Monday, September 14, 2015

Anime On the Big Screen: “Love Live! The School Idol Movie”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 12 September 2015
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 99 minutes
Production Date: 2015
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

A year ago or so, I had a blog in which I looked at old anime video tapes, old defunct magazines, music video compilations (e.g. like the two “Bubblegum Crisis” ones) and the occasion anime film that ends up in cinemas locally. I was going to recommence publishing stuff on that blog (I stopped about a year ago), but have decided I’m not ready to restart it. So I’ll be publishing this review here instead.

For those who have been living under a rock for the last five years, otaku are now inexplicably gaga over J-pop idols, not real ones though, animated ones. The popularity of real life mega merchandise machine AKB48 (and its countless spin-offs) has bled into other sectors of otakudom. The first was the video game franchise the iDOLM@STER in 2005. The popularity of the game exploded and unsurprisingly there was ton of merchandise, manga and anime spin offs. Naturally imitators popped up left right and centre such as “Wake Up, Girls!”, “Aikatsu!” and of course this juggernaut of a franchise.

The franchise was originally announced in the July 2010 issue of Dengeki G's magazine as a multimedia project between its publisher, Sunrise and music label Lantis. The magazine laid the groundwork of providing images of the cast as well as the back story. Soon the merchandise was coming in thick and fast, mostly as CD singles and later albums. Manga and other merchandise followed and finally two anime series comprising of 13 episodes each in 2013 and 2014. The show itself followed a group of nine girls who form an idol group (called μ's, pronounced Muse – no, nothing to do with Matt Bellamy) and enter a national school idol competition in order to save their school which due to be shut down. That’s the crux of the story, more here if you’re not familiar with the show or the characters.

Last time I went to one of these one off anime movie events (which Madman seems to be now doing in lieu of their now defunct annual Reel Anime film festival) was back in February 2014 for the “Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion” screening. Like the first film in that series, that screening was emceed (and practically run by) a local cosplay group, who hadn’t even considered the fact that maybe other people outside their little group would be coming to watch the films. So you’d get to the cinema and there would be an unannounced cosplay competition, or the results of a previously played “scavenger hunt”, or giveaways that seemed to exclude people outside their group. Of course none of that was advertised on Dendy’s website… So when I got to the cinema for the “Love Live!” screening, it was much to my surprise that when I got my ticket I was immediately given my bonus poster (pictured above), signature board (mine was an image of Rin) and code to play an online “Love Live!” game (which of course I’m never going to play). Normally this stuff would be given out at the actual door of the theatrette itself. This led me to believe that the local cosplay group had not been invited to help out this time. What a shame!

As the time for the screening rolled around, I noticed that the crowd was completely different to previous screenings. Cosplay was largely absent besides a half-hearted Umi and Nico and nearly half of audience were native Mandarin speakers. I didn’t spot a single anime t-shirt on anyone. The crowd was much smaller as well. Only 90 people showed up in the cinema, compared with the 260 patrons or so for the second Madoka Magica film. Frustratingly there were no seating allocations as per normal Dendy screenings, even though I had already booked and allocated my seat online. First in, best dressed. I was told that they were forced to change cinemas due to some problem. Doing some searching online, none of the usual local fandom groups mentioned the screening at all, which was strange. The online presence of the cosplay group also seems to have disappeared as well. It’s kind of weird that the demographic of anime fandom has changed that much in 18 months here. Even a guy my age who used to come to all of these type of events (seen him around since my anime club days of the mid 1990’s) didn’t show this time. So in lieu of terrible emcees and giveaways we had about 15 minutes of adverts and trailers. No intro from any of the Japanese voice actors which was odd considering Emi Nitta (who plays Honoka) was featured heavily in the English language promotion.

One thing which did happen in the cinema was that after the adverts had begun, a couple of cosplayers, one as Eli, the other as Nico, sat down next to me. 10 minutes into the film itself, the Nico cosplayer starts crying. It wasn’t even an emotional scene. Nico continues to cry on and off for the entire film. Then 30 minutes before the end, Nico goes into full on uncontrollable sobbing, with the Eli cosplayer joining in while trying to comforting her at the same time. Even without that now defunct shithouse cosplay group, I still got my fill of fandom awkwardness and weirdness.

