2010: Monster, Monster, Mon, Mon, Mon, Mon, Monster

0011_001One of the highlights of the current anime season for me right now is Monster Musume: Everyday Life with Monster Girls (typically shortened, as appears to be the custom nowadays, to MonMusu).

MonMusu is a show that I wasn’t sure about when I first heard the concept. I enjoy a harem-type show, I enjoy fanservice and I enjoy slice-of-life, so all the ingredients were there to interest me, but one thing made me hesitate a little: the “monster girls”1 part.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go back on the thousand and one rants I’ve made on the subject and brand it “creepy” or anything, but the idea of monster girls is an aspect of anime that I simply don’t have much experience with. Typically, I’ve found the harem/fanservice/slice-of-life shows that I’ve enjoyed the most in the past to have characters that I either find relatable or so overflowing with moe that it’s impossible not to fall in love with them. And, I assumed, part of this would be dependent on me finding them physically attractive.

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Papi’s introduction in the original manga.

The reason why I was hesitant about the idea of monster girls is that they’re a peculiar, striking phenomenon — at least as they’re depicted in anime. The girls of MonMusu are all relatively typical, pretty anime girl tropes of various descriptions “up top” — Miia is a ditzy, adoring “childhood friend” type, Papi is a loli, Centorea is a haughty, aloof, “presidential” type with huge knockers — but below the belt they’re… well, monsters. Miia is a lamia, Papi is a harpy, Centorea is a centaur.

If you, like me, have no experience with the concept of monster girls, this is initially jarring. Miia, the first to be introduced, is a delightfully adorable (if somewhat clingy) character… and then you look down and she has several meters of giant, thick, scaly snake tail. Papi acts like a little kid despite being a lot older than she looks… but she has wings instead of arms and bird legs. Centorea… well, her arse is a horse. This takes some getting used to — with no small amount of thinking “i-is it all right to find them kind of hot…?” along the way — and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people out there who fall at this first hurdle.

But it may not surprise you to find out that this reaction is, I feel, entirely intended, and in fact a core aspect of MonMusu as a whole. The overall concept for the show concerns “non-human” individuals such as the aforementioned (and a few others who will be introduced in later episodes) engaging in cultural exchange with human society, primarily through homestay visits such as those foreign students sometimes do in the real world. The show’s protagonist, as harem shows tend to go, finds himself with a house gradually filling up with chaotic monster girls, and having to come to terms both with their ignorance about aspects of human society and his own feelings towards them.

monmusuuuProtagonist Kurusu is a remarkably tolerant individual who takes most things in his stride — and he proves himself early on to be a dependable, reliable sort of person who stands up to people he feels are “wronging” those that he cares about. The main concept of MonMusu is, of course, a thinly-veiled racism allegory, and Kurusu represents an idealised interpretation of what a truly tolerant, inclusive sort of person should strive to be. He doesn’t treat the monster girls any differently to how he would treat human girls; he doesn’t refer to them as “monster girls”; he’s patient and he explains things to them when they don’t understand — which is pretty often, as you might expect. But he’s not perfect, either; he’s a young man who has no experience with women (and even admits outright that he’s a virgin in an early episode) and consequently has hormones going pretty crazy in his body — particularly as the girls engage in provocative behaviour or fight over his affections. He’s a good protagonist for this type of show, in other words — and mirrors the journey the audience goes on as they overcome the initial hurdle of trying not to judge the monster girls by their “monstrous” aspects and instead see them as just people.

There’s a lot to like about MonMusu so far — and, like most anime shows I’ve watched that initially seem to be fairly throwaway, dumb fun on the surface, there’s a lot more going on than there might appear to be at first glance. I’m really interested to see how it develops, and I’m no longer concerning myself with whether or not I’ll have developed some sort of snake fetish or the like by the end of the season!


1 Monster Girl: Girl inspired by mythological creatures; a mermaid would be a popular, recognisable example. Instances in MonMusu range from lamia (snake-tailed woman) to centaur (human head and upper body, horse legs and lower body) and some sort of scary spider lady thing.

2007: Rias is Love

0008_001In between the “current” anime shows I’ve been trying to keep up on this season, I’ve been gradually working my way through High School DxD (no, I still don’t really know what the DxD is for — likely something to do with devils) and like it more with each episode.

