Love Live! Sunshine, Macross, and the Resonance of Franchise Lore

The sad truth: not all idol shows can be Macross. On the other hand, this is in defense of Love Live! and Love Live! Sunshine.

Love Live! Sunshine

Love Live! Sunshine has taken some flack this season for its penchant for references and throwbacks to the original series. I think this is unjust, as I’ve said elsewhere, but in doing so I must also confront my own bias—that is to say: I love Macross, a franchise that is perhaps unrivaled among anime franchises for love of its own self, despite Kawamori’s freewheeling approach to canonicity (at least I see it as such) and reinterpretations of individual narratives.

In other words, what Love Live! Sunshine is doing is neither out of the ordinary or new. It is only, perhaps, something that stands out because of the closeness of its references to the progenitor show (mimicking visual jokes like the Kotori photobomb and the recycling of the impending school shutdown plot). That it should be criticized for this, even on the potentially justifiable grounds of such moments being nothing more than crass business-driven decisions, seems overly cynical to me.

Indeed, I would even go so far as to argue that the ways in which Sunshine references the canon of its universe are thematically integral to the work itself, elevating both it and the original Love Live! in a way that reminds me of how both SDF Macross and Macross Frontier improve on each other. While the relationship I’m describing here isn’t mutually dependent (any of these four shows can exist and succeed on its own merits), it is one of mutual benefit and enhancement. Narcissistic? Certainly, but I like a bit of ego from my anime. You don’t get much more ego than a show putting its own title up on an in-universe screen and using that as a motivation for its protagonist.

Love Live!

On purely thematic terms, Sunshine is deeply indebted not only to the previous show’s plot but also to its hyper-reality method of storytelling and characterization. One of the common threads running through the inevitable comparisons between Sunshine and its predecessor is the sentiment that Sunshine is more effective as a character drama and grounded narrative than the first Love Live! and with this I’d agree completely. I’d also even agree with the corollary idea that the Aqours girls are more traditionally solid than the μ’s idols.

Despite this, I would argue that the very groundedness that makes Sunshine praise-worthy is fundamentally rooted in the relative fantasy of the original show. It is made clear in the early episodes of Sunshine that Chika was inspired by μ’s in her own quest to become a school idol—and here is where the rather archetypal nature of the school idols from Otonokizaka becomes important. To use a notable example, Honoka Kousaka is less a proper character than she is a force of nature (sometimes literally). Particularly for those of us enlightened enough to understand that Honkers is the best Love Live, this is important because it means she is able to truly embody the essence of an idol’s inspirational power. Honkers blows away rain and inspires high school girls who live on the coast.

The other μ’s girls follow in a similar pattern—which, I think, is at least one of the most important factors to the show’s success. The archetypal nature of these idols means that they are somewhat malleable (see the boatloads of fanart and fan fiction devoted to them), and also somewhat abstract. In fact, it’s because the original Love Lives were not particularly grounded characters that they’re able to easily inhabit the elevated world of idol stardom. The success of μ’s within Love Live! is something of a fairy tale, a dream. It’s legendary, made all the more so by the group’s disbanding—the transient nature of it all and the dissolution at the peak of success allows their legacy to live on as an ideal.

Love Live! Sunshine

This all slots back into Sunshine because the show doesn’t have to convinced us that μ’s would inspire Chika—we already understand the aura of glamor and inspiration that she’s attracted by. We have witnessed with our own eyes that ideal (remember “Snow Halation”) which is at once bright with radiance and dim because of its distance. But idols don’t need to inspire other idols (with the notable exception of rivalries, but those operate in a different mode); it’s much more meaningful when heroes inspire ordinary people onwards.

In creating characters more grounded that those in the original series, Sunshine sets itself up as complementary to Love Live! It’s because Chika is really just an ordinary girl that she can be inspired by a figure as archetypal and fictional as Honoka Kousaka, Rain Goddess.

