Reverse Step: Watching Love Live! Season 1

A brief summary of my history with the Love Live! franchise: some months back, very soon after I started writing for the Crunchyroll Newsletter, I got tapped to do a little review of Love Live! 2. Now, at this time I had barely heard of the franchise, but I wanted to get writing, so I wrote the piece. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Skip to the present and I’ve watched all of season 2 and spent countless hours with Love Live! School Idol Festival (the franchise’s mobile rhythm game), but I still hadn’t seen season one. Until now.

Love Live!

I’m no stranger to having my emotions tossed around and anime has been somewhat instrumental in my life in getting me to realize how much of a “feeling” person I am (that’s another post altogether), so I went into this season of Love Live! expecting a few emotions to surface at the climactic moments. But, well, things got a bit ridiculous…The final tally: episodes 1, 4, 5, 9, 12, and 13 all produced tears, with episode 13’s final performance and a devastatingly timed throwaway shot of Honoka’s dad crying bringing me to the peak moment of legitimate happy tears running down my face. Right. I teared up during almost 50% of the show’s episodes. And that’s not even counting the number of times good shivers went down my spine or my mouth dropped open at a particularly impactful scene—like the silent still shot when Honoka invites Eli to join μ’s.

Love Live! and director Takahiko Kyougoku deserve buckets and buckets of credit for constructing a series that consistently builds up to and hits its high notes with aplomb and energy. Emotionally satisfying resolutions don’t happen without the adequate weight of risk and tension behind them, and even Love Live!‘s little conflicts (like Kotori trying to write the lyrics for a song) are excellent at both making you worry about the situation and letting you relax happily as the problem is resolved. And even though the conflicts in the final arc intellectually struck me as being a bit contrived, there were enough compelling moments and my emotional involvement with the characters was immersive enough to overcome the nitpicky voices in the back of my head. In short, the entire show worked fabulously for me on pretty much every level possible.

However, it wasn’t just the quality of the production that made Love Live!‘s first season so completely effective for me. After all, not even the most emotional anime I’ve ever watched (or rewatched) can claim to have moved me to tears in almost 50% of its episodes. Rather, I am of the opinion that my experience with this season of Love Live! was significantly enhanced by my previous exposure to the franchise—namely, the second season, playing School Idol Festival, and engaging with the Love Live! fandom.

Love Live!

Umi-chan knows I shouldn’t be allowed to watch idol shows. They’re like candy for me.

Making Friends in Season 2

When I first watched the second season of the anime, I wasn’t particularly engaged emotionally, even at the big climaxes like the girls shouting on the beach together in episode 11. Don’t get me wrong—I really liked the show and greatly appreciated the fresh, guileless approach it took to the presentation. Despite going into the second season with no previous exposure to the series, I enjoyed getting to know the characters through their interactions with each other rather than through traditional introductions. Even moments that were too over the top for me to take seriously, like the ridiculous “Snow Halation” episode, only increased my affection for the show.

Anyways, the point here—besides the fact that I really liked season two—is that I built up a pretty substantial attachment to the girls of μ’s while watching them on their journey to the Love Live! and their concluding moments as a group. It’s no secret that I really like idol anime and the organic nature of the μ’s origin story really endeared the franchise as a whole to me. Although I certainly had my favorite Love Lives (Maki, Honoka, and Eli were my favorites at the end of the second season), I liked the group as a whole quite a lot.

To put it bluntly, I had a bunch of prior emotional attachments to the characters of Love Live! coming into the second season. Instead growing to love μ’s as they gradually grew from three members, to six, to nine, I was given the chance to watch characters I already loved become the characters I loved. And I got to see them grow to love each other. That’s a pretty special thing.

Love Live!

