The Curious Case of Love Live! — Idols, Performances, and Spectacle

Kiseki da yo~!!

It may (or may not) come as a surprise to a lot you who’re familiar with what I usually write but I enjoy researching about idols — so much so that stuff about “idology” and Japanese pop-idol phenomena have become staples of what I choose to read in my spare time. Aoyagi Hiroshi’s dissertation entitled “Islands of eight million smiles: idol performance and symbolic production in contemporary Japan” (1999) and the compilation of texts in “Idols and celebrity in Japanese media culture” (2012) in particular have both kept me captive for a good many nights.

I can’t really put a finger on what about it has me so entranced, but I am with all sincerity quite fascinated by this subject matter. A subject that, in reality, has multiple overlapping dimensions to it — be it from production and how idols are “born”; the marketing aspect of how they are “sold”; the science behind their music and its subsequent successes and failures; the artistry of song and dance in tandem — but I find myself looking more at the idol as an individual and the socio-cultural machinery that enables them to embody personas of “pure and innocent youths”.

Which might come across as rather odd when I continue to say that I wouldn’t really call myself a “fan” of any mainstream Japanese pop-idol groups (like say Morning Musume or AKB48) in general. At present I can only really say that I am a fan of the Love Live! franchise’s 2.5D idols. Which I find a fair bit amusing considering how much I claim to be so enamored, when in truth my ponderings have only resided in such a closed niche.

In that regard I do find myself in a peculiar spot in the existing literature. Most, if not all, the texts I’ve encoutered so far about media studies on Japanese pop-idols focused on contemporary idols and idol groups. Considering the relative new-ness of the concept of 2.5D idols in relation to when said texts were written however, this is to be expected. It is a weird topic when you consider the subject in question being essentially a semi-fictional group. But that’s also what makes it althemore interesting — the “semi” part of it.

I wrote a piece a while back about Love Live! fascination, and the concept of 2.5D used as a vehicle for idol subculture to encroach on the anime viewing public. I would like to continue putting emphasis on that link between 2D and 3D by looking at the 2.5D idol in a different context — today I wish to talk about the idols of LoveLive! as they appear on the stages in our side of the screen. In particular, I will be talking about the idea of “spectacle” in Love Live! idol performances.

To start, let us first set in place a working definition for spectacle. It’s not that uncommon of a word to be throwing around to be honest as with most grandiose ways to refer to a performance. A quick google search will give you it as: “something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining; especially : an eye-catching or dramatic public display”. At the extremes we can even say that a spectacle is a visual experience unlike any other — something to behold.

Idol performances, irregardless of 2.5D or 3D, in some ways follow a certain mold. I mean sure, you might get some uncommon examples here and there (say, LADYBABY or sora tob sakana to name a few — ok, I might know more about pop-idol groups than I initially let on) but generally when one hear’s “idol”, they more or less know what they’re gonna get: young multi-talented pop artists who appear in various forms of media and whose live performances typically consist of song and dance routines while wearing costumes that pander to a certain appeal.

That is to say, and I don’t mean this to sound negative in any way: they all do pretty much the same thing — so where’s the spectacle in that? This isn’t to take away from how difficult it is to actually sing and dance at the same time (c’mon, just talking while taking a jog is hard enough, imagine singing) but the idea is, that’s how everyone is doing it.

An analogy can be made with rock bands and how each band play the same instruments, but I’d argue it’s on how and what they play; their genre that makes all the difference. In the case of idols however, it can be said that their music is so uniformly pop that they’re their own genre, in a sense. Sure, they don’t sound the same, but they perform the same. The songs might not use the same words and the dances might use different steps, but an idol performance is still an idol performance at the end of the day.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to ask; what then makes an idol (or idol group) different from another? Better yet, what would make you like one over the other if the very core of idol performances tend to stay true to some norm? Is it in how they sound? How they look? How good they are on stage?

I can’t say much about idols in general, but for the idols of LoveLive! at least, I would surmise that it is both all those things and none of them at the same time (…whut).

Idols don’t have to be exceptionally good singers and dancers, nor do they have to be undeniably beautiful — a widely accepted precept attributed to columnist Nakamori Akio in 2007 (who, interestingly enough, is also credited for the proliferation of the term “otaku” and its contemporary usage). Idols can have some sort of background (like having had some sort of formalized training in their youth) but they don’t have to have that to be succesful.

