Twenty Perfect Minutes: Searching For Setsuna in Episode 3 of LOVE LIVE NIJIGASAKI HIGH SCHOOL IDOL CLUB

Twenty Perfect Minutes is an irregular column series where I take a look at single specific anime that shaped my experience with the medium, were important to me in some other way, or that I just really, really like.

Disclaimer & Thanks: I am new to Love Live as a property and enlisted my good friend Heinzes to help me Love Live Fact Check this column. Thank you very much!

There are school idols and they have their fans. Isn’t that more than enough?

Let me let you in on a small secret. As a medium commentator of any sort: critic, blogger, video essayist, whatever. You tend to set little arbitrary rules for yourself. “I won’t review this until a week after I’ve watched it.” “I won’t score anything 10/10 unless I’ve seen it more than once.” Things like that. But sometimes you come across something that just hits you in such a way that’s so specifically your thing that these rules suddenly seem like they don’t matter, and that’s about when it’s time to break them. When I started Twenty Perfect Minutes my intent was to do it fairly infrequently and to showcase episodes of older anime. A few years old, at minimum.

Yet, here I am. Writing in late 2020 about an anime airing in late 2020. Love Live Nijigasaki High School Idol Club is the voluminously-titled most recent entry in the storied and frankly massive Love Live franchise. It is also not finished, and as such by writing this I very much risk making myself look like a fool come the end of the season. But if that is a risk, it’s one worth taking, because Nijigasaki‘s third episode is not just the best episode of the young season, it’s one of the strongest this year period.

It’s been a solid year for a lot of different kinds of anime, but very little has made me cry, and as someone who values high melodrama I do unashamedly check for that when mulling over how good I find a series overall. Nijigasaki arguably tossed its hat into the Anime of The Year conversation from the word “go”, but if there was any doubt, it should be cleared up by this episode; “Shouting Your Love”.

Before we can discuss “Shouting Your Love” though, we have to backtrack a bit, to that word “go”, and explain how we got here. First of all, let’s meet Yu.

No not You. Yu.

Yu is interesting. She feels simultaneously pretty typical for the genre but just enough to the left that it’s fresh. Yu begins the series as someone with a lot of passion searching for an outlet. She does not start as an idol (or even an idol fan). We get to see her fall in love with idol music in real time, as the opening half of the first episode is devoted almost entirely to this. And it’s back in that first episode where Nijigasaki pulls out its artistic ace in the hole.

Yu (and her friend Ayumu) happen to catch a public performance by a local idol, Setsuna. The song itself (“Chase!”) is a great slice of upbeat J-Pop if you’re into that sort of thing, but what really sells the scene is twofold. One is a number of close shots of Yu’s face, letting us see her reaction change moment to moment. The other is that we see Setsuna’s performance gradually shift from a simple depiction of what she is actually physically doing, to–at the exact moment that her music hits Yu in the heart–a music video-within-a-show. The stage erupts into fire; figurative passion transformed into literal flame. My understanding is that these inset MVs are not entirely new to Love Live as a franchise, but Nijigasaki‘s use of them feels deeply woven into the narrative. The show wouldn’t entirely work without them.

Yu’s journey starts here, her passion is ignited and it’s her drive that leads the plot forward from this point on. What is left largely unsaid in that first episode–and what brings us back to the third–is Setsuna‘s journey. The very short version is that Nijigasaki pulls off an elegant piece of narrative symmetry here: in the first episode Setsuna lights a fire in Yu’s heart, and Yu, in the third episode, rekindles the dying embers in Setsuna’s.

As this early part of the series has gone on, it’s established that “Setsuna Yuki” isn’t a real person. She’s the alter ego of Nana Nagakawa, the student council president of the titular Nijigasaki High. The performance that Yu and Ayumu witnessed was, in fact, her last and only. Some attention is even paid to the fact that Yu can’t find any other songs by her. (And real life is rife with examples of low-output musicians, from The New Radicals to Mr. Fantastik, so it’s quite a relatable experience.)

What would otherwise be a very straightforward plot detour is spun into a miniature epic through “Shouting Your Love”‘s framing. Nana’s true identity was revealed an episode prior. Here, we get to see her most “normal” side first. Despite her own misgivings about her role in the former Idol Club, she has many traits of a good leader that shine through even here. She seems to know almost every student by both name and educational track, and isn’t above doing dirty work herself. After an introductory sequence where Nana mulls over her decision to quit before deciding it’s for the best, the first thing we see her do is chase down a stray cat. It’s charming and sets the rest of the episode up nicely.