It’s very much an acquired taste — it’s very in-your-face with its nudity and violence (particularly the former; the latter isn’t especially gory as such, but it can be pretty brutal, and there are some fairly strong and unpleasant threats made at the very least) and consequently both of those things are something you have to be 100% on board with before watching, but if you are, it’s a wild and thrilling ride with some stunning fight scenes, an amazing soundtrack and some extremely memorable characters whose “iconic” status in the world of anime fandom is well-deserved.

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I’ve found High School DxD an interesting show to watch because it’s one of the few anime I’ve watched to date that is largely action-focused rather than slice-of-life. I’m a big fan of slice-of-life, because it appeals to that part of me that is fascinated by watching relationships unfold (and, sometimes, collapse) but as my love of JRPGs and Japanese shoot ’em ups in the video gaming world will attest, I’m certainly not averse to some high-octane action, too, and High School DxD delivers that in spades.

One thing that feels a little jarring when you first come across it in a show like this is how much like a Japanese role-playing game the action sequences are. I don’t literally mean that they’re taking it in turns to do things, but they do do things like shouting out the names of their moves, unleashing attacks that level the surrounding scenery and take impacts that would flatten a real human being in an instant. It’s a particularly Japanese stylistic element — Western superhero-type stuff, which is kind of the closest equivalent, doesn’t seem to be quite so overblown in its action sequences except when it’s being specifically inspired by anime (the final battle of The Matrix trilogy springs to mind here) and thus it’s a bit of an adjustment you have to make. Even as a fan of the aforementioned Japanese role-playing games, where this sort of thing is de rigueur, it took a little while for me to embrace the fact that yes, they were doing these things absolutely unironically — and it was awesome.

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Special mention should be given to leading lady Rias Gremory here. While the show is a textbook “harem” setup — pervy main character, bevy of beautiful ladies inexplicably throwing themselves at him, eventual and gradual redemption of protagonist into a generally decent person — Rias is a highlight. If this was a visual novel (which it probably is in Japan) then she would be the “true route”. She’s a strong, interesting character with plenty of depth to her that is gradually revealed piece by piece over the course of the show’s episodes. Her relationship with protagonist Issei is intriguing, too; she knows full well that he is overflowing with teenage hormones, and knows just how to take advantage of this fact — but she also clearly comes to regard him with genuine affection.

And yet she’s a devil. This is probably the most interesting thing about High School DxD: it’s a show that centres on ostensibly “evil” characters and portrays them as “the good guys”. And it’s not even portraying them as anti-heroes; when they’re not battling in alternate dimensions to figure out whether Rias has to marry Lord Phoenix, the devils are shown responding to peoples’ requests for help. Okay, accepting a devil’s help does come with a price — making a pact with them — but this is not portrayed as anything that is especially bad for the people involved, and in many cases — particularly when Issei is concerned — the “help” involved is little more than being there for someone who is lonely, or upset, or distressed about something. There is, I feel, some sort of message about religion bringing comfort to those in need here — albeit from the opposite angle to what is typically portrayed.

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You may well feel I am reading too much into a show that starts its credits sequence every episode with its entire female cast being completely naked (and concludes each episode with all of them doing various stripper dances) but, as I’ve argued on numerous previous occasions, embracing sexuality in an artistic work doesn’t preclude it from having meaningful things to say — and in this respect, DxD is absolutely more than just fanservice. It’s an exciting, thrilling show that I’m very keen to see more of. Fortunately, I have another two seasons to enjoy yet…

2003: Sound! Euphonium

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Anime, as a medium, is most well-known for its more exaggerated aspects. Exaggerated action in titles like High School DxD, Attack on Titan and Sword Art Online; exaggerated comedy in shows like To Love-Ru, Squid Girl and Monster Musume; exaggerated horror in shows like Hell Girl and… uh… some others (horror is one angle I’m not massively familiar with as yet). Even pornographic hentai anime tends to be exaggerated, with participants screaming in pleasure (and usually narrating the action just in case it wasn’t already abundantly clear what was going on) and gentlemen ejaculating with the force of Niagara Falls several times in the space of five minutes without any need for recuperation in between.