With that out of the way, time to talk about the film then. “Love Live! The School Idol Movie” picks up exactly where the final episode of the TV series left off. The organisers of Love Live! are holding a brand new competition at the Akiba Dome and have asked μ's to help promote it. For reasons unexplained in the film, this promotion is to take place in New York City and μ's performance is to be broadcast live in Japan. All of this despite the fact they’ve already decided to disband. After a couple of amusing side journeys, the girls arrive at their hotel and prepare for the event. They practice in Central Park and are befriended by the locals who speak English rather poorly and/or awkwardly. Hanayo has a terrible hankering for plain white rice and girls go out to local Japanese restaurant. However on the way back Honoka manages to get separated from the group and in a panic takes the wrong train and ends up on Broadway. There she meets a young Japanese woman who is busking on the street with only her beautiful voice. Honoka is taken by her performance and the two end up chatting. She tells Honoka that she was in group that broke up and now she sings on her own. This leads Honoka to have second thoughts about breaking up μ's. The unnamed singer then guides Honoka back to her hotel, but seemingly disappears when Honoka tries to introduce her to the rest of the girls. Honoka is left holding the young woman’s microphone stand case.

The girls end their stint in New York City with a performance in Times Square. Upon returning to Japan the girls immediately realise they are famous with video of the performance playing in the airport and people wanting their autograph. With their fans wanting them to continue with μ's they have second thoughts about disbanding. Honoka talks with the members of A-RISE who tell her they will continue their career even though they have graduated from high school. They suggest she talk to their management company and give her the contact details. The members of μ's come to the conclusion that they have two choices; follow the path of A-RISE and become fully-fledged idols or to hold onto their original determination and end the group after graduation.

That’s about all I can write about this film without giving the ending away. There really isn’t a whole lot to it all. The movie is just a bunch of set pieces strung together with a threadbare story and few character driven gags. That’s it. It probably should be called “Love Live! The School Idol Musical” as the girls often break out into song spontaneously. Sure, there were similar scenes in the series (most notable Honoka’s song at the end of the very first episode of the first series) and most of time the sequences made sense within the story, but here it’s so blatant. There’s just no rhyme or reason to the sudden outbursts of song in the film. And then you have the many unanswered questions that the movie raises. For instance, why in God’s name did they need to go to New York City? Who is the unnamed singer that Honoka befriends (and seemingly follows her back to Kanda)? Where are the staff/crew setting up the New York City performance? How come we never really see the audience in any of μ's performances?

I suppose none of this really matters. The first two seasons of "Love Live!" aren’t exactly taxing on the brain. It’s utterly silly, the characters are stereotypes, comes off as a bit schmaltzy at times and has as much substance as fairy floss. The point of the show (apart from the music) is to showcase the characters and the relationships between all nine girls. That’s why the fans love it; the characters are so damn endearing. However if you cannot connect with the characters, then the franchise isn’t for you. It’s utter fluff. I still don’t understand why they didn’t write in more of a sub plot for the unnamed New York City street singer. I mean she ends up back in Tokyo and won’t go into Honoka’s family sweet shop when invited by Honoka. What was up with that? After reading several reviews and opinions on the film, it seems the girl in question is most likely a Timelord (trying not to give spoilers away here…). I just wish that the makers of the film had at least given a few more clues as to her real identity. In the film her presence could be seen to be open to countless interpretations.

Putting that small annoyance to the side, undoubtedly the best part of the film is the two concluding musical sequences. They are just two beautiful fantasy set pieces, especially the grand finale. Watching the film, the one thing which really stuck out at me is how much the basic story is so similar to the “K-ON!” movie. In both the girls go over to an English speaking country, perform, head back to Japan to graduate before breaking up the band. It is rather an unfortunate comparison as I think “K-ON!” does a far better job at showing school girls enjoying their first time on an overseas trip than “Love Live!” does.

The film is nothing but a love note to the fans of the franchise. The animation is fantastic (though I’m still put off by CG models of the girls during concert sequences), there’s tons of humour and lots of (non-sexual) fan service and it’s just utterly fun. Having said that, it’s ultimately an empty vessel. You won’t find an exciting plot with lot of twists and turn here. It’s all played pretty safe, which could be seen as major disappointment. However the spectacle of it all, especially the concert sequences just about make up for the rather threadbare story. 7 out of 10. Bandai Visual in Japan is releasing the movie on Blu-ray in December with English subtitles as they did with both seasons of the TV series. You may want to import than rather than waiting for NIS America who still haven’t released the second series on Blu-ray.

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