Both Love Live! and its sequel Love Live! Sunshine!! followed basically the same storyline, with an idol group with nine members being assembled, with the goal to make their school famous and save it from impending closure. There were different outcomes, but basically the same plot beats each time. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I embarked on the third iteration of Love Live!, wondering if I were about to watch basically the same story all over again, but with different but similar characters. Luckily, Nijigasaki is such a departure from the previous two shows that it doesn’t even feature an idol group. Well, not quite…
What we have instead are individual singers, and that gives the season an inbuilt structure that works very well. Each episode focusses principally on one particular character, and showcases a performance from that character. That means that, whereas the previous entries in this franchise used to build up to the big performances, we get a big performance every single episode. These are of course the moments where we move into the realms of computer generated sequences, but these kinds of anime shows that feature singing and dancing are getting better and better at integrating those moments almost seamlessly. The performances are generally fantasy sequences rather than grounded in reality, and this is often a visually stunning series.
Without the threat of a school closure, the stakes don’t feel so high for this one, although we start from a point of the school’s idol club having already been closed down, so there is a battle to reopen it. At the end of the season, drama is built from the question of whether the girls will be able to organise a big event, and their ambitions are impressive. I’m not sure there’s much realism to a bunch of teenagers successfully organising a multi-venue festival, but I don’t suppose many viewers come to this show looking for realism anyway.
There are also the usual gentle relationship dramas and a focus on the hopes, dreams and personality traits of the characters, which is really the meat and drink of a show like this. The most effective story arc centres on arguably the two most important characters, who are initially our window into the idol ambitions of students at Nijigasaki High School: Yu and Ayumi. Yu is really on board with the whole idol thing to support her friend, and when she looks to piano music rather than singing for her own path in life this causes Ayumi to panic about the idea of losing her friend if they drift apart. Their loving, almost co-dependant friendship is the closest I have seen any of these shows get to a yuri romance story. I doubt it will get developed further in the second season, but it would be a wonderful departure from what we are used to if they do, and the set-up is all here.
There is also a strong focus, at least during the first half of the season, on Setsuna, one of the idols from before the original club was disbanded, and her identity is hidden from everyone in the school. It’s one of those silly stories where a girl can change her hairstyle and put on glasses and nobody recognises her, even her best friends, which only works if you think of these girls as generic anime character designs who are colour coded by their hair, rather than the real human beings they are supposed to represent. A much better subplot concerns Rina, who has the talent to be a school idol but goes to pieces in front of an audience. She solves the problem by hiding her face behind a monitor for her performances, strapped in front of her face and displaying a digital emoji face. It’s quite cute, and it’s a win for her ability to perform, but I’m not entirely sure the championing of self-concealment as a solution for anxiety is a particularly positive or practical message from the writer.
These shows have always struggled to bring so many different characters to life over the course of a 13 episode season, and if anything this iteration of the franchise has even more difficulty in that respect, due to its focus on an individual character each episode, most of whom are subsequently forgettable. Like the previous two shows, a few stand out and lodge themselves in the memory, while most become little more than interchangeable background characters with occasional lines, in the minds of the viewers. But one huge improvement over the previous two shows is there are no characters who are particularly annoying. For Love Live! we had to suffer the frankly abhorrent Nozomi, with her groping and her tarot card nonsense, and for Sunshine!! we had the repetitive horror of Yoshiko, with her constant fallen angel chunibyo childishness. There’s nobody here that makes me want to hurl the remote control at the screen like those two monsters, but the flipside is that there’s nobody who quite brings the show to life with the adorable cuteness of Nico (Love Live!) or Ruby (Sunshine!!). Ironically, the one girl who comes the closest is Yu, the one who walks away from the idol club.
By the time you read this article, a second season will be available, which I will cover in a future article. There is also yet another spin-off show, Love Live! Superstar!! It looks like this franchise will run and run, but why not? Nijigasaki was a welcome ray of sunshine for many anime fans during the dark days of 2020. We all need a bit of joy and music in our lives. RP