There’s a shot in episode 8 of Sunshine, as Chika and the rest of Aqours are dealing with the utter defeat suffered at their first competition, that sums up this dynamic perfectly. Chika, in her room alone, looks up at the μ’s poster on her wall, a poster we’ve seen since the first episode, and stretches out her hand towards it. At no other moment in Sunshine is the difference between the “real” world of Aqorus and the “fanasty” world of μ’s so explicit and so deeply felt. μ’s didn’t succeed instantly, it’s true, but the construction of the original show is such that their triumph was never really in doubt. Not so for Aqours. We, of course, know they’ll eventually rise to the top because duh, but in this moment it truly feels as if Honoka and co. are impossibly out of reach for Chika and her friends. Chika is no Rain Goddess (hell, when they arrive at the shrine where Honoka blew away the clouds, there’s already a pair of school idols there with weather powers).

Love Live! Sunshine

To return to the opening, then, these concerns about Sunshine‘s throwbacks to Love Live! don’t concern me because I see them as demonstrative of the sequel’s self-consciousness about where its coming from and where its going. Ultimately, Aqours wants to follow in the footsteps of μ’s. But μ’s must first exist as something both achievable and impossible to enable this. This superficial overlap is just the obvious conclusion.

The Frontier effect that Sunshine has on its ancestor is that Love Live! now is not only a fun show, but also one that carries additional thematic and franchise import. You could conceivably have Love Live! Sunshine without Love Live! School Idol Project, but the ideal Chika is driven by could never be as real as it is in this scenario. Thus, the original show is invested with gravity because it informs the effectiveness of the sequel (and, yes, I consider Sunshine a franchise sequel in the same continuity) while that sequel likewise is more valuable because it provides this effect. Both shows benefit from the existence of the other.

I mention Macross because I’ve not yet experienced any franchise that is so in tune with the way shows within its canon, continuity, and universe apart from continuity, can have an enhancing effect on each others’ value. Freyja vocalizes homage to Minmay as part of her desire to join Walkure, certain moments in Frontier take on double layers of emotional significance because they’re overlaid with the power of scenes from SDFetc. All of these distinct experiences within the franchise build upon each other. Sunshine is doing the same thing, because when we hear “START:DASH!!” in episode one, we are not only witnessing Chika’s moment of idol genesis, but reliving μ’s. Excellent. Ranka approved (she should know a thing or two about being inspired by an idol).

Love Live! Sunshine

18 thoughts on “Love Live! Sunshine, Macross, and the Resonance of Franchise Lore

  1. Not gonna lie, this kind of makes me want to watch Love Live!! (already want to watch the original Macross, but I keep forgetting it’s on Amazon Prime every time I pick up a new show). I’m not really big on the whole idol thing, especially with some of the stuff I’ve read about how the industry works IRL, but I’m always down for a good story and compelling characterization.

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    • Well, cool! I think Love Live!‘s a pretty fun thing and enjoyable whether or not you really are big into idols. The industry stuff is still something I’m wrestling personally, so I don’t really have any good thoughts for you there. ^_^”

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  2. Uhh… great. You just convinced me not to watch Love Live. I previously intended to watch it as my first idol show (I occasionally try to broaden my anime genres). However, this post gave me the impression that Love Live is an extremely optimistic and idealistic show, which I hate. Are all idol shows optimistic and idealistic? If yes, I’m going to avoid them. :/

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    • Yeah, optimistic and idealistic would be good ways of describing the franchise as a whole, but in a lot of ways I think Love Live! is similar to shounen stuff like My Hero Academia.

      As for all idol shows, I wouldn’t necessarily extend that categorization to them as a rule.

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    • Keeping in mind that the companies who produce and finance anime are often the same companies who produce and finance idol groups, they have a vested interest in presenting the whole idol concept in a positive light, so you’re probably never going to find an idol series that’s not at least partially optimistic or idealistic on some level, although Love Live really thrives on optimism even more than most that I’ve seen, or at least the Muse version did (Sunshine, to its credit, seems to be much more adept at handling its drama so far; the times when the first two seasons tried to get serious were mostly the weakest parts of the show). That said, there are some idol anime that are definitely darker than others. Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue comes to mind right away (it’s actually more “mystery/suspense” than “idol,” but the main character is still a professional idol and many of the cast are entertainment industry people). I’ve also heard that Wake Up, Girls and Key the Metal Idol both offer harder-edged presentations of idol life, but I haven’t seen either one of those myself.

