“Friendship Ahoy, Captain!”
With Riko off competing in the piano contest, the other Aqours girls nominate You to take her place at the prefectural Love Live preliminaries. Unfortunately, rehearsing the new choreography doesn’t go as smoothly as things usually go for her, causing You to worry if her closest friend just sees her Riko’s sloppy replacement.
This is an episode about You. No, not about you. About You. And about me, kind of. It’s not an episode I looked forward to seeing. No one likes their favourite part of a show being the catalyst for their least favourite part of that show, and the very last thing Love Live! needs at this point is a contrived love triangle. Granted, with all the intimate bonds being formed in Uranohoshi’s suggestively-lit corridors, it was only a matter of time before someone would start to feel a bit left out. Yet with the bitter aftertaste of the third years’ preposterous backstory still fresh on my tongue, I would’ve liked the overall number of conflicts that could be easily avoided if people just talked be kept to a bare minimum. Unfortunately, said conflicts are anime’s bread-and-butter, and Sunshine seemingly will not rest until it’s given every single Aqours girl a chance to show off her poor communication skills. Not even clinically carefree You is spared the wheel of morality, yet luckily, what sounded like a character assassination on paper miraculously managed to result in a pretty decent little episode. Turns out that, even when going through some serious bouts of teenage angst, You keeps being You, and therefore chill, humble, eccentric and impeccably stylish throughout. She’s always been the most relatable member amongst Aqours’ ranks, and that’s no different in her focus episode.
Anyone doubting a good character’s potential to salvage a trite plot, needs to look no further than this episode, as what ultimately saves it is tying it into a character journey more befitting of You’s go-with-the-flow nature. You has always been the silent rock of sorts, the absurdly talented and reliable pal just going along with Chika’s eccentricities without a need for any true significance in the entire undertaking. Yet the other side to an ability to do pretty much anything effortlessly, is that in the end, nothing truly matters. You start doing the things you do because you can, because you have nothing better to do, because out of all the things you could be doing, it’s the one that would overall benefit you, or others, the most. But never because you actually want to do them. Talented people often have no aspirations of their own. Everything is either an obligation, or gets downplayed into insignificance. Because all around us, we’re taught that fulfilling your dreams requires hard work and dedication; and if you’re someone who isn’t used to working hard to achieve great things, you start to doubt whether your achievements are all that great in the first place. In psychology, this is called imposter syndrome. People who suffer from imposter syndrome display a staunch refusal to acknowledge their own talents, and will perpetually downplay them, even in face of external evidence of their competence.
Yet imposter syndrome doesn’t usually rear its ugly head until its victim comes across something they can’t actually succeed at at first try. Facing personal failure for the first time, You’s entire world crumbles around her as she’s never gotten used to the idea of trying something and failing to succeed. When you’re good at virtually everything, there’s little pride to be gained from achieving anything — yet it’s that pride that helps people overcome failure and disappointment. And if you, like You, lack that kind of pride, the slightest failure will set off the questions: Was I ever really that talented in the first place? Can I actually get better at anything, or am I just forever stuck at the level I started out from? Has anything I’ve ever done ever even mattered, or do people just take me for granted because I don’t need hard work or dedication anyway? When everything to you is little more than a way to get through the day, there’s no accomplishment you’ll remember as particularly noteworthy — not even being a national level diver, fixing a choreography, designing and sewing professional-grade stage outfits or saving a failing business with your grade-A cooking skills.
That may sound like some kind of cringeworthy world’s-smallest-violin-angst no real person can relate to, but it’s a legitimately fascinating and all too familiar dilemma. What good is talent when it won’t make you happy? If you refuse to recognize your own talents, being jealous of other people’s achievements is a logical next step, and You’s failure to instantly memorize Riko’s moves is but an aggravating factor in this envy. The biggest problem is that after a lifetime of just kind of doing stuff, You has finally found one thing that truly matters to her, something she actually wants to fight for: her friendship with (or love for, if you will) Chika. Ironically, Chika’s apparent long history of turning down You’s proposals may have been what sparked that legitimate desire to matter, to get that one girl to want to do something with her — her specifically. No wonder You goes green-eyed once she realizes there’s someone who seems to matter more to Chika than she does, someone who manages to do the one thing You wants to, but can’t do, and does it effortlessly. All the talent in the world, except for the one skill she needs to get what she truly wants. Start noticing the irony here?
Anyway, what makes You’s angst so interesting is that it, like most angst, is entirely irrational. You’s more than clever enough to know that she matters to Chika, and that it’s perfectly possible for someone to care a lot about multiple people. Of course she’s gonna be worried more about the friend chasing her dreams off in Tokyo than about the seemingly carefree girl who’s just hanging out with her, as she’s been doing for years. Throughout the episode, You makes an active effort to rationalize her feelings and steer clear of the kind of pettiness envy and entitlement usually bring forth — *cough Kanan cough* — yet fails to do so because her imposter syndrome has her convinced nothing she says, does or thinks is of any real value. She needs Mari to fire the thoughts she’s been having all along right back at her in order to acknowledge their legitimacy. And that just might be the moral at the core of this story: You learning that it’s fine to ask for help. That other people can be there for you if there’s something you can’t do. It may sound like the most obvious thing in the world, but to people used to getting anything done on their own, unconditionally just going along with whatever the person nearest to them does or doesn’t do, it opens a world of perspectives. It won’t solve all the anxiety imposter syndrome can cause, but knowing that people truly acknowledge you for you, not just for your achievements or talents, will eventually convince you that all the compliments and admiration you get aren’t just for show, and that often, the sole person responsible for your feeling your talents aren’t being appreciated, is you yourself.
That’s ultimately how Love Live! managed to turn a predictable stock plot into a layered, relatable character piece. While a jealousy plot initially may have looked like a poor match for the cast member least prone to drama, in the end it led to an episode that could only ever have been about this one character. Sure, it may have been yet another conflict that could have easily been solved if the involved parties’d just talked things out immediately, but that would actually’ve been out of character for You to do. What makes or breaks a character focus episode is not the originality of the chosen tropes, but how it manages to pick the right devices to tell the audience what you want them to know about the character. This episode passed that test with flying colours, jumping off a long-running joke to give Aqours’ most dedicated and supportive member her much-deserved place in the spotlight at last. It seems like Love Live! has finally figured out how to treat its characters right.
- I’d never noticed up until now, but Aina Suzuki noticeably retains her horrible Engrish accent when singing as Mari. That’s dedication.
- Speaking of Mari, her big sis act is endearing, but she really needs to ditch the random sexual assault schtick. Heterosexuality not existing in this universe does not magically make unwarranted groping okay.
- For your information, the opposite of imposter syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which incompetent people believe themselves to be far better at what they do than they actually are. Most anime writers suffer from this, as do most anime critics. Yours truly included.
- This episode of Love Live! Sunshine!! was brought to you by the Japanese Jeweler’s Association, for all your hideously outdated pearl earrings.