Nakamori continues on to say that “[t]hey are merely cute and popular.” and that “[i]dols are simply admired and loved by fans, for no specific or persuasive reason.”

Now, while you most certainly can admire an idol for fairly specific reasons (ie he/she can actually sing really good) I would tend to agree that those reasons are not at all persuasive. Idols generally aren’t marketed as a super group of talented singers and dancers to begin with.

In the same light, most fans don’t look to idols based on how good they sound alone — at best it’s a contributing factor to an overall idol fascination, wherein enjoyment (of idol performances, in this case) stems from having a sense of familiarity with the idol/s, the quality of which is defined from the fan’s own viewing experience — which is in turn cultivated by exposure to the various forms of media through which the idol/s is/are present in.

The Love Live! franchise in particular is a multi-media super package that showcases idols across both dimensions of the screen; the 2D narrative created by anime, as well as the multitude of texts provided by other media like drama tracks and other supporting material found in websites and various goods; and the 3D narrative crafted by appearances in TV, web, and radio broadcasts, individual social media presence, and various conventional idol activities (like meet-and-greet events and live panels).

Both these narratives do not exist in their own separate vacuum and in fact corroborate with each other to produce a sense of seemless intertextuality that allows fans to traverse two worlds of appreciation at once.

In an interview discussing the success of Love Live!, Lantis’ music producer Kisara Yohei (full TL from Kuu x Kat Drabbles) had said this about his own feelings about the experience of witnessing live shows:

“Although the ones on stage were the voice actors, if I closed my eyes, I felt that the people standing there were Haruka and Chihaya~”

“This wasn’t 2.5D, simply put ‘The iDOLM@STER’ live was ‘The iDOLM@STER’, the feeling of being in a concert felt the same as being in the game and it’s really something magical, I feel that was the most important thing when making a ‘live’.”

How can it be the same as being ‘in a game’? And more importantly, why would it being like the im@s game make the experience magical?

I can’t speak for Kisara-san and what he felt during that moment, but one of the things that has always stood out for me when Love Live! does one of their live shows is how they play the computer-generated animation of the characters dancing to the song that’s also being performed on stage. It seems like such a throwaway moment the first couple of times you see it, but after a while one might start to realize the subtle intricacies of how the movements are essentially one and the same — which sounds like that’s how it should be, right? The animation should mirror the actual performance on stage.

However, for the world of Love Live! it is in fact quite the opposite. Unlike contemporary pop-idols who release PVs that have themselves already dancing to the song, LL! only release PVs of the idols in CG animation. The idols of LL! also mention at times during interviews about the challenges of matching how the characters move in relation to their parts in the song. It’s not the animation that follows the idol performance on stage, but rather it’s the idols following the performance seen on-screen.

But it may not look that way at all. In truth what we end up seeing are the real-life idols at the foreground, on stage performing and facing towards the viewer. They’re no longer following. At the same time the viewer alse sees the screen, and the CG idols in the background, with each movement emulated and brought to life as they occur. They are no longer a mirror. Everything happens instantaneously with one another in a bizarre visual experience that combines two viewing dimensions into one.

This. The convergence of 2D and 3D culminating in one singular idol performance might very well be the spectacle allowed to us by Love Live!. In that sense it is sort-of magical. It’s (very) unusual scene at times, but the concepts behind it are indeed notable (otherwise this post wouldn’t be this long). There’s no argument that it is entertaining at the very least.

It’s eye-catching, as per the nature of idols, and depending on whether one follows the many narratives they offer, it may also prove to be fairly dramatic

I’ve never seen an idol performance live to date, much less a Love Live! one (because man that costs a lot), so I might just be spewing a load of nonesense. The closest I’ve gotten was a live simul-cast (which has it’s own feel of “magic” to it). Most of the idol performances I’ve seen thus far have been through recordings of the event after the fact. That said, I would like to think that I’m not completely off-base here.

There is a spectacle on the bright and shining stages of Love Live!. I only highlighed one aspect of idol performance that may create that, but that’s not to say that there aren’t other things too. Something that someone can only experience haveing seen it first-hand. Maybe this is also part of it — that even the visual experience of a 2.5D idol performance seen through the screen offers its own spectacle.

