The Love Live! franchise has come a long way since its original debut in 2010, becoming a major juggernaut in Bandai Namco’s portfolio and encompassing a media mix from anime and manga, to video games, cute merchandise, and even a regular circuit of live concerts that draw in thousands of fans. Love Live! Superstar!! appears on the scene as the franchise’s fourth major entry and it evidently has a lot to live up to, not just in meeting fans’ expectations, but in its creators’ desire to break new ground in an already crowded space. Is it up to the challenge? Let’s find out!
At the beginning of the series we’re introduced to Kanon Shibuya, a high school girl who loves singing but, due to an incident when she was younger, can’t perform in front of other people. While she had applied to the nearby music school, Yuigaoka Girls’ High School, she ends up not being able to sing at the entrance exam and is bumped down to the school’s general curriculum instead of being on the music programme.
While she had given up on ever chasing a career as a singer, things begin to change when she bumps into fellow first year Keke Tang, an exchange student from Shanghai who wants to set up her own school idol club, and after hearing Kanon’s amazing voice, wants her to be a part of it. While Kanon initially says no, the pair find themselves going up against the stern student council president, Ren Hazuki, who cares only for the school’s reputation and bans school idols on the grounds that they are not serious enough about music. Appealing to the school’s headmistress, the pair get one chance – place first in the upcoming Yoyogi School Idol Festival and their club will be established. With so little time and experience will the pair be able to make it, or will their idol dreams be dashed forever?
While the franchise’s first two iterations focussed on its characters trying to achieve clear goals – namely saving their respective schools from closure – there’s been an effort to move away from this to more character-oriented storytelling, for example with Nijigasaki High School Idol Club being more character vignettes rather than focussing on an overarching storyline. Superstar!! really takes this drive to another level, and, instead of being focused on the music competition, it’s actually more of a character drama that examines the struggles of each of the main girls as they use music and the connection with each other to grow and mature.
While you could say this is similar to what Nijigasaki tried to do, Superstar!! makes it work thanks to its much smaller cast and being able to weave its different character strands into one cohesive whole. Having only five main girls rather than the typical nine allows it to add so much more depth and exploration into their development that you feel a deeper connection to all of them rather than just trying to pick out your favourite depending on what particular trope you like, even if several of the characters here do continue to play to those familiar tropes.
The development arcs for the five girls are spread throughout the series, trying to avoid the once-and-done approach we’ve had in the past, even though it does still put the spotlight on one character’s problems in certain episodes. Some of these character arcs are stronger than others though, and I found that it flagged a bit in the middle, particularly when it looks at Ren and whenever the girls’ rival idol group, Sunny Passion, gets involved.
With both of these, as well as with countless other callbacks and references to the original series, there is a sense of it being held back slightly by nostalgia. One of the main plot points that involves Ren tries to play to those expecting more of the traditional Love Live! formula, and while you’d expect this to have a major impact on the direction of the series, it actually turns out to be so insignificant that it might as well not be there. Meanwhile, Sunny Passion borrow a lot from ARISE, acting as Liella’s mentors in the same way their predecessors did for μ’s, but as a result they feel a step back from Sunshine!!’s Saint Snow, as you don’t feel the same level of connection between the two groups in a way that they could battle each other and push each other forward.
These are just minor gripes though as I’ve grown to love the series’ direction overall over multiple rewatches. It’s incredibly fun with some great comedy and jokes between the main cast in that typical goofy Love Live! style, while their growth over the course of the series is also incredibly moving. While you’ve got the connecting thread of trying to get the school idol club off the ground (which explodes in a very different way from what has come before!) it truly shines when it hooks things up with their individual stories. There is an ongoing plotline around Keke and her family that doesn’t get resolved here, but otherwise you see Kanon’s childhood friend Chisato desperately wanting to stand on her own two feet, Ren’s main plotline of her struggling to live up to her late mother’s legacy as founder of the school, while my personal favourite, struggling actress Sumire, finds herself never being able to get the lead role for anything.
It’s Kanon’s journey that takes centre stage though, continually being explored throughout the series as they go from slowly forming up to pushing on with entering the main competition, eventually becoming the true climax of the series in Episode 11 as everything comes full circle for her. This does leave the final episode in an odd place as it’s really just a reflection on where the group currently stand, but it also works as a great bouncing off point for its second season. The foundations are all there and there’s enough unresolved plot threads that it makes you eager to want to know what happens next.
Animation for the series is once again handled by Sunrise, and it’s clearly a step up visually from Nijigasaki, and more so when compared against Sunshine!!. The art style is gorgeously cute, bright and engaging and really reflects the series’ main settings of Harajuku and Shibuya, vibrantly bringing them to life. I’ve always enjoyed the franchise’s renditions of real-life locations and that remains true here, with recognisable (although renamed) shops and boutiques lining the sides of Takeshita Street and Cat Street, the new National Stadium taking pride of place as the venue for the main Love Live! finals (although largely done to reference and promote the Olympic Games at the time the show aired), and infamously using the exterior of a certain café for Kanon’s house. The actual animation also flows really well, while Yuhei Murota’s character designs are a lovely evolution of his previous work on the franchise.
After Nijigasaki turned its musical parts largely into music videos, it’s nice to see them more grounded in the story here while losing none of the visual splendour. It’s the best CGI work the franchise has seen so far, with all the performances impressing in their stage design and execution. The music itself is strong and makes its own mark on the franchise, often opting for a more delicate and mature tone that feels like a refinement of what we had in the original series. There are some more playful tracks too of course, such as the bouncy “Tokonatsu☆Sunshine” and the jazzy electro-swing inspired “Nonfiction” which has emerged as a fan favourite. The score, composed by Yoshiaki Fujisawa, is also fantastic and carries the action with a range of both beautiful and fun themes, many of which you can clearly identify throughout the series.
The voice acting in the series is excellent and you can tell they’ve gone for the vocal talent in the Japanese language presentation. You have Liyuu starring as Keke, who is an already established singer and cosplayer, but there’s also bright new faces amongst the rest of the cast that can really sing, like Sayuri Date who just like Kanon has a pretty great voice. For music shows I do tend to gravitate toward the original Japanese language presentation, however I do think the dub for this is very good as the English cast fit the characters just as well as their Japanese counterparts. It’s nice to see Chinese American voice actress Julia Gu stepping in for Liyuu’s role for Keke here which she pulls off brilliantly and it’s great having that multicultural representation, while the rest of the cast aren’t really recognisable names either – some have been around for a while but not really in big name roles.
The UK release of the series is brought to us by Anime Limited featuring all 12 episodes in both English and Japanese with English subtitles, packaged in a collector’s art box and full size Scanavo case featuring artwork from the Japanese Blu-ray sets. This art is also featured in the included collection of art cards, while there’s also a small booklet featuring character profiles and interviews with the Japanese cast. On-disc extras feature the “Liella no Uta” animated songs produced for NHK, the promotional videos and commercial for the series, and textless opening and endings (including the textless version of episode 1’s “Mirai Yohou Hallelujah!”).
Overall, Love Live! Superstar!! feels like a fresh step forward for the franchise, employing a smaller cast and lovingly taking its time to develop them over the course of the series to produce some wonderfully moving moments. It’s a more refined and mature package with some of the best music and visuals in the franchise yet, but in some areas it still feels like it’s being held back by lingering nostalgia for the original, which may frustrate some long-time viewers. Even then, watching this is a lot of fun, and for newcomers offers a perfect entry point with plenty to fall in love with.