Uh, what was my point again? Oh, right. Anime is most well-known for being exaggerated. But occasionally something comes along that subverts your expectations and proves that not only is anime a particularly good medium for this sort of exaggerated action — the use of animation means that you can depict things that are physically impossible and/or impractical to show with traditional live-action special effects, as I discussed some time ago — but it’s also a really solid medium for down-to-earth, human, heartfelt and honest drama.

There are a number of good examples of relatively “low-key” drama anime; the most well-known ones are things like Clannad and AnoHana, which are both notorious for being particularly emotional, particularly towards their conclusions. More recently, I’ve been very much enjoying a curiously named show that was fairly popular last season: Sound! Euphonium, also known as Hibike! Euphonium or simply anime-eupho depending on who you’re talking to on which platform.

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Sound! Euphonium is a show, like most anime, about high school kids. (There’s a very good reason for the perpetual use of school as a setting for anime, but that’s a subject for another day.) As the peculiar title suggests, it’s also a show about music. But this isn’t an exaggerated Love Live! kind of affair, where the kids involved have unrealistic goals that they manage to magically attain without any real explanation (not that there’s anything wrong with that; I adore Love Live!) — Sound! Euphonium focuses on the rather mundane experiences of a school concert band.

Sound! Euphonium centres largely on Kumiko Oumae, a euphonium-playing girl just starting her high school career shortly after her middle-school concert band just missed out on attending a national competition. Kumiko is wracked with guilt over her last words to her former bandmate Reina Kousaka, who was utterly convinced that their band deserved to go the distance — Kumiko disagreed and incredulously asked Reina if she truly believed that they would have ever made it to Nationals. Reina, understandably, was upset at this line of questioning, and the two parted on bad terms.

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Kumiko is surprised to discover that Reina is also attending the high school she chose; she’s surprised because Reina has a great deal of talent on her instrument — the trumpet — and the ambition to compete at a national level. Meanwhile, the school they are both attending has a concert band that, upon their arrival, is best described as somewhat mediocre; Reina had her pick of the prestigious schools in the area, many of which have much better concert bands, but she chose the same one as Kumiko for some reason. It later transpires that the reasons for her decision were something to do with the teacher who takes over coordination of the concert band — and who encourages the students within to push themselves as hard as they can through some harsh but fair methods — and perhaps even something to do with her feelings for Kumiko herself.

What I particularly like about Sound! Euphonium is the fact that it’s one of the most realistic depictions of high school music I’ve ever seen. It takes great care to show characters using their instruments correctly and realistically — and not just while they’re playing them; incidental footage during scenes shows characters cleaning their instruments and performing proper maintenance, too. Having lived the concert band life at school — including some competitions and tours, though nothing at a nationally recognised level — I find Sound! Euphonium’s depiction of this aspect of high school life enormously compelling and pleasantly nostalgic.

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One thing it captures particularly well is the inherent romanticism and intimacy I’ve always found in making music as an ensemble. During my hormonal teenage years, the majority of people I found myself attracted to were somehow connected to me through the arts in one way or another — primarily through music. While my feelings were usually unrequited, that never really mattered too much; the thrill of sitting next (or near) to someone I liked and making music with them was usually more than enough. The feeling of “butterflies in the stomach” I’d get on the evening of a concert performance as I shared my nervousness with my friends and the object(s) of my affections was something I found intoxicating and exciting; while it was never the primary reason I enjoyed making music — that was always the simple joy of… well, making music — it was a happy perk.

Sound! Euphonium captures this feeling particularly well in its later episodes. An extremely intimate moment between Kumiko and Reina in one episode in particular makes for one of the most honest, heartfelt scenes I’ve seen in any story for quite some time — and after this scene has taken their relationship to a new level (no, they don’t get it on or anything like that, before your filthy mind starts running away with you, pervert) the chemistry and electricity between these two characters is palpable: every glance between them becomes wistful and lingering; every touch becomes sensual and exciting; every unspoken understanding between them clearly deepens their connection without a single word being said. I haven’t yet seen the entire run so I don’t know how — or if — their relationship resolves itself or pans out, but at the stage I’m currently at, it’s enormously exciting and compelling to see.

