I made a bit of a silly mistake with this series, because it’s a sequel to Love Live! and I had somehow failed to realise that. I ended up watching the first season of Sunshine!!, going back to watch both seasons of Love Live! and then returning to Sunshine!! for its second season. This slightly disjointed way of doing things highlighted a couple of things for me. Firstly it’s not essential to watch Love Live! before embarking on Sunshine!! It becomes obvious pretty quickly that it’s a sequel, but other than realising that the girls in this series have been inspired by a successful idol group there’s really very little specific information that plays into the sequel series. Secondly, and this was the surprising bit, it’s actually a better series to watch if you haven’t seen the original series.
That might seem an odd thing to say, but I found myself really engaged with this for the first season and rather bored during the second, once I had seen the parent series. The reason for that is pretty simple: Sunshine!! covers many of the same plot beats throughout its two seasons as Love Live! and does start to feel repetitive. If you have a winning formula, continuing to do more of the same is not inherently a bad thing, but this is just far too similar. We follow the story of an idol group being assembled with nine members (again), three from each year group (again) whose goal is to make their school famous (again) in order to get enough new students to save it from closure (again). They face many of the same pitfalls on the way, with their initial efforts being met with failure.
Straight away I want to acknowledge that there are of course differences, and those differences tend to be the strongest aspects of the series. In the parent series the issue of the threatened school closure was dispensed with early in the run, whereas here is runs right through to the end of the second season, and that adds a stronger emotional kick to the whole thing than Love Live! could manage with a similar storyline. Having said that, this story strand reaches a climax of sorts when the school sponsors demand 100 new applicants by a certain date to remain open, and decide to go ahead and close the school when they get 98. Now, I realise 98 isn’t 100, but it does seem like an odd thing to happen, and leaves a cloud over proceedings that never quite goes away.
The other improvement is the interaction between the main group (“Aqours”, pronounced like “aqua”) and their rival Saint Snow. The rival group is a duo who are also sisters, and their relationship is compared with that of sisters Ruby and Dia in Aqours. This makes for the most successful storyline during the second season, which packs a punch emotionally and explores how two younger sisters struggle to make their own way in life, emerging from under the wings of their older siblings, while dealing with the imminent departure of their sisters from their schools and life moving on.
I mentioned that I enjoyed the first season more than the second, and that wasn’t just because I was watching it unfettered by comparisons with the parent series. It tackles some very interesting issues as the group finds their feet, chiefly the extent to which they are a tribute act to their heroes. They have been inspired by the previous winners, and simply replicating what they did cannot be the path to success. They have to find their own path, and discover what it really means to be a member of Aqours. To a certain extent this does carry through to the second season, with group leader Chika trying to find her “radiance”.
Apart from the repetition of storylines from the parent series, the other big problem with Sunshine!! for me was the line-up of characters. In many ways they are tediously similar to the group that inspired them, but not one of them really came alive in the same way as Honoka or Nico. Worse than that, there is one character who is so irritating that she single-handedly spoilt the whole series for me: Yoshiko. She is a chunibyo girl, constantly going on about being a “fallen angel” and all that kind of nonsense, pretending she has super powers. I’m not averse to a chunibyo character in anime (Rikka in Love, Chunibyo and Other Delusions and Yoshiteru from Oregairu are both brilliant characters, for example) but there’s a fine line to tread between endearing and annoying, and Yoshiko stomps right past that line and then strikes a silly pose on the other side of it. I can’t stand her.
But despite being a weaker series than the original, this is still good, watchable entertainment, and it’s an ideal family-friendly anime to put on if you’ve got kids. The music is great, and the dance numbers are ambitious. I felt that the transition to CGI for the performances was a little more obvious than the parent series, but that might be because they were even more ambitious. The group’s performance for the Christmas festival is the most impressive, and absolutely enchanting and beautiful.
There are already two more Love Live! spin-off series and a couple of films, so I think this is a franchise that’s going to run and run. It deserves to, despite the issues with Sunshine!! There’s a joyful innocence to Love Live! and I think the world needs more of that. RP