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  3. Ooooooh, interesting point. I personally agree with you that throwbacks and references to the ‘original’ give Love Live! Sunshine the additional charm that it has. I never thought it could be central to the show though. Similarly, the Idolm@ster: Cinderella Girls also does the same thing, with posters of the original 765 production idols from Idolm@ster being hung on buildings, trains and every other billboard in Tokyo. It definitely made my watching of Im@s CG alot more interesting and enjoyable knowing that these girls had a hand in constructing the setting for these next group of idols; I realise after you pointed that out.

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    • This question is under debate, but just because Macross is a mecha franchise doesn’t mean it can’t also be an idol franchise or a mecha franchise that’s better at being an idol franchise than most idol franchise.

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  4. It’s a bit strange reading this, since I can guess how I’d react, but I don’t know.

    I’ve watched the first season of Love Live, but only managed getting past the opening scene after three false starts. Then I found it entertaining enough, but then, once again, I didn’t get past the opening scene of the second season, and here franchise continuity was actually a bad thing, since it enhanced my negative reaction, with the result that I have no intention of ever watching the second season, even though it’s entirely possible that I’d enjoy it. Similarly, I’m not watching Sunshine; the character designs are a turn off. And it’s puzzling, since I actually enjoyed the first season, on the whole. (It’s a bit like an allergic reaction to a food you remember liking but don’t really miss.)

    I’m currently watching Macross Delta, and it’s the first Macross (probably) I’m watching. My verdict is that the character designs are excellent and extremely cute; the setting is marvellous, and the rest is so-so. I feel the story is something… from the expanded Kawamori factory when his manufactured pieces resonate more with me. (I’ve just finished re-watching Escaflown, and the difference is miles high [I’m talking story here]. Now I’m curious how I’d react to Earthgirl Arjuna, which I saw shortly after that one.)

    I wonder what being familiar with Macross would have done for me. I can see it go both ways: better immersion or diminishing returns. Diminishing returns is a big problem for me with many, many franchises, in all sorts of different media. I generally watch widely rather than deeply and drop out soon, so I’m banking more on diminishing returns, but who knows?

    Sunneysam mentions Cinderella Girls. This one’s interesting because – in my mind – the show’s completely different from the first Idolm@ster anime, and I have trouble seeing them as part of the same franchise. The general feel is very similar, but the aesthetic in both visuals and story telling has little in common (to me). I don’t even remember the callbacks: I might have noticed them, but ignored them. That’d be consistent with my perception of the show. I wonder why?

    For what it’s worth, White Album 2 is – objectively – a similar case. Two completely different shows, with a different aesthetic but similar feel, bound together by setting. Yet here I have no problem making the connection.

    Why? It makes no sense.

    It does seem, though, that – unless we’re talking direct continuation – franchises work better for me, when they try something completely different in different installments. Keep things the same too much, and things start to bore me.

    Based on what I know about myself, I sort of wonder whether I should have skipped Macross Delta for now, watching one of the older shows first. Maybe that would have been better for me? Well, too late now.

    On a related note, I’ve been re-watching older shows lately, and for all its flaws I had lots of fun re-watching The Irresponsible Captain Tyler. That showdown between Tyler and Dom must be one of the best showdowns in anime hisotry. If you’ve seen the show you probably know what I mean (even though you might disagree). If you haven’t it’s almost worth sitting through the show just for that. (Almost; not really worth the pain if you hate it, but…) No spoilers, but this is the sort of showdown that’s very hard to copy, because it fits razor sharp within the context the show has set up for most of its run. I wonder if I should do Silent Möbius next? (My first subbed anime!)

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    • As enthusiastic as I was about Delta early on, even I have to admit it hasn’t quite landed the way I’d hoped it would. The Kawamori factory is real, though. He’s a madman.

      I wouldn’t expect deeper immersion necessarily from multiple Macross series. It’s just… well, it’s difficult to describe & probably something everyone has to make up their own mind about. As you well know, I love the franchise, but I’m under no illusions that it’s everyone.

      Older anime is good!