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Sound! Euphonium is well worth a watch, then, particularly if you’re a fan of somewhat more understated drama. Kumiko is a fascinating character, clearly struggling somewhat with a degree of social anxiety and depression — which, as you may well expect, makes her enormously relatable for me — and her relationships and interactions with her friends and bandmates make for compelling drama. It’s a very honest, heartfelt show, and a marked contrast to the more exaggerated end of the anime spectrum — and for that reason, I have a feeling it will stay with me long after I’ve seen the final credits roll.

2001: A Boring World Where the Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn’t Exist

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I’m keeping up to date with a few current anime series at the moment, partly in an attempt to be able to join in the conversations surrounding them online while they’re relevant, and partly because I liked the look of them.

One that I’ve found particularly noteworthy is called Shimoneta: A Boring World Where the Concept of Dirty Jokes Doesn’t Exist, typically shortened to Shimoseka as an abbreviated form of its original Japanese name Shimoneta to Iu Gainen ga Sonzai Shinai Taikutsu na Sekai.

Shimoseka is an interesting concept. At first glance, it looks as if it’ll be fairly straightforward slice-of-life material, but there’s an interesting dystopian future angle to it. The story is set 16 years after the passing of a law in Japan that made all lewd and coarse material and language illegal, all in the name of public decency and healthy child-rearing. All citizens are fitted with a device which can detect when they’re using inappropriate language or even drawing inappropriate pictures. The price for this lack of freedom is a constant connection to the world’s information at the tip of your fingers — everyone’s wrist sports a neat little holographic computer thingie that acts as the natural extension of today’s smartphones.

The protagonist Tanukichi is the son of a notorious “terrorist”; in actual fact, said “terrorist” was guilty of nothing more than expressing his (sexual) frustration at the prudishness of modern society. We’re introduced to Tanukichi as he starts his new high school life at an institution he’d chosen primarily because of Anna, a girl he liked: a girl who, unlike much of the rest of society, didn’t judge him for being his father’s son, but rather appreciated him for who he is. That was many years ago, however, and she doesn’t initially remember him, so doubtless the series will explore their developing relationship and why she means so much to him.

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As Tanukichi makes his way to his new school, however, he encounters “Blue Snow”, another notorious terrorist who habitually shows up clad in nothing more than what appears to be an artist’s smock (with no underwear underneath) and a pair of panties on her face. Blue Snow allows him to flee from an unfortunate misunderstanding on the train to school that could have seen him landed in prison, and Tanukichi is very surprised to later discover that his “saviour” is, in fact, Ayame, a member of the school’s student council who presents her public face as being somewhat quiet, stern and hard to approach.

Ayame’s “public face” couldn’t be further from the truth, however. She has a filthy mind and a foul mouth — plus, conveniently, a device on her elderly flip-phone that allows her to freely use as much coarse language as she likes for just a few minutes each day. Ayame quickly recruits Tanukichi to her cause in an attempt to educate the ignorant masses in the wonders of sexuality and “body-melding”, since the student body is so ignorant of basic biology that it’s clearly going to be a problem for future generations.

Shimoseka is interesting in that it feels like a direct response to several things. In some respects, it feels like it’s an interpretation of Japan’s notoriously low birth rate — modern day Japan’s enthusiasm for erotically charged and explicit material is often attributed to this. In others, it feels like it’s a take on Japan’s curious censorship laws, in which sexually explicit material isn’t outright banned, but instead makes use of the most half-hearted censorship in which things like penises and vaginas are still clearly visible, but blurred out with mosaics. In another sense still, Ayame in particular feels like a literal interpretation of the concept of honne and tatemae, the division of the “private” (honne) and “public” (tatemae) faces: putting up a respectable façade to the world while being as deviant as you like in the comfort of your own home.

shimoseka2Speaking from a Western perspective, Shimoseka feels even more curiously relevant considering the growth in “moral policing” that there’s been over the last few years. Given that Japanese media is often on the receiving end of these tedious tirades from self-appointed “think of the children” moral crusaders, it’s entirely appropriate that it would be a Japanese work that shows the inevitable consequences of allowing this sort of behaviour to continue unchecked. It’s obviously an extreme example, but it’s powerful and relevant given the climate of “criticism” (and I use that term loosely) that we live in today. I find it hard to believe that this angle couldn’t have been deliberate; while Japan generally doesn’t give much of a shit what prudish Westerners think of their pretty cartoon girls with big tits, many creators have doubtless run into these attitudes at one time or another, and Shimoseka has — so far, after two episodes, anyway — acted as an excellent smackdown to such criticisms, albeit in a fairly heavy-handed manner.

