Love Live! Nijigasaki Gakuen School Idol Doukoukai Review

Title: Love Live! Nijigasaki Gakuen School Idol Doukoukai / Love Live! Mijigasaki High School Idol Club
Length: 13 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Music, comedy, drama, romance
Year of release: 2020

I’ve yet to write a review of other parts of the Love Live! franchise, but let’s get it out of the way quickly. The first two seasons of School Idol Project, following μ’s (pronounced Muse), was a mess – a punchy one, mind you, with fantastic comic scenes, strong music and memorable (if highly gimmicky) characters. Put all that together and you’ve got one of anime’s modern ‘cult classics’, with problems that even fans would point to (dodgy CGI performance sequences and overdramatic melodrama, to name the most common), but strong enough at its tenets (cast, musicality, comedy) that it easily gained a following. Sunshine, the first spinoff following the Aquors unit, was both a step forward and a step back; it got better at the bad bits, with less grating drama and less silly characters, but was decidedly less funny, had much less memorable characters and didn’t have that excellent visual comedy.

The third spinoff, Nijigasaki Gakuen, feels like yet another step in the direction that Sunshine went. We’re getting further away from archetypal characters and further away from the genius visual-comic hijinks. And yet, it feels like they stumbled onto just the right mixture. Nijigasaki Gakuen has the right blend of characterisation, and actually good drama (in a first for the franchise).

If μ’s was Love Live!’s best attempt at creating a dynamic cast, then Nijigasaki is the weakest; these idols are far less memorable, but they’re also far less like caricatures. Dynamism was exchanged for nuance, and exploring the cast is embedded into Nijigasaki’s structure. After reforming the idol group by episode 3, mega-idol-fan Yuu becomes a helping-hand/cheerleader for these girls to get their first performances and overcome their personal trials in episodic plots.

I would say that the series gets off somewhat on the wrong foot by showing Kasumi first. Kasumi is, hands down, the gimmickiest character of the cast who wants to be cute, but her episode is hijacked by the ongoing plot of the feud that shut the club in the first place, and also Ayumu, Yuu’s bestie who was only just convinced to give idoldom a good an episode ago. But it gets better from there when we learn about Setsuna’s ambitions colliding with the other girl’s visions, and Yuu convinces her to rejoin via a heartfelt confession.

All Love Live series got quite romantic between the girls, but the closer we’ve gotten to human characters, the more real it’s all felt. Throw in Yuu’s steadfast confession to Setsuna, showing the series’ fantastic use of camera shakes and a killer OST, and wow. I added ‘romance’ in the genre list above and that’s because, yeah, it’s hard to see these scenes without clear romantic overtones. It doesn’t feel like pandering (School Idol Project’s did) or ephermerality (like in Sunshine), but genuine romantic affection, and hell yeah, am I for it. This is the series at its best, and this ain’t even the best of the confessions. Oh boy. There’s more to come.

Other girls get episodic moments – Ai deals with feeling like she’s okay enough but can’t stand out; Rina struggles with her inability to express and the gang help her find a way; the ‘sleepy’ idol turns out to have a reason behind that otherwise normal-idol-gimmick; Shizuku worries about people not liking the real her. Perhaps that last one is particularly biting in an industry that any outlooker can see isn’t genuine, but these episodic plots all have strong emotional climaxes – often solved by other girls in the cast than just Yuu, creating a great sense of community. There’s a real connection between audience and idol and idol and cast. Except in Kasumin’s case. Poor girl. She’s the comic punching bag.

The characters become defined, not by their style, their gimmick, their musical taste or their personality. Sure, they have a few gimmicky traits, such as Setsuna having a low-key anime fanboy-mode, but that doesn’t define who she is, it just helps out comic sections (which are okay). The cast become defined by the journey they each go through. Comedy sequences, particularly in the final episode, fall on the charming side – less funny, more intimate; less of a structured punchline, more like a friend saying something silly and warming the room with everything you share. Maybe these characters aren’t as memorable as School Idol Project, but that’s a trade I’ll make any day for this sort of depth.

Especially when there’s one consistent character travelling through every story. The one girl that isn’t an idol. Yuu. Unlike prior Love Live! entries, Nijigasaki’s unit originated in a mobile game, and Yuu represents the player character (hence why she’s somewhat like the Producer from iDOLM@STER). Yet, despite her being adapted from a blank face with no characterised dialogue options, she becomes the beating heart of the series and even gets her own arc. As all the other idols are chasing their dreams, she, too, is encouraged to do her best. Her ballsy confidence, to say what she feels, makes her a fun and energetic protagonist that deals with problems that come her way in a passionate way. Sure, I love Ai’s optimistic energy, and I love the few moments where Setsuna goes off all otakuy (hard relate, girl), but Yuu’s go-get-’em attitude and clear communication is what I wanted to see the most of. How often do I get to say that about a protagonist? Not often.

Now for the controversy. Love Live! has continually gotten better at CGI, but it’s still CGI. The School Idol Project Movie looked fantastic when using CGI, but there’s different constraints on TV series, so Sunshine was a step-down. I’d say that the School Idol Project Movie was a bit more ambitious with its choreography and settings than here, but the compositing of CGI and 2d in Nijigasaki is its equal – that is to say that it’s very good… but still CGI. The musical performances that tie-up episodic plots are fun, and typically turn into montages of the character demonstrating what they’ve learned and have this cathartic air to them, but if you’re not a fan of idol music, then you can simply ignore them, skipping to the end like EDs. They’re not, ultimately, that important – this isn’t 2011’s iDOLM@STER.

But this isn’t iDOLM@STER. This is Love Live!, and Nijigasaki is the Love Live! franchise at its least Love Live!. It’s so much more inviting than prior series, but its ‘special something’ isn’t something that will be relegated to cult status. The ‘special something’ of Nijigasaki is its excellent episodics and character development – these are things that, I think, anybody looking, not necessarily for an ‘idol anime’ or ‘cute girl’ anime, but for a genuinely ‘good’ anime, will be after primarily.

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