Looks like we’ve got our story structure for this season. While the first round of Nijigasaki was all about solo episodes to establish our panoply of idols, this season’s all about team-up episodes baby! QU4RTZ were the proof of concept, showing the cast could be cordoned off into separate units without losing their charm, so now it’s time to start really (diva)diving into the gimmick. And the show continues to make some eclectic choices based on the first season’s dynamics. I certainly would never have thought to pair off Ai and Karin for their own story, but it manages to work surprisingly well, though not without some unfortunate factors holding this episode back.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the story we get here. It’s a remarkably somber and emotional setup for a franchise that’s most at home with breezy humor and heavy melodrama. But it also feels like it’s trying to do too much in too little time, and that undercuts what could have been a really great episode. We go from meeting Misato, Ai’s close friend who I don’t think was ever mentioned before, to getting her sad backstory and confronting her complicated feelings towards her dearest friend, to Ai’s crisis of Idol Faith, to a neat and tidy musical resolution in a single episode, and there’s just not enough time for it all to hit. If the conflict were simpler or lighter, that wouldn’t be a problem, but this story is just heavy enough to call for a more thoughtful and contemplative presentation. I said this was a team-up episode, but Karin herself is mostly an observer who plays a pivotal role in Ai’s story, rather than an actual deuteragonist.
And that sucks, because there’s some really solid drama here. Misato’s confession to Ai that, even after finally recovering from her illness, she feels like she doesn’t have anything to call her own, is genuinely affecting. I like that the answer requires Ai to reconsider how she thinks about friendship, and that Karin is there to show her how being a friend can also mean pushing somebody forward when they need it, rather than just holding their hand. It’s solid stuff, and with even just a couple extra minutes I think it could work really well. As-is we just have to move through it all so quickly that there’s little time to let any of those emotions sit, and it makes our ultimate resolution feel too simple.
This is also where Nijigasaki‘s approach to performances kind of undercuts itself. The actual song is good – the dueling vocals do a solid job selling the performance as Karin and Ai competing, and the production is some great synthpop. But it’s also supposed to be a message directed at Misato in the audience, and that would feel a lot more effective if, for instance, we saw her reacting at all during the song. Yet the house style for these music videos is to be self-contained setpieces, where nobody but the onstage idols exists as anything beyond a pair of glowsticks. So all we get is a single tear before the song happens, and then suddenly Misato is there and has overcome her depression without us seeing that turning point. I understand that’d break formula and make it harder to release this as a promo video on its own to promote the single, but I’m always going to value a story’s internal stakes over marketing, and this feels like the wrong choice for this story.
Look, this isn’t a bad episode – like I said, there’s a lot of good parts to it that shine through its constraints – but it’s definitely the most frustrated I’ve felt with a Love Live! episode in a while. Maybe this is ultimately just a consequence of everything else they’re trying to fit into this season. We still have the upcoming School Idol Festival, Yu’s storyline, everything with Lanzhu and her posse, along with at least one more team-building story for the remaining Nijigasakids. That’s a lot to fit into a single cour along with dedicated music videos. But it’s still a shame, and I hope future episodes are able to handle their time better.
Sidenote: The after-credits sequence also introduces Shioriko’s older sister, and can I just say it’s criminal they waited 17 episodes to introduce a design this cool? She looks like somebody evolved Yu with a Fire Stone. I don’t know if she rides a motorcycle but she definitely should. If Bandai Namco ever wise up and release the Love Live! fighting game the world deserves, she needs to be an unlockable trophy at the very least.
Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.