Uranohoshi Girls High is a small private school in the seaside neighborhood of Uchiura, and is home to self-proclaimed normal girl Chika Takami. Despite Chika never being particularly talented at anything or getting involved in any clubs, a trip to Tokyo soon finds her enraptured by the world of School Idols. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of the former superstar idols μ’s (pronounced muse), Chika proceeds to start her own School Idol Club, but quickly faces resistance from the student council president Dia Kurosawa, who stands firmly against the creation of the club. Just when all seems lost, Chika meets Riko Sakurauchi, a transfer student from Otonokizaka High School, the former home of μ’s. A shy but talented pianist, Riko is reluctant to join the club, but Chika soon convinces her, and the pair, along with You Watanabe, Chika’s childhood friend, embark on a mission to create an idol group that shines as brightly as the nine girls that came before.
It may have been two years since I reviewed both the first and second season of Love Live! School Idol Project, but if there is one thing that hasn’t changed, it is the immense popularity of the media franchise. However, all good things must come to an end, and after two seasons, a movie, over 40 singles and a number of video games, μ’s called it quits. In spite of this, Love Live has continued to this day, with a brand new idol group, Aqours (pronounced Aqua), who got their very own anime with Love Live! Sunshine!!. Although Sunshine!! revolves around a fresh set of characters, I can’t help but shake a certain sense of deja vu…
To tackle the elephant in the room head on, yes, Love Live! Sunshine!! does indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the first season of the original show in many respects. What many fans might initially dismiss as references or small winks and nods to the prior seasons soon gives way to being far more blatant after you get a few episodes in. The high school threatened with closure, the initial concert, the school council disapproving of the club, how they come up with the name of the group, filming a PV video, all these are plot points lifted wholesale from School Idol Project, almost verbatim in certain cases. Although you may be quick to dismiss this as lazy writing on behalf of the staff, it is very much intentional, and actually becomes a plot point towards the back end of the series, and one that I actually liked a whole lot, and made a ton of sense in the context of a post-μ’s world, and how other high school girls will look up to them. Despite this, it doesn’t stop some moments feeling a touch on the trite side, even if it was done intentionally.
However, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely nothing different attempted here, and in fact, it is in this respect where Sunshine!!, if you’ll pardon the pun, really shines. Without a doubt the best new element brought to the table is how the relationship between the third years is handled, with the three of them having a rocky history together, that is slowly hinted at and revealed as the show progresses. It’s an interesting dynamic to see, and is well executed in its build-up and ultimate pay- off. The way the first competition turns out was also great, not only managing to subvert audience expectations but also leading to the backbone of a strong second half, where it mostly seems to dispatch with the copycat scenes and become more of its own thing.
Just as with School Idol Project, Sunshine!! isn’t about the story as much as it is about the characters and at first glance, you may be led into thinking that the new girls suffer the same issue as the story does, in that they’re far too similar to μ’s. You have the charismatic, orange-haired leader, the redhead pianist and the tsundere school council president, all of which will sound familiar to any μ’s fans, and that is just to name a handful of similarities that people will spot. To my delight, I was pleased to find out that most of these similarities are skin-deep, with the cast themselves doing enough to feel distinct. Sure, there are recycled ideas here, but they’re merged together in a way to make characters like Dia, who feels like the idol obsession of Nico mashed with the stern Eli, stand strong on their own by mixing in unique elements too. The most unique of the girls, and official UK Love Live representative, is Yoshiko, who I feel will be like Marmite given her chuunibyou tendencies, but I honestly loved her, easily providing some of the most entertaining moments in the series. Although I said before about everyone being unique, the one exception to this is the group leader Chika, who feels far too close to a clone of Honoka, the leader of μ’s.
Generally speaking, the cast are all quite well developed, but some are definitely stronger than others, especially ones with specifically focussed episodes such as Riko, Yoshiko and You. Sunshine!! does overcome a hurdle that the original series struggled with in not having time to give everyone a spotlight episode by consolidating multiple characters’ development into single episodes. For example, Hanamaru and Ruby share an episode and Dia, Mari and Kanan do too, managing to flesh out those featured in said episodes quite well. Granted, it isn’t as strong as if they had an episode to themselves, but I find this to be preferable to the way it was handled before, and I’m sure that anyone that might have been lacking slightly here will get prominent episodes in the second season.
For those not in the know, the western licence for the Love Live! franchise has changed hands in- between the release of the μ’s era anime and Sunshine!!, which has led to a change of dubbing studios from the fantastic Bang Zoom to the slightly less fantastic Funimation. Don’t get me wrong, the dub itself actually isn’t bad, but it does still pale in comparison to the higher quality dub I’m used to from School Idol Project, and a couple of the decisions made in the scripting and direction area are irksome. Hanamaru is a character that is supposed to be a proper country girl, but this is not reflected in the performance given by Tina Haseney, sounding pretty much identical to the others besides occasionally dropping the ‘g’ at the end of words. Her vocal tic of adding ‘Zura’ to the end of sentences also doesn’t really work well in the dub, or at least not as well as it did in the original Japanese. Another awkward transition from Japanese to English is Mari, who in the original vocal track would insert English words into her sentences due to her overseas upbringing, which is haphazardly replaced with (what I think) is Spanish instead, which makes little sense given that she’s supposed to have lived in America.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any elements that I didn’t like about the dub. Sarah Wiedenheft (Blood Blockade Battlefront, Alice and Zoroku, Gonna Be The Twin Tail) as Ruby and Morgan Berry (Barakamon, My Hero Academia, Riddle Story of Devil) as Yoshiko are easily the stand outs, with Wiedenheft perfectly imbuing Ruby with an amazing amount of adorable cuteness and Berry selling both the grandiose delusions and subsequent embarrassment of Yoshiko very well.
As you would much expect from an anime about idols, music is at the core of Love Live! Sunshine!!, and it is certainly not an area it is lacking in. Upbeat and catchy tunes are featured heavily throughout, which fans of J-Pop are sure to love, all set to entertaining and complex choreography. I’m not sure the songs featured here are really a patch on my favourites from μ’s, but they are still great nonetheless, including the opening and closing tracks, ‘Aozora Jumping Heart’ and ‘Yume Kataru yori Yume Utaou’, performed by Aqours themselves. If I did have a complaint, it would be that the songs are fairly infrequent in the initial half of the show, feeling quite sparse until the end. In terms of the traditional score, Tatsuya Kato does a fine job, managing to create music that complements the series nicely.
Anime behemoths Sunrise (Mobile Suit Gundam, Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star) return once again to provide the animation of Love Live! Sunshine!!, once again providing really stellar visuals. The animation was always great for Love Live, but it’s a real step up here, maintaining the bright colour and expressiveness, but this time including way better 3DCG for the dancing sequences, which are greatly improved over their stiff and janky looking models featured in the original series.
Older fans will probably feel more than a twinge of deja vu at points in the story, but Love Live! Sunshine!! does enough to feel like more than a rehash, successfully introducing and endearing you to a new group of instantly loveable characters, laying a good foundation for the season to come.