatever reason; plus, their music and image isn’t all that different from Aqours’ anyways. Like any aspect of whatever Sunshine!! likes to call its ‘plot’, Saint Snow merely exist as an obligation. They’re only there because
Muse µ’s had rivals too. I mean, any story about a rise to fame needs rivals, right? So there you have ’em. Rivals. You happy now? I sure am not, because now I’m gonna have to watch two godawful CGI dance routines next episode, aren’t I?
- Yohane’s white face paint is a trademark of shironuri or ‘painted in white’, a Harajuku offshoot of gothic lolita fashion. Perhaps the best-known adherent of shironuri fashion is Sari of black metal indie idol group (yes) Necronomidol, which is basically Aqours if everyone in Aqours was Yohane.
- It’s about time this show reveals why Dia and Mari are dramatically scheming behind Aqours’ backs like they’re part of some malicious evil conspiracy. If it’s really just because they’re jealous Chika and co. are succeeding where they failed, Yoshiko officially loses the right to claim she’s the most delusional, self-serious windbag this show has on offer.
- Chika, Ruby and Maru all get flak for their ridiculous outfits, but no one dares to poke fun at You and her hilariously outdated b-boy get-up? I guess she’s just so cool she can pull a look like that off.
- The writers of this show could give a university lecture on queer-baiting, given that they have perfected implying that everyone is gay without ever explicitly denying that they are straight to an art form. It’s gotten so ridiculous in its vagueness that the doujinshi Riko is interested features the protagonist practicing the much coveted chin-hold kiss on a wall.
- As per tradition, I had a quick look at Funimation’s quick-buck dub and hoo boy. While the script is usually fine and some performances are pretty great – Morgan Berry as Yoshiko being an absolute standout – the translation is highly questionable at times. In stead of doing what any sane person would do and adapting Hanamaru’s Shizuoka accent into a generic ‘country bumpkin’ accent, the dub actually makes an otherwise perfectly decent Megan Shipman end any other sentence in ‘zura’. You know, as you do in English! Why do I even bother?