The Power of Fandom Engagement

Although watching the second season of Love Live! certainly predisposed me to love Honoka, Maki, Eli, and the rest of the gang, I doubt I’d really have been as emotionally attached to them in the first season without the influence of the Love Live! fandom. In a way, watching the way the Love Live! fandom owns and plays off of the canon properties of the franchise reminds me of the way Hatsune Miku is used. Miku may not have an officially defined personality from Crypton, but I’ve always felt there to be a sort of generally agreed upon persona the majority of the Miku fanbase congregated around.

With Love Live! there are actually canon personalities and character traits to which the fandom adheres, but the sheer number of fans means that the canon natures of the characters are constantly reinterpreted and re-contextualized in a mind-boggling range of different situations and images and songs. Here’s one of my favorites:

Love Live!

Source: @cactuskhee

I think this is a pretty good representation of what I’m talking about. With my watch of the second season, I at least had a basic grip on the core personalities I was dealing with, enough so that I could get the joke with this image—Honoka’s the irrepressible leader, Kotori the willing follower, and Umi the voice of relative reason. Seeing this kind of meme crop up (or stuff like Honoka reimagined as a yuri bear) continued to develop the way I thought about Love Live! as a franchise and increase my affection for the characters. Like, after seeing that fanart, how can you not love Honoka a little bit more? How can an absurd study about the kinetic energy of Honoka’s spinning butt not positively impact the way I think and feel about this show?

Furthermore, this kind of unofficial engagement with the franchise had the additional effect of making me feel like I knew the characters better than I actually did. I’m not just talking about fanart now, but about shipping conversations, general talk about the characters…anything derived from the canon personalities of the characters. Because I already kind of knew the characters, I knew when a fan comic was portraying the characters according to their canon selves and it was a fairly easy cognitive process to add a fun comic’s portrayal of the characters to my database of Love Live! character investment (comic credit: /u/TheLazyBassist).

Basically, I’m just trying to say that almost every interaction I’ve had with Love Live! fans—whether via retweeted fanart on Twitter, talking to people on /r/schoolidolfestival, Pixiv diving, or on the Crunchyroll forums—has had a positive impact on my feeling about the show. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough just to have one such experience, but stack them on top of each other and…well, you get the idea.

Love Live! School Idol Festival

Three best girls in one place.

School Idol Festival: “I Know This Song!”

But that’s not all! Somewhere between watching the second season and the first season, in the midst of my various engagements with the Love Live! fandom, I ended up picking up School Idol Festival, much to the detriment of my time management skills. Besides providing unabashed ship lumber (that’s a good ship, by the way) and giving me another reason to engage with more hardcore Love Live! fans via the game’s subreddit and Crunchyroll forum thread, School Idol Festival also introduced me to a bunch of μ’s (and subunit) songs I had never heard before.

While I certainly have my favorites among the 30-some songs I’ve unlocked (mostly Smile songs, as it turns out—”Love Novels,” “START: DASH!!,” “Sweet & Sweet Holiday,” “Susume→Tomorrow”), I honestly never ran into a song I didn’t like. Whether this was simply a form of Stockholm Syndrome induced by the need to SSS clear every song or the more likely scenario that Love Live! songs fall nearly into the peppy J-pop sound I like, the end result was that I had previous acquaintanceship with almost every insert song that popped up during the show. And one thing that is true of me and anime insert songs is that I react with infinitely more passion when I already know the song. It’s the reason I about peed myself in excitement when the first OP popped up in the middle of AKB0048: Next Stage‘s final episode.

So, when Honoka, Kotori, and Umi sing “START: DASH!!” with everything they have to a virtually empty auditorium in episode 3 or when Kotori’s song in episode 9 ends up being “Wonder Zone” or when episode 11’s performance of “No Brand Girls” is underwritten by the tension of Honoka’s unknown condition, the scenes weren’t simply tapping into the emotion of the moment, but into my previous appreciation of and investment in those songs. Even better, hearing familiar song re-contextualized with the newness of the visuals created the perfect blend of comfortable familiarity and exciting novelty, giving each concert the thrilling feeling of watching a beloved band perform a hit song live for the first time.

