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My time with Love Live! is much like the few members of its nine strong cast who were reluctant about being school idols. I wonder how a pushy, narrow sighted girl managed to rope me into this crazy gig, and then I wonder if this idiot turned friend will drag me to another adventure that was more fun than I ever thought possible. The nine strong cast is μ's (pronounced ‘Muse’), named for the Nine Goddesses of Music. Gods don’t die, and neither can my love for their antics, their struggles, and their story.

But Umi Sonoda would suggest I explain everything before acting sentimental, and I wouldn’t expect less from little miss ‘modesty and logic will hopefully win the day (or at least try to guide it).’ She’s the kind of person who tries to keep others on track, sometimes a bit too much when her friends would rather relax at the beach. Thankfully, her sense of discipline is never misguided, as she’ll often pick up her friends after they fall from a mistake. She doesn’t move past being the voice of reason, but she is a major reason μ's goes far.

μ's itself is lead by Honoka Kousaka, whose motive for being a school idol is as crazy as it sounds. Her school is close to closing down due to the lack of new students, and the juniors before her will be the last new students the school accepts. After a chance glimpse at how a concert from a school idol group has brought attention to their school, she has the idea of being a school idol to hopefully attract new students to her school. Enough students to the point where her school won’t close down. Surely such an impulsive idea won’t be where the story takes off from, right?

Well, the story starts there but it doesn’t take off until three episodes into the first season. Reality hits Honoka as her first concert fails, and from that point on the story really begins. Much of season one is about our lively lyrical leader bringing other students to her cause. Despite this, the story doesn’t get serious but doesn’t lack for purpose either. One of the main strengths of Love Live! is an unbridled sense of fun that never loses sight of its story. There’s enough stage practice to make the lead up into every concert believable, but even the antics outside that are always meaningful.

From the change into crazy costumes to reinvent their image for fear of growing stale, to the beach episode that brings Maki Nishikino out of her shell in more ways than one, to the odd responsibility shared by Honoka, Umi, and Kotori Minami in season two, every moment is more than its humor. Despite the fun, there are still times when the story gets serious, and it’s almost never unfounded as even things mentioned in passing come to show their importance later on.

It especially shows with Kotori, whose story deals with the issue of what it means to contribute to a team through humorous bouts of ‘writer’s block.’ Kotori herself hasn’t a single aggressive bone in her body, but that doesn’t mean a sweet and cheerful persona is all she is. She has her doubts and worries, and her reticence at one point truly tests the friendship between herself, Umi, and Honoka. Her story implies the question of what it means to chase a dream, and whether the chase can make someone lose sight of what’s around them.

And for third year student Nico Yazawa, being a part of μ's is another chance to chase her dream. There’s a good, if prideful, reason she wants to become a school idol, and her over the top ‘cute’ persona shows that dedication. In truth, she’s very smug and cynical, but not without good reason. In every jaded person is an optimist waiting to let loose, and Nico does quite enjoy herself as the series goes on, however smug she still acts. Her vast array of idol stuff like concert DVDs also shows her dedication to the art, even before going into her backstory. Much to the pleasure of first year student Hanayo Koizumi.

Hanayo is the old case of how passion can call out an entirely different side to someone. At a glance, she’s timid, and her joining μ's is partly thanks to a small push from her friend Rin Hoshizora and classmate Maki. But from that point on, she’s often energetic, especially in the presence of idols and being an idol fan herself, and of course during μ's concerts. There’s a kernel of truth to how her interests and hobbies suddenly bring out such an involved side to her, but it isn’t over the top to the point of unbelievable.

Then again, the only unbelievable—and weak link by extension—part of the story is Rin. She’s mostly ‘just there’ in season one, while season two messily develops her with an issue that’s never brought up or hinted at save for early in season one. Her time in the spotlight involves being the temporary leader of μ's for…some reason, and wearing an outfit that’s not her style just because. Though still a quite likable tomboy with a penchant for cat speak, the brief change to that other side of her is largely unfounded to the point where likability is all she has going for her.

