If there have been any worries about the future of the idol genre, Love Live 2 has dispelled them.
It's hard to deny that the first season of Love Live began with a rocky start. There wasn't much to set itself apart from other idol shows (especially with the likes of Idolmaster and Aikatsu dominating the genre) and it fell prone to melodrama far more than it should have. But, much like K-ON's mediocre first season and excellent second season, Love Live 2 has managed to do more than improve upon its predecessor - it has genuinely become an amazing anime.
I won't lie, I was no fan of the franchise when the TV series made its debut in early 2013. I dropped it after the first episode aired and wondered later on what people saw in the series. But now having finished the second season, Love Live has become one of my favourite anime franchises.
Certainly it is not an anime that will test the mind or change anyone's life. It is simply a story of nine teenage girls forming an idol group together. However, it would be an insult to describe Love Live as yet another "cute girls doing cute things" anime, as it is a far more meaningful experience. The drama feels genuine this time around, and by the end it is hard to prevent the tears from rolling when the story of μ's reaches its end.
From the very first episode of the second season, it is clear that Sunrise has made a significant effort to improve the series. It looks better, sounds better, feels better and is far more fun to watch. Most importantly, the girls of μ's all feel like genuine characters now. Honoka's passion makes her truly seem like the leader and centre of the group, whereas the first season didn't have much reason beyond "well, somebody had to be the leader, right?" Even the characters who were given little to no screen-time in the first season (Rin, Eli, Nozomi and Hanayo) are fleshed and given their own episode to shine. It is finally a story about the nine of them.
Considering there have only been twenty-six episodes to develop a cast of nine characters, Sunrise has done a commendable job of doing so without neglecting the story in return. Perhaps the characters could have benefited from another season of episodes, but they hardly feel lacking by the end. The addition of a rival idol group (A-RISE) also makes the story feel less insular. It is no longer confined to the school itself, and with the school's closure no longer being an issue, the girls can finally focus on performing as idols do.
Nico is easily one of the show's greatest assets. Sure, her "nico nico-nii" catchphrase is cute and all (I go a little bit crazy whenever she utters it), but Nico's presence accomplishes far more than simply being a vehicle for the cute. Of all the character-focused episodes, Nico's is the greatest. It shows that she really, truly cares about the group and is not simply in it for pride and ego. The idol industry is Nico's life, the act of being an idol her most treasured dream. She cares deeply for her siblings and performs primarily to make them smile. She's a kind person inside- contrary to her rough behaviour with the rest of μ's. Perhaps that behaviour may make her somewhat unsuitable for the role of an idol, but she's more serious about it than anyone else. Nico may not be idealised as idols usually are, but that flawed, genuinely human side of her makes her makes her all the more loveable, I think. Even if she does not resonate with you as a character, it's hard to deny that she at least provides an interesting contrast with the rest of μ's. It would not be anywhere near as interesting without her.
The story peaks in the last four episodes. With the graduation of the third-years quickly drawing closer, a tear-filled goodbye seems inevitable. It is very similar to the final episodes of K-ON's second season. With the prospect of Nico leaving and μ's potentially being disbanded after graduation, I could not help but feel my chest tighten a bit. And then the final episode really drove those feelings home. Perhaps they'll join together once again and find careers as professional idols. I doubt it is the end for Nico, Eli and Honoka.
Like most idol anime, Love Live has a fantastic soundtrack. All the songs the girls perform carry their own theme and message, and none of them (aside from the opening and ending) are used more than once in the anime. Each song represents a new stage for μ's, another step forward as performers and as people. The music peaks with the performance of "Snow Halation" in the ninth episode, a rising, sad yet uplifting piece that showcases the appeal of μ's. It is probably one of the best vocal tracks I have heard in an anime to date. There is also a really cool scene at the end of the 12th episode that I won't spoil. Everything with the music sorts of 'clicks' in that moment.
It should be noted though that the ninth episode does blunder a bit with its choice of music. As the second-years traverse through a snowstorm, there is an incredibly melodramatic, orchestral piece blasting in the background that would feel more appropriate were demons from hell rising up and setting Earth on fire or something. The second season has improved so much that it is frustrating to see it regress to the first season's melodrama, even for just a brief moment.
As for the visuals, Love Live looks well above average. The CGI during the performances can be a little bit distracting (and I know some people despise CGI of any form) but between that and low frame-rate, off-model animation, I would gladly take the CGI. It certainly looks better than Aikatsu's CGI, anyway. The rest of the visuals on the other hand holds up reasonably well. There are scenes here and there where lazy, static shots are used for longer than necessary, and while it certainly is no Attack on Titan, Love Live looks just fine.
Love Live has come a long way from its slow beginnings. While it will hardly convert anyone who detests the 'moe' art style, those who have even the slightest inkling of interest in the series will likely find the second season to be at the very top of the idol (and perhaps even music) genre. An anime can be both cute and a genuinely great story, as is demonstrated here.
Now, where's my Nico spin-off?