“Love Live!” Breaks the Formula in Latest “NijiGaku” Series

Bradford Ozuk // The Watchdog.

The “Love Live!” franchise has dominated the idol industry since its inception in 2013. Creating memorable characters and getting them to perform songs as a group turned out to be an easy way to create a devout fanbase around the series. Over the last decade they have gained worldwide recognition, with their second generation in 2016 branching out to performances in the United States. It’s not for everybody, but it has done what it set out to do exceptionally well. The characters were (usually) vibrant and memorable, and the songs ranged from unique to downright iconic.

However, when “Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club” (NijiGaku) was announced for 2020, it changed the scope of what Sunrise could do with its project. The two previous generations, while immensely successful, seemed almost too similar at their core. The characters from either generation seemed like they operated off the same tropes as their counterparts.

The nine NijiGaku idols were initially introduced as individual characters for their new mobile rhythm game. Additionally, a tenth character operated as the player character in this game to make it feel like they were within the “Love Live!” universe. They adopted an entirely different approach to the story fans had come to know and love so far. Whereas the previous two generations were designed to compete as a group to win the Love Live tournament, these new NijiGaku idols operated solely as individuals. They came together as friends and rivals, but sang solo songs and performed on their own. It didn’t really matter considering they weren’t supposed to get an anime; until it did. 

From Left to Right: Shioriko, Shizuku, Setsuna, Rina

The immense popularity of the characters led to an anime announcement that ended up debuting in 2020. Considering the individualistic nature of the premise, it led to the best “Love Live!” experience I have ever had. Each character had their own motivations to perform and got to be entirely unique. While the group-centric approach meant each character would have to cater to a specific theme for every performance, the NijiGaku characters got to stand out in songs catered specifically to who they were:

  • Ayumu Uehara fit the prototypical school idol we had gotten to see in prior generations; showcasing a lot of fluffy and sweet imagery.
  • Kasumi Nakasu, the self-proclaimed cutest idol in existence, is more upbeat in her music, featuring a lot of bright pastel colors.
  • Shizuku Osaka is an actress in the Theater Club and prefers to perform ballads that tell a story, though she is very versatile.
  • Setsuna Yuki was sometimes described as a “legendary” idol whose real identity was a mystery. Her songs are predominantly J-Rock in nature, with heavy guitar and fiery visuals.
  • Kanata Konoe is perpetually sleepy, which bleeds into her performances. Her songs are slower-paced and feature soft and relaxed imagery.
  • Emma Verde, a transfer student from Switzerland, evokes a lot of European folk styles in her songs, including instruments associated with those regions.
  • Rina Tennoji struggles to show her emotions and carries around a notebook that she uses to express herself. Her music is very upbeat and leans heavily into electronic styles to emulate her tech-heavy nature.
  • Karin Asaka, a part-time model, is a mature and mysterious character. Her music features a lot of high-tempo dance songs that focus on themes such as love.
  • Ai Miyashita fits the character model of someone who has an endless number of friends. Her athletic nature and affinity for puns bleed into her upbeat songs about friendship and happiness.

By the end of the season, each of these characters were firmly represented as individuals and created a group identity that set itself apart from both “Love Live!” and other idol shows as a whole. Getting to treat the show as a collection of individuals as opposed to a group let the show focus on developing each character, one at a time. This led to none of the characters feeling left behind, unlike those in previous generations.

Of course, Sunrise wasn’t happy with having only this much content. The second season again shattered our preconceptions of what made up a “Love Live!” show. They added three more characters, for example:

  • Shioriko Mifune is on the school council with Setsuna and takes a special interest in supporting the School Idol Club, considering her older sister was previously a school idol.
  • Lanzhu Zhong is a transfer student from China who wanted to be a school idol, but didn’t think the NijiGaku group could match her, so she operates on her own.
  • Mia Taylor, an exchange student from New York, is a gifted songwriter who writes the songs that Lanzhu performs. She’s mostly indifferent to everyone until members of the School Idol Club rope her into their own activities.
Shioriko, Lanzhu and Mia Performing

NijiGaku was the first “Love Live!” generation to introduce new characters to the group after the first season. 12 characters (13 if you include the adapted player character) is an immense amount of people to develop in a 13-episode anime season. In previous editions of the franchise, it would have meant those who were on the verge of being left behind might be abandoned entirely. But given how the first season was approached, each character had a distinct identity. All the new characters had to do was find a way to naturally integrate into the group, which was done exceptionally well.

That wasn’t the only surprise this season had in store. Previous “Love Live!” generations had sub-units, which divided the characters into groups of three to fit a more specific vibe and create different songs. What’s notable about how NijiGaku approached sub-units isn’t that they went for groups of four, three, and two instead, but rather that they canonically incorporated those sub-units into the anime. “Love Live!” had never previously established them in-anime, leaving their formations up to our imaginations.

NijiGaku is a major shift from the “Love Live!” formula. People who had followed the franchise got to experience something different, and those who didn’t like the initial formula might be able to appreciate this new style. The music was phenomenal as always, and the characters were at their very best. The performance animation changed from solely 3D CGI to a mix of CGI and hand-drawn images that got around the limits of the technology by breaking up the CGI with fantastic art.

It’s an experience I don’t think I will ever have with other music shows. “Love Live! Nijigasaki School Idol Club” provides an exceptional watch that puts their previous franchise entries in the dirt. It’s a show everyone should experience, and I promise you won’t regret it.

From Left to Right: Emma, Kanata, Karin, Rina, Mia, Lanzhu, Kasumi, Shioriko, Ai, Yu Takasaki, Ayumu, Shizuku, Setsuna