Compare this to Maki, who doesn’t lack for believability and likability. Despite being as young as Hanayo and Rin, she carries herself with a senior like demeanor to speak level even with third years Eli Ayase and Nozomi Tojo. At the same time, her true self often shows whether she’s flustered or just being a little more open around Nico and Nozomi, and everyone else. And yet, her want to hide her feelings is less about any one of her friends and more about being truly reticent despite her apparent sharpness. Maki is well developed, and not just for her body as Nozomi learns firsthand(s).

For the curious, the big chested Nozomi has a small running joke throughout the series where she gropes the girls of μ's. Nozomi herself is often in the background, but due to her role and reason for being in μ's, it makes sense. Her role is someone who watches over these girls (especially Eli), her reason more than just wanting to watch over them as she befriends them. Mischievous and motherly, Nozomi looks after μ's as if it was her own creation, and the creation of her own person isn’t lacking despite (or maybe even because of?) her lack of screentime.

Of course, her friend Eli isn’t open to μ's being a thing at all. Not at first. Her doubt towards them is rooted in her past success, and doesn’t think they’ll do anything for the school’s future. She has an interesting parallel with Honoka for much of season one, in that despite thinking differently about school idols, they both want to save the school. As student council president, though, Eli works behind the scenes as μ's grows in numbers, ever tempted to let it go and just have fun with them. Her struggle between her duty and desire, despite her pedigree, makes her nothing short of compelling.

But even as Eli becomes a kind of second leader in season two, it’s still Honoka at the heart of μ's. Honoka herself is emotion personified, the sheer range of her facial expressions communicating what dialog can’t. A melancholic gaze, a smile that triumphs over her tears, a crossed scowl, an indifferent but thoughtful gaze, an infectiously energetic smile, and many more faces all serve to perfectly round out her persona. That doesn’t mean she’s without her faults, as she can be focused to the point of losing sight of what’s around her, something that comes up toward the end of season one and the start of season two.

It’s during the second season that Honoka tries to stay aware of what’s around her, partly due to a personal incident in season one, partly from an extra duty as student council president in season two. Yeah. I don’t know how she became student council president either. The best guess among viewers is, after the school was saved, nobody was better fit to be student council president than the school’s savior. Yeah. I don’t know how rallying school idols translates to running a kind of government either.

Thankfully, Honoka eventually, if reluctantly, grows into the role of student council president, and never misses a step as part of μ's as they look to compete at the Love Live! event. During season one, they learned about the Love Live! being a chance for school idols to really show off what they can do. Unfortunately, they had to drop out at the last minute, but they got enough attention anyway to the point where the school was saved. So why would μ's still want to compete at the next Love Live! event?

To which I answer: why must there be a deeper reason to want to do something? Does it matter if passion starts from duty? If they’ve made it this far, why let that effort go to waste? With the introduction of its nine strong cast being largely finished in season one, season two changes the focus from ‘Honoka and the rest of μ's’ to ‘here is μ's as a group of equals.’ Not just Honoka, but all of μ's wants to compete in and win the Love Live! event. Their time in the spotlight much more even, each girl no less passionate than the next. But with their sights set on Love Live!, rival school idol group A-Rise has their sights set on them.

In many ways, A-Rise is the antithesis to μ's. The latter starts as a group of three with Honoka, Umi, and Kotori, and blossoms into nine great performers, while the former is only the trio of Tsubasa Kira, Erena Todo, and Anju Yuki. For how alike these six look respectively, they still take on their own identities, μ's donning frills and youthful vigor while A-Rise sports sleek smooth sensuality in their wardrobe and dance moves. In a refreshing change of pace, though, A-Rise isn’t a conniving group trying to sabotage the main cast. They simply want to win the Love Live!, and truly look forward to facing μ's. There’s mutual respect between both groups.