So, it’s no surprise I cried as much as I did watching Love Live! The point of writing all this out is basically to note that I wasn’t just watching the first season of an idol anime I already kind of liked—I was dragging in a huge viewer’s backpack stuffed to the brim with a bulky love for all things Love Live!, a backpack filled up by other fans of the series, other merchandise, and a season I watched out of order. And I’m convinced I would not have had such a great experience watching Love Live! if any of those factors had been missing. All the time I spent tapping idoru faces on my iPhone or chuckling at the comedy posts in /r/schoolidolfest was essential to this particular, personal experience of Love Live!—and this was a watch I never want to forget.

#HONKERSSSSSS

In conclusion, I am of the opinion that no comprehensive piece on Love Live! can ever really be complete without an official statement on the best Love Live, so here is mine: Honoka “Honkers” Kousaka has officially supplanted Maki Nishikino as my favorite Love Live. While I still think Maki is quite cute, has great hair, and makes the best fashion choices of any of the girls, Honoka has become for me the embodiment of the spirit of Love Live! and why I’ve come to like this show so much.

Love Live!

Honkers is the soul of μ’s and of Love Live!. She is the perfect exemplum of a focused genki girl, where the boundless energy and relentless positivity of the archetype has been funneled into a specific channel rather than allowing all that spirit to disperse in mere charismatic exhausts—she becomes a magnetic, admirable leader instead of just an excitable fan fantasy. Except when she’s not. While it’s plenty common for the genki girl’s energy to mask deeper issues (as they do for Toradora!‘s Minori), Love Live! explores a (perhaps more realistic) shadow side of the genki girl through Honoka’s arc during the final three episodes.

After setting the stage for Honoka’s fall through Umi’s exhortations to rest, Love Live! baits us into thinking that Honoka, despite her sneezing, is going to be fine for the rooftop concert. She appears in her costume, steels herself saying, “I can do this,” and μ’s launches into a invigorating performance of “No Brand Girls” (one of my favorite guitar-heavy songs in the μ’s discography). But Honoka collapses in the middle of the concert with a fever and that’s when she starts to experience the actual consequences of her archetypal enthusiasm. The very focused energy that made Honoka the perfect leader for μ’s, the passion that pushed her to save her school as an idol, backfires as Honoka’s selfishness blinds her to everything besides her own goals—her health, the success of the concert, and Kotori’s struggles.

And Honoka kind of fails the test. Rather than bouncing back, rather than trying to make things right, she quits. But, you know, these were the moments where I realized Honoka was my favorite character in the show. Because, even though she goes about things in totally the wrong way, even though she was selfish and oblivious, all of this is just a reflection of how deeply she cares about everything. And, because she’s Honoka, her fall is deep—and, because she’s Honoka, her redemption is totally triumphant. She’s Honoka, and she is Love Live!‘s Best Girl.

Love Live!

18 thoughts on “Reverse Step: Watching Love Live! Season 1

  1. Wow.. where do I even begin..?

    I definitely agree with you. Love Live is not just a great anime but a great franchise. It’s the first anime that got me invested into idol anime (yup, not idolm@ster, sadly) especially with it’s concept of a “school idol” that brings to it a new perspective than standard idols (I’m aware there was that zombie idol from the same season, if I’m not mistaken, but as far as new perspective, that is seriously taking it too far.. lol).

    I managed to watch Love Live chronologically, but it was interesting to hear someone who watched it the other way around, and glad to see the result is still extremely positive. I remembered watching season 1, astounded by it’s emotional investment, and just when I thought nothing can top that for a while, season 2 comes out and brought the emotional investment several notches above season 1. One of the most emotional episodes in season 2 was their graduation, or more specifically, the graduation of μ’s. They wanted to perform with all the nine of them as μ’s, not even one member short/more. I normally don’t cry when I watch anything (I’m cold-blooded), but even that scene in episode 11 when they made that proclamation in the beach had me crying inside. The senior members of μ’s were graduating, and I knew their next performance would be the last one, and I was fine with it, but it was still depressing all the same.