So far it’s been a really good show, then. I’m looking forward to seeing more, if only to hear more of the creative obscenities that Ayame habitually hurls forth. Cock-a-doodle-pussy, indeed.

1997: Chromecast Initial Impressions

Picked up a Chromecast today, Google’s little HDMI dongle that you can plug into your TV (assuming you have an HDMI socket) and stream stuff from your phone, tablet or computer to. Andie and I had been thinking about getting one for a while — primarily so if we want to watch TV at night we’re not forced to suffer Dave’s endless reruns any longer — but hadn’t got around to it. Finding myself at a loose end today, I went and forked over £30 (they’re the same price wherever you go, which is nice) to pick one up.

Setting it up was pleasantly simple. It was a matter of going to the Chromecast site on my phone, which subsequently redirected me to Google Play to download the Chromecast app. (I could have skipped that first step if I’d known there was an app involved.) The Chromecast app then walked me through the process of setting it up — a process which took about two minutes, the most complicated part of which was going downstairs to find out what the Wi-Fi password was — and it was then ready to go.

Using it is pretty easy, too. There are several ways you can use it: certain apps such as Netflix, YouTube and Crunchyroll (the three sites where I watch most of my videos these days) support Chromecast natively and effectively allow you to use your phone, tablet or computer as a “remote” and beam the video directly to the TV; other services effectively “mirror” what’s on your device to the TV, and via the Chromecast app itself (or natively in your phone’s OS if it’s one of the relatively small selection of phones that support it) you can mirror your whole phone’s screen and sound to the TV. (This latter option is perhaps less practical than it sounds; it’s no good for gaming, for example, as there’s a noticeable lag of a second or two between doing something on the phone and it happening on the screen, but then it probably wasn’t really designed for that.)

Alongside getting the Chromecast set up, I finally also set up Unblock Us on my phone. Unblock Us is a service that allows you to “trick” sites such as Netflix, Crunchyroll and the like into thinking you’re in a different territory to where you actually are. The reason why this is useful is that different territories have different stuff available — Netflix’s American version, for example, has a bigger selection than its British counterpart, though the later has improved significantly over time. It was a bit of a faff to set up on the phone, because you have to set up IP addresses manually rather than simply downloading a little applet to sort it all out for you (which is how you do it on a computer) but once I managed to find the right combination of numbers to put into the various slots on the form, I was happily streaming Bojack Horseman to my TV via my phone.

I’m really impressed so far. The picture quality is excellent and the streaming seems to be reliable, even though our Wi-Fi signal isn’t all that strong upstairs. It’s definitely going to fulfil our desire for streaming video in our bedroom, and for those of you with a slightly older, non-Smart HDTV, it’s a cheap and effective means of getting most of the benefits of a newer unit without having to break the bank or find a space for a 55-inch behemoth.

Thumbs up to Chromecast, then. Looking forward to playing with it some more.

1973: Muses

The world and their dog are talking about E3 at the moment, because everyone needs to livetweet the things that everyone else is watching. So rather than add to the noise, I’m going to talk about something completely unrelated to E3 or even video games: Love Live!

I’ve mentioned Love Live! a few times recently, I know, but the more I watch it the more I adore it. I’m coming up on the end of the second and final season now, and I’ve been very surprised how genuinely emotional it’s been: the premise (“cute girls get together and form an idol group to save their school”) is pure fluff, of course, but the amount of heart and soul with which the whole experience is infused with is simply magical.

The first season of Love Live! drew a little criticism from fans for taking quite so long to “get going”, as it were; it’s about nine episodes before the entire cast is together, and the season is only 13 episodes long, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the main thrust of the story: Honoka’s (and, later, the rest of the group’s) dream to perform at the Love Live school idol festival in front of an army of adoring fans.