But as μ's gets closer to the big event, the story becomes less about the actual competition and more about the looming finale they can’t avoid. This plays perfectly into why Nozomi is part of μ's, as the story of nine comes full circle before she, Eli, and Nico are to graduate after the Love Live! event. The thought weighs on their minds, but the show must go on and they rightfully cherish every moment together. Every misadventure, every squabble, every concert teaches them to accept the bitter with the sweet.

Unfortunately, the concerts during season one are mostly nothing sweet to look at. It often looks like a smile plastered on a dancing doll. Thankfully, season two greatly improves the animation during these scenes, blending the 2D and 3D work into a cohesive showcase. The coloring and design makes for vivid variation. Even the darker colors of A-Rise shine brightly, and the thematic unity across costumes still have subtle differences to reflect each person, such as Anju being A-Rise’s only wearer of frills, or Umi’s outfit in one concert rocking shorts instead of a skirt.

So the show looks great, but it also knows HOW to look great. The series knows its girls are the cover attraction to itself, but thankfully it doesn’t overplay its hand. It forgoes sexualizing its cast for an emotional connection through personality and appearance. It’s flattery that induces a star struck state, without objectifying the cast in any negative fashion. Even the swimsuit episode is fairly harmless, while Nozomi’s groping antics miraculously avoid falling into the suggestive moans that are prone to happen in other shows. Early concert scenes aside, I see no reason to call the visuals nothing short of excellent.

Now, no amount of outstanding outfits or lovely lighting will do anything without music. And indeed, Love Live!’s soundtrack is far and away its strongest aesthetic element. There’s music for every occasion, from the quick tempo of a chase scene, to an over the top piece for a joke, to the slow piano keys for matching melancholy, and even the revitalizing recap music at the start of each of episode, all compliment the mood to great effect. And the few moments where music is absent are well chosen, and stand out that much more for it.

But while the instrumentals are good, the real reason Love Live! is a musical treat are the actual songs, which it never lacks. ‘Private Wars’ and ‘Shocking Party’ play hard, fast, and clean, capturing the aura of coolness about A-Rise. ‘Advance Tomorrow’ reflects the spirit of the show, being loud and fun but starting from genuinely heartfelt intentions through a soprano style voice. And of course, the two opening numbers, ‘We’re All In This Moment’ and ‘That Is Our Miracle’ carry lyrical significance with what happens in the story. This isn’t music that’s just a joy to listen to, but pieces that say something more when listening closely.

One of the two songs this is most exemplified in is ‘Start;Dash.’ Unlike much of μ's other songs, it starts with an almost melancholic feeling, starts singing in a defiant fashion, and ends in a manner that says ‘we’re down, but not out.’ It’s the piece Honoka, Umi, and Kotori sing at their first concert, and the piece μ's sings at the end of season one. The other song is the unforgettable ‘Snow Halation,’ testifying to the heights people can reach as they work together and understand one another’s feelings; words do no justice to the power of this track.

There are still more songs than these, from ‘No Brand Girls,’ to ‘Our LIVE, Our LIFE with you,’ to ‘Wonder Zone,’ to ‘The Door To Our Dreams’; the sheer number of great songs, well done instrumentals, and amount of story significance on each piece, makes the soundtrack of Love Live! nothing but a musical masterpiece. And yes, I’m only counting the music the show itself had, tempted as I am to talk about ‘Love Marginal’ among others.

What I DO want to talk about, is how hard it is for me to discuss Love Live! in any critical manner. It’s a series that caught me completely off guard when I was just looking for something to pass the time. It’s a show that makes me wonder just how much aesthetics matter to the viewing experience. It’s a story that forces me to see that even the simplest looking things can be more than meets the eye. And it’s a tale of gung ho dream chasing that’s infectiously optimistic.

Now, some people will surely have problems with the ending, and it’s usually not the kind of finale I go for either. Then again, every rule has exceptions. For those people who’ve already seen both seasons of Love Live!, let me say that I can overlook season two’s ending because I’m not expecting another adventure.

I just want an encore.

9/10 story
9/10 animation
10/10 sound
8/10 characters
9/10 overall

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