    I definitely agree with the fandom engagement too, it’s also one of the most entertaining aspect of the franchise. I started playing LLSIF soon after season 2 ends and was still depressed over how μ’s disbanded and was no more, and was rejoicing over the fact that I can spend more time with my waifus in LLSIF, lol :p

    Anyway, great post. Don’t know why I didn’t do something similar, my last Love Live post was some trashy waifu/Best Girl post… Dx

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    • Yeah, I really like the idea of school idols—the fact that they grow organically, rather than being put together by a corporation (in universe, of course) helps them embody the idea of being a group that gives people hope in a much more authentic way.

      Heh, yeah, I knew there were a lot of people who, um…got the feels…from those last few episodes of season 2. Like I said, it didn’t really do as much for me, but I have a sneaking suspicion I would absolutely bawl if I were to re-watch the second season.

      The Love Live! fandom really is kind of a cool thing. I’m always impressed by how freely the fandom seems to cross gender lines. I didn’t really expect there to be all that many female fans of the series, but it does really have a solid ability to appeal to audiences other than just idol-loving male otaku. The humor and overall solidity of the execution definitely has a part in that, but the end result of a wide-range of fans makes it a cool thing to be a part of.

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  2. This post pretty much nails how fandom improves your experience with a franchise in so many different ways. Although I’m not as involved with the Love Live fandom as you are, I can definitely relate to what you wrote in this post. I remember rewatching some of those concert scenes after playing the mobile game and being astounded by how much more impactful those scenes felt. This post made me want to rewatch the entirety of season 1 sometime and also start watching season 2.

    Speaking of which, that reminds me. Do you think season 2 would impact you differently now that you have the full context of S1 behind you? Any plans to rewatch that sometime down the track?

    Also, this post brings up one last question. It’s something that’s always on my mind, as a fan who enjoys critical writing. How much can we attribute the wonderful supplementary experiences of fandom to the text itself? As you said in your post, fan depictions of the characters recontextualises the canon, so the canon itself is subtly altered in your mind when you revisit it. Ideally, you’d want to critique a story on its own merits, but in reality that’s impossible, since as fans we’re part of a community that constantly recontextualises the canon. Where does canon end and fandom begin? Criticism is a worthwhile pursuit, and I think it’s absolutely necessarily to write criticism for a broader audience than just hardcore fans, so how would you go about critiquing something like Love Live? I noticed, for instance, that you didn’t assign a score in this post.

    It’s a big question, of course. I think it very well deserves a post of its own!

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    • Honestly, I think Sunrise and Lantis and all the other production companies behind this franchise deserve a ton of credit for creating something so accessible and easily co-opted by fans. Behind all the fanart & yuri ships, there’s one really solid product giving people the inspiration to create and respond.

      And, oh yeah, I’m almost certain S2 would have much more of an emotional impact on me. I also marathoned it, which means I don’t remember a lot of the smaller plot points—i.e. lots of fun to be had when watching. Plus, besides the S1 context, I’ll be bringing this post and all the collected fandom experiences and new music familiarity with me into S2, so I’d expect the effect to be quite potent. I’d love to rewatch S2 eventually.

      & yeah, haha, that’s one heck of a post idea you have there. I’m…just going to talk about Love Live! specifically for now. 😛 First off, I’m kind of torn about whether or not I even call this particular piece criticism. To me, it’s more of an experience reflection than anything. Maybe that falls into criticism, maybe not. Do you think this piece is geared more towards hardcore Love Live! fans? I’m not sure myself. In any case, I think criticism for a larger audience would look something like my Chihayafuru essays—thematic and character-based analyses of pieces of the show that have wider implications. So, I’d probably write more in depth about Honoka’s arc and about the importance of Muse forming organically to the credibility of the group as a force for hope. Stuff like that, more grounded in the show and a little less in my personal experience of it.