I could initially see where these complaints were coming from, but now I’m coming up on the end of the second season, I completely understand why they spent so long over introducing the characters and exposition in the first season: it’s so that when the main drama of the latter part of the second season comes along — the impending graduation of three of the characters, and the question of what happens to their group once they’ve gone — it’s all the more effective because you have a deep understanding of these characters and their affection for one another by this point. Love Live! is an immensely popular anime for fans to “ship” favourite couplings in, but it’s abundantly clear throughout that the affection — and, possibly, romance — between pairings like Nico x Maki, Rin x Hanayo and Eli x Nozomi was entirely intentional on the part of the writers, and the audience feels like they’re a part of this intimacy that the group of nine share with one another.

It tugs at the heartstrings, for sure, and I’m not ashamed to say that a couple of the most recent episodes I’ve watched may have drawn a tear or two. I will also be very disappointed if the final episodes aren’t total tearjerkers.

What’s interesting, though, is that Love Live! doesn’t elicit this kind of emotion in the same way as notorious “crying anime” such as AnoHana and Clannad: there’s no tragedy, there’s no real adversity besides the girls having to overcome various challenges on their quest for idolhood, there’s no death, pain or suffering. There’s just a wonderfully heartwarming sense of love and affection infusing the whole show, and the prospect of that ending is emotional — not because it’s sad (though it is that, too, to a certain degree), but because it’s a delight to have been able to ride along with these girls as they forged the sort of friendships that last for life.

I’m really intrigued to see how the series ends — and what the recently released movie has to offer if I’m able to track down a means of watching it. Suffice to say, then, that I am very much a Love Live! convert.

Oh, and if you were wondering, my provisional “best girl” ranking — provisional because the season’s not over yet, and there’s scope for things to change, I’m sure! — is as follows: Maki > Eli > Nozomi > Kotori > Umi > Honoka > Nico > Hanayo > Rin, with the proviso that I don’t actively dislike any of them; Rin is simply my least favourite, nya. (Although bonus points to her for the “nya”-ing, a trait that always makes me go a bit weak at the knees.)

1969: μ’s Music Start

I’ve been continuing to watch Love Live! and it’s become something of a favourite, particularly now I’m in to the second season which, for my money, is considerably stronger than its entertaining but rather slow-paced debut.

A while back I wrote about how the show is unabashedly nice about everything, and keeps a positive spirit pretty much all of the time without resorting to overblown, melodramatic conflict between characters. The second season has definitely had more in the way of conflict and drama, but it’s been kept sensible and believable for the most part, and primarily used as an opportunity to develop the characters and their relationships with one another further.

One thing that is particularly charming about the show is how it subtly splits the main cast of nine down into smaller subgroups and pairings. We see the development of these individual small groups and couples as well as the group as a whole, and it’s rather touching to see — particularly as in many cases, things aren’t made particularly explicit, but it’s extremely obvious to see, for example, the genuine affection that Maki and Nico have for one another.

It’s funny, too. This scene was a particular standout moment for me:

And there’s plenty of other great moments. I particularly like how the characters all have a few surprising elements to go alongside the trope their “facade” appears to be based around. Nico, for example, acts like a cheerful and energetic young girl when she’s on stage and performing, but becomes one hell of a tsundere when she’s in private. Nozomi, meanwhile, initially appears to be softly-spoken and refined, but occasionally reveals some surprisingly lecherous tendencies towards her bandmates.

Umi’s a particular highlight for me. Initially positioned as the conventional “class representative” type — long dark hair, stern expression, takes everything much too seriously — she occasionally reveals that she has a fun side underneath her mature exterior, which she primarily maintains in order to keep the rather childish and impetuous Honoka in check. Umi has some wonderfully deadpan lines, and despite the “class rep” type of character usually being fairly expressionless (or limited to one emotion — usually anger and frustration at everyone else’s incompetence), Umi is actually one of the more expressive characters in the show; her calm and refined demeanour for the majority of the time makes it all the more impactful when she does genuinely get mad or sad.

In short, then, I can well and truly understand why this show is so beloved by its fans, even as it’s surrounded by hundreds of other shows that may seem conceptually, thematically or aesthetically similar. Love Live! stands above your average slice-of-life with its loveable characters, catchy songs and sense that it’s a show with some genuine heart and soul behind it.

I’m looking forward to watching the rest, and will be intrigued to check out the movie when it eventually arrives.