By Shelley Pallis.
Book-length studies of anime TV shows are rare indeed. Critics tend to favour the shorter hours and wider footprint of writing about single anime movies. Writing in general on television often seems to be a mug’s game, with sales even to libraries rarely justifying the investment of authors’ efforts. It’s hence not much of a surprise that of the limited number of books on anime TV that have appeared, many of them are self- or vanity-published works, not by academics but by committed fans.
But Jared Clemons and Anne Ladyem McDivitt, PhD, the authors of One Shining Moment: A Critical Analysis of Love Live! Sunshine!! have set themselves higher goals than that, not the least with their choice of title and the flagrant display of that doctorate. If you wanted to call this a fanzine, it would have to be the most impressive fan publication of the year, but they would probably describe themselves as somewhere between the two groups, enthusiastic pro-am anime watchers with a podcast and a side-line to the CrunchyRoll blog who have, somewhat inexplicably, decided to write about the sequel to the original Love Live! One wonders if they did this as a bet, along the lines of “pick a show at random and see if you can fill 150 pages writing about it,” but their prose soon makes clear that they really, really love this particular iteration of the show, to the extent that it takes them eighteen pages to even admit there was an “original” that came before it.
Of all the things to receive the book-length critical treatment, the second instalment of Love Live! would not have been on my likely list of the top hundred candidates. But that’s the authors’ prerogative, the sort of freedom they can accord themselves by self-publishing, although of the many things a professional publisher might have told them before pressing Print, starting with part two is like starting with The Empire Strikes Back.
Then again, Star Wars itself prided itself on being a narrative that began right in the middle, so there’s nothing wrong in itself with deciding that Love Live! Sunshine is more worthy of study than the season that set it up. In fact, I expect my masters at Anime Limited, which itself starts its Blu-ray run with the sequel, the original being distributed by MVM, even approve of this message. But the authors leap straight in with little attempt to explain anything in context. What they call a “critical analysis” is an exercise in almost pure formalism, relying for cues, discussions and prompts solely on whatever they see onscreen, and occasionally simply expecting the reader to know about characters’ back-stories. Were it not for a couple of allusions to things that the voice actresses have said in press conferences, the authors largely ignore anything that happened in the first season, or indeed anywhere else in the anime world, and any details or discussion of writers, directors or producers.
The first twenty-six chapters, which seem to derive from a blog that is already freely available online, plod through the episodes one by one. Clemons, author of the majority of the chapters, is swift to divine much of the characters’ motivations in searching for meaning and escape in a small-town suburb, while McDivitt occasionally takes over to discuss some more intricate issues. In particular, she examines the way in which characters shift from antagonists to the ever-swelling ranks of protagonists, and devotes a whole chapter to subtle shifts in the competence and context of the characters’ onstage costumes.
A cluster of closing chapters inject more actual commentary, on matters such as “the most important song in season two”, the character arc of baddie-turned-bland Kanan, or the attention to detail in the show’s evocation of real-world locations. Two chapters finish on the Love Live! movie Over the Rainbow. There is little attempt to embed Love Live! Sunshine in the broader media mix – beyond occasional references to the first season, the authors wave away the manga and audio dramas as being beyond their competence, and limit most discussion of the songs to occasional observations of how lyrics provide an on-the-nose accompaniment to certain points in plot and character development.
Both authors are keen to observe that Love Live! Sunshine takes the tropes and traditions of sports anime and applies them to the performing arts, which is fair comment, but if they’d cracked open an Anime Encyclopedia at any point, they might have noticed that this has been true since Mask of Glass. And that’s the problem with formalism at its purest level, if all you have is your own personal observations of what’s onscreen, you are just some dude describing what’s in front of him… and you’d better be interesting. The authors of One Shining Moment give no indication of having ever opened a single book about anime – they have nothing to offer but their own opinions, opinions which might have been significantly polished or improved if they were at all familiar with the works of, to name a few, Clements, Denison, McCarthy, Napier or Steinberg, or if they had just once flipped through a copy of Mechademia. It’s not that such writers are gatekeepers of what constitutes anime criticism, merely that they have been through the gate before Clemons and McDivitt, and come back with observations that could have helped them.
Instead, their references for this 150-page “critical analysis” amount to just five items, two of which are articles that Clemons himself has written for CrunchyRoll, two of which are puff pieces about the voice actresses, and the last is a YouTube piece about someone called Markelle Fultz, who is apparently something in baseball and an object lesson in stage fright. A schoolgirl’s sense of purpose is bolstered by a quote from Smackdown wrestler John Cena, lending the book the feel of eavesdropping on two slightly sozzled weebs trying to outsplain each other about their favourite TV show. But let’s face it, we have all been those weebs, and if Love Live! Sunshine!! is one of your faves, then Clemons and McDivitt are liable to point you at several elements of the series that you may not have noticed before.
Love Live! Sunshine!! is released in the UK by Anime Limited. The Love Live! Schoolgirl Idol Project movie is coming later in the year, and is itself the sequel to the original series, and a prequel to Sunshine… I mean, someone should really write a book to explain this.