It should be no surprise that Love Live has as big of a following as it does, what with its cute characters, charming comedy, and multitudes of songs that fans can obsess over. It is founded on the ever present formula of moe, fanservice, and a sprawling media base that keeps fans hooked. That said, other anime franchises that also incorporate this formula have varying levels of success (e.g. any siscon series vs. The iDOLM@STER). So is Love Live’s success solely based on cute girls singing passably catchy songs? No. Though it may seem like just another addition to the ocean of idol anime, there is much hidden depth to the antics of μ’s and probing these narrative depths reveals an unexpected darkness. Behind its cutesy facade, Love Live is an allegory for the career-obsessed culture of post-war Japan.
With the end of World War II came a profound societal shift for the Japanese people in the form of sanctions against a standing Japanese military and an occupation of the country by western forces. This initial western influence is not-so-subtly symbolized in Love Live by Ayase Eli, who is of Russian descent, and her little sister Arisa, who grew up outside of Japan. Initially Eli opposes the formation of a school idol group even though Otonokizaka Academy appears to be destined to fail without it. This is reminiscent of Japan struggling with a tanking economy due to the bounds set by the Allied forces.
Ultimately, what saves Japan from economic ruin is the introduction of the “continuous improvement” business model by W. Edwards Deming. Combine this model with the hierarchical nature of Japanese society, which makes it incredibly rude for underlings to leave work before their bosses, and you get a professional culture that encourages people to work 60+ hours per week and put their careers before pretty much every other aspect of their lives. In the Love Live anime, the analog for the prioritization of one’s career is μ’s, who become a significantly important part of Otonokizaka.
Their existence prevents the school from shutting down and once they become popular, fellow students go out of their way to facilitate the success of μ’s, as evidenced by all the students that clear the snow for Honoka and co. to get to the concert venue in the Snow Halation episode. Additionally, being a part of μ’s becomes a profoundly important part of its members’ lives. Being school idols is a huge time investment in terms of practicing, performing at concerts, making costumes, and writing songs, and all of this on top of going to school and being on the student council. The girls even go so far as spending the night together at the school, but that is more due to their intense attachment to their careers as school idols, to the point that the impending graduation and departure of the group’s senior members is intensely distressing to the girls.
At least none of the μ’s members have worked themselves to death, as karoushi would be rather out of place in an idol anime. Then again, there is the whole thing with the near death of the Producer in THE iDOLM@STER, a mysterious event that continues to cast suspicion on one 765 Pro’s foremost idols. Maybe it was more than just an accident. Maybe there’s more to Aikatsu! and AKB0048 than just cute girls dancing and singing. Maybe beneath the veneer that most people see when they watch idol anime, there lies a greater purpose hidden amid the comedy and moe. One just has to look.