Whatever the case may be, Love Live! continues to be the grand illusion that it was just a couple of years ago. I’m just glad to be able to witness it again — with arguably more discerning eyes than when the phenomena first occured.

13 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Love Live! — Idols, Performances, and Spectacle

  1. This is very interesting. I personally can’t relate, and it’s hard to put myself in the shoes of someone that is into idols, but I always find the topic a good research piece as well.
    Do you know any good documentaries about idols? I think I’d love to start there.
    Love Live is indeed a big phenomena. When I first saw it, I didn’t really think much of it but a lot of hype and fan fare soon followed. Idols not needing to be beautiful or w/ a good voice is intriguing. Why else would you worship an idol? I am seriously curious about this.
    Then again, I watch a lot of Morning Musume on youtube, and I later realized they were idols. I thought it was just random variety show. Hahaha.

    • It’s a very fascinating world to look into at the very least (especially if you’re into Japanese culture and the various systems at play within it)

      A good one that just came out recently is called Tokyo Idols (dubbed ‘Tokyo Girls’ in the BBC premier, here’s a link – It’s a rather surreal glimpse of how an idol typically climbs the ranks to stardom, and their relations with their fans and the impact they make on their lives. It’s a bit slanted (most good documentaries /should/ have some sort of agenda), but it’s a side of the idol world that we don’t often get to see, and thus is a really interesting watch if you have the time.

      The base answer as to why idols are “idolized” appears to be “because they (idols) make you smile”, but even then there are a lot of theories. For instance, there’s the idea that fans look not at the idol per se, but at the idol’s effort of “achieving her dream”, living vicariously through the successes that fans can’t see for themselves. There’re also gender specific viewpoints; like female fans adoring male idols because of a deep-seated ‘motherly’ inclination towards ’em; and male fans taking comfort in the assured affection they get from female idols. Sorry (lol) I can go on and on about this, my bad 😀

      Haha, that’s how they get you! I started with a random anime about idols and now I’m writing discourse about how they work xD

      • I’ll admit, I’m not into jap culture at all but I am interested at idol culture in particular. Kinda like the mail bride culture or the insane practices of most religions. XD

        And thanks for the link! I’ll definitely check that documentary out. Do you have any more?

        motherly inclination? damn, that’s really interesting. It’s so…weird yet oddly interesting. And rooting for an idol despite a pool of them? Well, I’m not exposed to them so I am really an outsider looking in. It’s an interesting idea, really, so thanks for the idea that’ll bug me tonight when I sleep.

        Kamusta ka pre? Glad to see you posting again.

        • So long as I got you curious, my work here is done 🙂

          Well, AKB have released a crap-load of documentaries (I’m over-exaggerating, but there are a lot, like 7, and their sister groups SKE and Nogizaka release their own docs too) so I can link those if you want ’em. I only checked out one, but yeah, since it’s in-house production their documentaries aren’t so much “documentaries” as they are just behind-the-scenes stuff (which is totally different in my opinion). The one I watched, however, covered two very interesting events re: idols (one unique to AKB); an idol “graduating” from the group; and the famous/infamous AKB48 elections.

          Ok ok naman, haha, salamat 😀

  2. Love Live literally struck gold with it’s marketing. A lot of what made Love Live it’s success is because of it’s accessibility. The ability that allow it’s consumers to easily invest in the game, anime and it’s various media, and later on 3D, makes the whole experience an especially special one — because of the fact that you have the chance to experience each side — 2D and 3D. Can only imagine how magical it will feel to experience the live performance after that.

    This is also the reason why I tend to find myself more drawn into anime idols than say, Morning Musume or AKB48. It’s just much more easier to get invested in the former.

    • Very true. One could even argue that the entire idea behind “School Idol Project” is exactly that — to take advantage of the 2D fan market and make consumers out of them (if not just make them consume more than they already are).

      As if the franchise doesn make enough out of BD sales and in-game purchases in SIF (which I assume is in the upper hundred thousands), the extra layer of 3D consumption via magazines, posters, and even the real life tourist spots and establishments featured in LL! — no wonder the idol industry has an estimated net of 1 billion per year.

      Which is amazing when you think of how accessible (as you said) Love Live! is as a franchise, since simply getting into it is essentially “free”.

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