      I don’t typically include number ratings in these kinds of posts simply because I don’t consider them assessment posts. I probably need to write a post on this sometime, but the number rating is my assessment of the overall value of a show. When I write a post like this, I kind of hope people assume I wouldn’t spend 2000 words talking positively about a show that wasn’t worth watching.

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  3. Yeah pretty much what Froggy says above, this post really gets it. I hadn’t had as much experience with Love Live as you had going in to S1, but I do feel I was similarly invested in the characters as a result of little things like following the llsif_bot. In fact, I’m pretty sure Rin became my favourite because of seHNNG and Shinsei constantly shittweeting in their Rin avatars.

    And as always, I feel like I should dispute your choice of best girl but I can’t. Honkers2Bonkers.

    The Love Live fanbase seem to me to have a bit of a reverse Type-moon effect. While the Fate fandom can scare people away a little bit, Love Live definitely enhances your watching experience. Aldnoah is actually another good one, where all the crazy jokes outside of the show itself made it an infinitely more fun watch.

    Finally, you didn’t cry during the empty concert in episode 3?? How?? That was like, the shows best moment..

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    • You being unable to dispute my choice of best girl seems like it’s beginning to become a pattern…at least, I feel like this has happened before. Toradora, maybe?

      Do you just naturally associate Rin with shittweets now? Like when she talks in the show, are you constantly expecting her to say stupid stuff?

      And I probably escaped crying in episode 3 because either A) I cried and forgot about it, or B) because I don’t know and I was just broken for an episode or something.

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  4. I agree with whemelh – the concert at the end of Ep 3 is a tearjerker, and for me the defining moment of the first season and of Honoka’s character. I watching LL out of curiosity, WUG (my first idol anime) having just ended, and that scene converted me from “meh” to a fan. I then marathoned the balance of the first season in two days so I could watch the premiere of the second.

    Overall, that’s what really made the show for me… the collection of small moments (Honaka’s invitation to Eli is another such, or the six girls on the beach or Nico’s “make my parts cool”, or… there’s so many) so well executed. The other was that they managed a ensemble cast so well, while mostly avoiding the worst forms of character-of-the-week.

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    • I wonder if I actually did cry at episode 3, but I honestly can’t remember. I didn’t tweet about it, but I might have just forgotten…but according to my 5 episode check in I had cried three times in 5 episodes, and I know for sure I cried in episodes 1, 4, and 5. So maybe my tears just got delay an episode…who knows! Maybe I just have a hard heart…lol.

      WUG was my first idol anime, too! And I watched Love Live! right after it, too!

      & oh, yeah, Love Live! excels at small character moments. Nico, especially, has quite a number of them, as does Eli—at least as far as more serious ones go. All the rest of the girls have some great funny moments. As an ensemble cast, it’s quite a phenomenal as a successful exercise in balancing a large number of characters.

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  5. Reblogged this on deluscar and commented:

    I like Love Live, but admittedly, it’s through LLSIF and fandom engagement which led me to my fondness for the Love Live franchise. This unofficial engagement of the series is one of the reason Love Live is not just such a great anime-but a great franchise. Iblessall over at Mage n a Barrel certainly feels the impact of fandom engagement too, something which he wrote about in detail in his post, and puts it way better than I ever could.

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  6. So I found this post thanks to Kai’s reblogging, and just wanted to make some comments.

    Titles like Love-Live is definitely a treat for galge players like me so sick and tired of the cheesy school-life romance bullshit that’s been dominating the majority of anime and galge recently. Love Live presents friendship over romance, and this earns them points.

    My jimmies are rustled mostly due to the countless number of people who are only discussing the CHARACTERS. I appreciate this post for sharing how amazing the story was designed (and I can agree to a certain extent), but I really wish it would discuss the ORIGINAL SONGS that the series produces like crazy, as well as Music Videos.

