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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.