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  5. I think that I’m glad I waited until later in the season to start watching Sunshine in earnest, because if I’d been watching it weekly and having to stew on each episode before I could watch the next one I probably would’ve found all the constant μ’s comparisons in the early episodes quite tedious (like during episode 4 where by the end of it I was like yes, I get that Maru identifies with Rin, you don’t have to keep telling me). By semi-marathoning those early episodes and getting on to more of the meat of Aqours’ own story, I feel like it was easier for me to appreciate where the show was going with the constant comparisons and why it kept bringing them up. And it offers a good lesson – you may be inspired to follow people you admire, you may even try to imitate them for a while, but you are not them, and if you really want to succeed then you eventually need to find your own way forward that makes the most of your own God-given talents. That’s as true for young basketball players imitating Steph Curry and LeBron James on the playground as it is for young artists inspired by their favorite band or singer to take up music.

    Your post also got me thinking on a somewhat different angle I hadn’t considered before: what if everything we saw of μ’s in the first two seasons/movie was all in-universe myth and legend, rather than what “actually” happened? We’ve seen that sort of angle in anime before – in the Nanoha franchise, the first recap movie is canonically considered to have been produced in-universe as a “based on a true story” re-telling of the first season’s actual events (there’s even an alternate commentary track for the movie on the Blu-Ray with the characters actually watching it in-universe and discussing what was history or Hollywood for them). In the Love Live universe, the story of this rags-to-riches group who burst on the scene out of nowhere, won the second Love Live, and then vanished as fast as they had arrived, is certainly one that would be ripe for mythmaking and embellishment in the aftermath, especially the further away people got from it. Think about that scene at the end of the movie, with the seniors at Otonokizaka telling the incoming freshmen about the legend of μ’s, the group who won the Love Live and saved their school in its hour of need and then vanished into the sunset- now what if the entire series was a depiction of that story as told to the freshmen, mythologizing and all? In that context, Honoka being elevated to this saintlike figure who can travel through time and command the rain and inspire the whole student body to turn out with shovels on the day of a snowstorm suddenly makes a lot more sense. I think it’s fun to speculate about, anyway.

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    • So Sunshine winds up structurally emulating possible themes of the narrative? Fascinating…

      Macross is the posterchild franchise for the kind of in-universe metacontext you’re talking about—Kawamori has specifically said in interviews that every Macross series is a show in the Macross universe (perhaps you’re already familiar with this or read the link I put in this post already). But I agree, the Love Live! movie seems like it could be a prime suspect here—future Honkers makes no sense but is neat nonetheless. Maybe my favorite part of that film.

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  6. The opening paragraphs only reinforce my comparison between Sunshine and a CERTAIN mega-blockbuster film about prevading criticism of recycled premises, which in my view I do not have a strong opinion one way or the other about this method of storytelling.

    …hmmm, lemme just retake these paragraphs and play mad libs on ’em to get my point across:

    “The Force Awakens has taken some flack last Christmas for its penchant for references and throwbacks to the original A New Hope.

    […]

    In other words, what The Force Awakens is doing is neither out of the ordinary or new. It is only, perhaps, something that stands out because of the closeness of its references to the progenitor movie (mimicking narrative plot beats like the murder of a mentor figure or the planetary superweapon plot). That it should be criticized for this, even on the potentially justifiable grounds of such moments being nothing more than crass business-driven decisions, seems overly cynical to me.”

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  7. So you’re saying that Love Live! is remembering love for itself? I haven’t seen Sunshine, but the way you described it here makes it sound very similar to the position of Do You Remember Love? in the Macross universe, which make the franchise comparisons even more fitting. It creates a very interesting reading where the original series of Love Live! is an unrealistic and romanticized depiction of actual events, but serves as the key point of inspiration for other characters in the universe in spite of that. I don’t know if anyone at Sunrise actually thought it out that way, but it suddenly puts a lot of the problems I had with the original series in a really interesting context that kind of makes me want to watch Sunshine (especially with your description of its plot and characters as being a bit more grounded). I may still not like it, but at the very least it gives me a much more interesting way to look at the series than my initial thoughts on it.

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    • I guess I’d personally equate Sunshine more with Frontier than with DRYL since it remembers loves, but also works as an extension of some of the ideas of the original show. Anyways, trying to find perfect parallels between these two franchises is likely impossible—I just used Macross as an example because of how well it serves as an exemplar of this particular idea.

      But yeah, Sunshine does interesting things to OG Love Live! and that’s cool. Fascinating metatextual fun.

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