Japan Really, Really Loves Love Live!
Japan is a country that wants to have it’s cake and eat it too. It somehow straddles so many seemingly disparate lines that, at times, it ‘s almost impossible to know which side of the line you should be on, or even which side you’re already on.
Generally speaking, the internationally recognized image of the Japanese tourist, obsessed with global brands, bands and contraband, persists in real life. Europe’s designer labels make serious green here, Disney is a religion and One Direction are, unfortunately, massively popular. That said, Japan certainly has the capacity to live in a self-sustaining culture bubble if it should ever choose to do so; it’s got some of the most unique and sought after fashion in the world, it’s own animation industry pumps out so much material every year that fans fail to keep track of which fictional character they’re currently aiming their affections at, and as popular as 1D might be, Idol groups like Morning Musume and AKB48, one of few things that Japan can actually claim to have invented, still rule the charts. Japan loves international stuff, but not at the expense of it’s own stuff and when all of that comes together, people lose their minds. And a lot of money.
The whole idol thing is uniquely Japanese. Essentially performers (usually music, but not always), and usually female (but not always), idols sing cheesy pop songs and smile a lot, looking and behaving as cute as the human form will allow and occasionally breaking the laws of physics to go further than that. Idol music angers just as many people as it endears, but it is undoubtedly a huge part of Japan’s pop culture landscape. Over the last few years, some animation studios have had simultaneous eureka moments and several shows about Idol culture have made it to television; the cute, but forgettable Idolmaster, the surprisingly poignant and realistic Wake Up Girls! and the insanely popular, seemingly unstoppable behemoth that is Love Live!
At the time of writing, every convenience store in Tokyo (and Saitama, where I live) is stocking a range of Love Live! stationary items. Gamers, Akihabara’s most famous geek store, has devoted it’s entire 6th floor to celebrating the release of the 7th volume of season 2 on DVD and Blu-Ray. Every crane game center in Akiba is full of Love Live! merchandise and at the weekends the staff dress as Love Live! characters and hand out free Love Live! calendars, tissues and document sleeves. Every arcade has a life-size cut out of a different character, with post-its and markers so people can write notes or, as in most cases, love letters. One character, Rin, became so popular that Sega chose her as their official mascot for 2015. Everywhere you go you see Love Live!. Whether it’s in the stores, the arcades, the cinemas (posters for this summers Love Live! movie are already up) or even just cars on the street, there is no escaping it.
It would be easy to look at promotional material for Love Live! and assume it’s popularity is just down to the superficial; Love Live! is about cute girls singing cute songs and people like that.While undeniably true, it’s only really part of the reason for its colossal success. Where Wake Up Girls! focussed on the day-to-day struggles of a burgeoning idol group, as well as going into some of the pretty sombre realities of chasing fame in Japan, and The Idolmaster just used cute girls to cover its own complete lack of substance, Love Live! straddled the line between the two, delivering a fun, upbeat, at times hilarious show, that wasn’t afraid to be reasonable and realistic when it mattered.
When her school is on the verge of shutting down, 2nd year student, Honoka decides that starting a school-idol group is the best way to get new students to enroll and keep it in business. Unfortunately, she knows nothing about idol groups and her two friends, Kotori and Umi, are no help either. Add to the mix a 1st year musical prodigy with conflicting feelings about the legitimacy of idol music, an idol geek who knows everything there is to know about them, a former ballerina hiding her passions because of previous failure, and you’ve got everything you need for a show that embraces idol culture, that runs with it in all its fun and exuberance and innocence while also telling a personal, intimate story about the people involved and their individual motives.
Don’t get me wrong, Love Live! does the idol thing perfectly; the songs are catchy, the dance routines are adorable and the cast are cuter than a basket of doe-eyed kittens, but behind the curtain, if you watch closely enough you can see some genuine narrative skill working quietly in the background. The nine main girls are characterized brilliantly, all completely unique and memorable in their own way, even if some of them don’t get quite enough screen time, and each one services the plot in a way that feels natural and satisfying.
Love Live! stands tall over Wake Up Girls! and The Idolmaster because it stands staunchly between them. It straddles that line between meaning and merriment and that’s exactly the type of thing that the Japanese like. It has resonated with hoards of people by celebrating idol culture while also holding a microscope over it. In a time when Dempagumi Inc., one of the biggest idol groups in the country, started their career in a back alley live house in Akihabara, idol music has transcended its original manufactured nature and is now manufacturing itself organically like any other genre. Love Live! takes the time to examine how and why an idol group might come to be, and in doing so creates a cast that feel like real people, and all over Japan, real people have fallen head over heels in love with them.