As the third entry in the franchise, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club has a lot to live up to, following in the footsteps of both the original series that successfully established the franchise’s formula, and Sunshine!!, which based itself in that formula but was ultimately about putting your own stamp on the world. In Nijigasaki, we see something that tries to break away from both of these and do something different, but can it achieve the same levels of success by doing so?
Based on the mobile game Love Live! School Idol Festival All Stars, the series introduces us to Ayumu Uehara, a student at Nijigasaki High, and her best friend Yu Takasaki, as they hang out and enjoy themselves around Odaiba. While chilling just outside of Diver City, they hear cheers and music coming from the performance area just outside the main entrance to the mall. Heading over to check out the commotion, the pair find themselves enraptured by the performer, a school idol by the name of Setsuna Yuki, who turns out to be from their school’s School Idol Club! Inspired by her performance, Ayumu decides to try out being a school idol herself with Yu acting as her producer. Yet, when they attempt to join the club the following day, they discover it has just been disbanded! After finding one of the club’s former members, Kasumi Nakasu, it turns out that the group had an argument over their future direction which caused Setsuna herself to literally rage quit and pull the plug on the entire thing. After quickly becoming friends, the three resolve to save the club and begin work on pulling all the members back into the group again.
While its older siblings focused more on a connected story, Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club takes more of an episodic approach. Although it is backed by a core thread of trying to pull the School Idol Club back together, it mostly offers interesting character vignettes that home in on each of the main girls and tries to worm them into your heart as it develops them through a variety of situations from the cute and comedic, to the more emotional and serious.
How much the story and these character moments resonate with you will depend on how well you are able to connect with each of the ten girls, something that emerges as both a strength and a weakness for the series as it generally forgoes depth for breadth, offering a wide range of different character stereotypes for viewers to latch onto. While each one brings something different to the group, character development tends to be limited to their individual episodes and they don’t really grow that much outside of them – once their major hang-up is resolved, then they’re pretty much set up for the rest of the show. A lot of these hang-ups tend to be pretty relatable though, for example Rina’s struggles with her social anxiety, or Kanata’s struggles to support her younger sister in an absentee parent household, so it ends up being quite easy to see the world through their eyes.
Character design has always been one of the main strengths of the franchise and it’s great to see that continue here as there’s plenty to love with not only each character’s style but also their individual personalities, whether that’s Kasumin’s overbearing cuteness, Ai’s boundless energy or Karin’s “sexy nee-san” vibe. It really brings them all to life and really helps you to find a specific character to like and follow.
One thing that Nijigasaki does attempt to do is break with some elements of the established formula, and while it does still have that familiar structure of trying to form an idol group and push through all the challenges that are thrown the girls’ way, there’s no school to save from closing or any big melodrama. Instead, it comes across as cute and relatively light-hearted, tucked away from the limelight of some of the heavier beats of its predecessors.
This does present a problem though in a feeling of a lack of ambition, where it comes across as more of a spin-off rather than the core entry in the franchise it is meant to be. The main conflict is resolved fairly early, and there’s a lack of direction for a lot of the series with nothing for the girls to really aim for. This is where the series falls down as a whole, as the connecting thread isn’t strong enough to keep pulling you along for the entire ride.
This does come back around when we get to the big finale of the School Idol Festival, but it’s honestly too little too late, even if it does go out with a bang. The last few episodes are where it really shines, as it really nails its central concept of showing a group of idols who each perform solo, but at the same time come together as a group and help each other out. It’s grounded and realistic, feeling very similar to how some talent agencies operate in cases where you see individual artists or talents pitching together and collaborating, particularly in the VTuber world. We also get some lovely character arcs for Ayumu and Yu, with the latter surprisingly emerging as the strongest character despite being the representation of the player in the mobile game.
For those who are coming into this for the music, I can say you’re in for an absolute treat as this is the area where it truly lives up the franchise’s fame by inserting some absolutely cracking tunes. It also benefits more from the series’ structure as there really is something for everyone here with each of the characters adopting a different style, including sweet serenades (Ayumu), cutesy idol pop (Kasumi), pop-rock (Setsuna) and even EDM (Karin). The latter two are definitely my personal favourites and tend to be instant crowd pleasers in live concerts with songs like “DIVE!” and “VIVID WORLD” being designed to get you on your feet. The opening, “Nijiiro Passions!” and the ending, “NEO SKY, NEO MAP!” are also a couple of great tracks, while the series’ score, composed by Naoki Endo, features a range of catchy tunes and themes that fit well with the actual animation.
Animated by Sunrise, the visuals are very cute and colourful as you would expect from an idol show, however it doesn’t feel quite as high budget as its predecessors, as there are more noticeable montage segments and usage of still frames. Music performances look good and put an interesting spin on things by making them more like a music video, inserting animated scenes based on the art that was used for the ultra-rare cards in the game.
It also makes good use of Odaiba as a setting, following on from both the original series and Sunshine!! in bringing a real area of Japan to life. Choosing Odaiba is also interesting as it is not only the location of the life size Unicorn Gundam (which does get a cameo!) but is also the location for the annual Tokyo Idol Festival, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the event offered some inspiration for the series’ big hurrah. Using Tokyo Big Sight for the school though is pretty hilarious as the place is far too big!
The UK release of the series is brought to us by Anime Limited, with all 13 episodes presented over 2 discs featuring both the English dub and Japanese with English subtitles. I think the English dub is okay, but I did find some of the character voices were a bit too similar to each other making them hard to pick out. The Japanese cast does a better job of giving each character a distinct style of speaking and is generally warmer and more colourful in tone; eccentricities tend to be a little toned down in comparison in English.
On-disc extras include Season 3 of the animated yon-koma comic strip Nijiyon!, as well as promotional videos, commercials and clean opening and ending. Physical extras come packaged in a smart looking dark blue collector’s box and include a 28-page booklet showcasing characters, outfits and settings, and a lovely set of art cards featuring the art from the Japanese blu-ray volumes.
Overall, the first season of Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club is a solid and enjoyable entry in the franchise, but it doesn’t do anything special despite it trying to change direction and break away from the established formula. While it has good music and a varied cast of colourful characters, it’s just too unambitious and lacks a driver for the plot to keep you hooked all the way through. Meanwhile, its episodic format can work against it, where you may find yourself turning off for characters that don’t appeal to you. Despite all this, it does finish on a strong note and I think those bored of some of the franchise’s more common story beats and character designs will find this a refreshing change of pace.