But while this fleshes out her character a bit, the real revealing turn is her initial encounter with Yu, who is idly playing “Chase!” to herself on a piano. Yu initially mistakes Nana for a fellow Setsuna fan, but Nana quickly rebuffs her. But as she does so, it becomes clear before long that Nana is less talking to Yu and more trying to justify her decision post-hoc to herself.

In a vacuum this is a pretty simple development. In the context of the rest of “Shouting Your Love” it helps Nana feel like someone legitimately going through a serious crisis of the self. The actual argument that broke up the Idol Club–something about passion vs. cuteness–is perhaps a bit underexplored, but the conflict it represents feels real. It’s clear to us the audience that Nana doesn’t really want this to be where her time as an idol ends, and she’s trying to convince herself more than anyone else. At one point she even sits down to watch a Youtube upload of her own performance; only to scroll down and realize that all the comments are asking fundamentally the same question: why did Setsuna quit?

You can read a lot into her internal monologue in this episode. And there may be more than one answer. Personally, it seems to me that she’s someone with a tendency to put what others expect of her before what she wants herself. It would fit with her demanding position on the student council, an aside remark by her mother about “mock exams”, and her decision to disband the club once she felt like she was getting in everyone else’s way. She even seems to think that she was holding them back from competing in the Love Live, the school idol “tournament” after which the entire franchise is named. And indeed, her final comments in that very monologue seem to frame things that way, with her justifying her decision as a sacrifice for the benefit of her friends, the new members of the club, and so on.

In fact on my first viewing of this episode I actually thought it might end there, because I wasn’t paying particularly much attention to how far along the video was. In the best way possible; “Shouting Your Love” is the rare anime episode that feels twice its length. The second half of the episode sees the newly-reformed School Idol Club briefly hijack the school announcement system to call Nana and “Setsuna” to the roof. (After a heartfelt meeting where they decide they want to try to get Nana back in the club, of course.)

Here, she has another talk with Yu, who at this point in the series seems like someone whose wildfire passion may well be contagious. Yu asks Nana to rejoin the club. Nana replies that she’ll hold everyone back from being able to compete at the Love Live, to which Yu says this.

And the facade of Nana as the dutiful student council president who always puts others before herself promptly snaps like a twig.

It’s hard to not just post screencaps of the entire conversation, which is so heartfelt that in places it borders on a confession scene (not the first like this that Yu’s been responsible for in Nijigasaki and I doubt it’ll be the last).

Shippers eat your heart out.

The important thing is that Yu’s words reach Nana, much like Setsuna’s song first reached Yu. In a stylish hairflip, Nana’s braids come undone, and Setsuna is reborn in an instant. Because this is an idol series–because this is Love Live, perhaps–she of course bursts into song. “Drive!”, the insert song here, is a fist-pumping rocker whose “music video” weds the earlier fire theme of “Chase!” to an underwater aesthetic, laying Nana/Setsuna’s personality out in symbolic language as she, in the MV, breaks through a reflective underwater wall of ice, perhaps a visual metaphor for this rediscovery of what is, in my estimation, her real self.

But we can talk about symbolism and other such concerns all we like. The biggest thing I can say in the favor of “Shouting Your Love!” is that I’ve now watched the ending scene three times. And while it’s true I cried the first time, I think it’s even more impressive that I couldn’t stop myself from grinning ear to ear every single time. “Yu” is kind of brilliant as a character name, because while she is a character in her own right, when you’re watching the idol performances, you’re seeing them, essentially, as Yu sees them. If you open yourself to it, the passion of the series–the same passion I’ve talked about at length, here–can easily light your heart on fire as well.

It’s impossible to know if we’ll still be talking about Nijigasaki in these same terms in a few weeks. A lot can change over the course of an anime’s run, after all. But it’s hard to imagine a world where this episode ever feels less wonderful. To tell the truth, as someone who recently set music as a creative outlet aside, I can’t help but relate to Nana. But even more, I can’t help but relate to Yu, who seems just as star-struck by the wonder of art that I am in moments like….well, like “Shouting Your Love”.

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All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

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