    I find Love Live like an upgraded version of Vocaloids, where weeaboos are ga-ga’ing over the green-haired machine who is originally supposed to be a tool used for “singing” by the people who want to create songs. The “hype” is placed on the wrong place, and that’s the same problem I see with Love Live: the audience is always discussing “X is the best character” instead of “X is the best song!”

    Sure, I can definitely see how Love Live can sell as franchise, and I’m pretty sure Bushimo gets boatloads of money from the 800,000 players on their interactive rhythm game (JP Version). Same with people who may draw doujins or sell character goods.

    All of this, and only a small fraction of the audience really appreciates Love Live’s true core, the original music sponsored by Printemps, Lily White, etc… and its lyrics designed to display the human emotions from jealousy to regret, and from encouragement to gratitude…

    “Idol” is definitely something to fanboy (or fangirl) about, and discussing “favorite characters” are certainly an option with this title being turned into an anime series, but it saddens me to no end that so many people would rather waste their time screaming about how great a character is, than to receive inspiration from the songs that the CV works very hard to sing.

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    • You make a good point! If you look at where the franchise media crossover is, the intersection is at the music. It’s the songs that play both in the anime and in the mobile game. It’s the discs that sell; it’s the music that plays (as I’ve heard reported) in the department stores.

      I think it’s just that the characters are (by design) the most accessible part of the franchise. After all, that’s the big selling point of everything Love Live!—nine high school girls who became school idols. And so, in the context of the franchise’s official narrative (aka, the anime), those songs are born, not out of the CVs and music producers, but out of the characters. So it makes sense to me, even if it’s overdone, that the characters are the most talked-about part of the franchise.

      I do know that the real hardcore LL fans I’ve encountered not only have favorite characters, but follow the CV’s activities, have favorite songs, buy the discs, import the anime/discs. Everybody is going to engage with the franchise in their own way (whether that’s talking about it online or drawing fanart)—and I think the characters are just the easiest way for people to do that.

      I don’t think it takes anything away from the music—after all, you can’t have idols without songs!—it’s just a refocusing of where the attention is being directed. Fans’ attention is certainly directed first at the characters, second at everything else. So I can’t really blame them too much for focusing on that.

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      • You do have a good point with the “Songs come out of the idols”, which is something I never really gave thought to. Thanks for sharing your own views.

        This is why I’d like to mention that Japan is a country heavily focused on sexualizing the female gender for the pleasure of males who would pay money for it. This is definitely another story for another discussion, but there’s definitely Japan’s intention to make these 9 characters those “pin-up girls” for the males who would rather drool over idols than real life girls for whatever reason they have.

        This is why Vocaloid is all about Hatsune Miku instead of the songs that other people create, and the same will be for this one. It’s not the fault of the game, it’s just that the audience would like something to fap to; that’s the sad truth.

        On the other hand, consider the following: Why is this title so popular over other anime titles? Just because it has a rhythm game? I’m not sure if that’s the case.

        As an example, take a look at a game/anime title called “Fantasista Doll”, which is another series similar to this one regarding friendship and only displays female characters like Love Live, and even has a mobile game.

        Why is it that these two series are so similar yet one is well known by people all over the world and the other isn’t?

        There’s a DEFINITE objective difference between the two titles, and as a hint: it’s been what we were discussing.

        My point is that it’s because of this difference that one title is more popular than the other, yet the audience does not realize that they “subconsciously prefer” this more superior title for the music, and raves about the characters instead.

        Simply put, it’s like me saying I like apples over oranges because it’s red, but in reality, it’s because I like things that are sweet (if this comparison makes any sense)

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  7. Ah, fandom engagement… something increasingly difficult to do in good conscience.

    Depends on the series, or the subset of fandoms, but, still, is very limited/specialized.

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