Fans of Sakurako Kimino’s Love Live! School Idol Project are travelling to a popular, SEGA-themed video game arcade in the Osaka prefecture to get on their knees, offer gifts, and worship at the feet of fictional, high school-aged girls from the popular anime.
Depending on how you look at it, the symbolic pilgrimages to the arcade can seem like standard-issue oddball Japanese fan-culture or a one-off trend to be dismissed. To really understand why people are offering up cakes and cookies to these characters, you’ve got to understand that Love Live! School Idol Project is more than your average anime.
Love Live! tells the story of girls who form a 9-person band called μ's ("muse") to get people to apply to their school, effective saving it from being closed. Once the band becomes popular, the girls continue their act and start facing all the struggles of pre-teen fame.
Love Live! began as a typical manga published in Dengeki G's Magazine, a monthly magazine featuring news about upcoming games, light novels, and anime in the bishōjo genre. Bishōjo, for the uninitiated, literally means “pretty young girl” and colloquially refers to media focused on the lives of adolescent girls. Adolescent girls dating birds, going to school, singing in bands—you get the idea.
The team behind Love Live! quickly differentiated itself from other bishōjo manga by turning its stories into a full-on, multimedia assault that went beyond the printed page. An anime series based on Love Live! was greenlit soon after the manga's publication and produced by Sunrise, the same company behind Cowboy Bebop, Inuyasha, and the Gundam series. Additionally, the voice actresses behind Love Live!'s schoolgirls actually put out singles as μ's, the "fictional" band. Their music's all produced by Lantis, a Japanese record label with ties to Sony.
Between the books, the anime, the music, the girls from Love Live! quickly began to exist in a space that was no longer "fictional" in the traditional space. They've got music videos, and they're popular as hell.
Though μ's claims that they're "No Brand Girls" the Love Live! School Idol Project is an exercise in ensnaring a fandom and creating the deep kind of engagement that most brands can only dream of.
Fans' feedback about the girls, the band, and the various sub-bands the group is often split into directly effects the decisions made by the editorial team behind the machine. Reader votes can dictate who sings lead, where girls stand during dance numbers, and even what kind of costumes they wear while performing.
With all of that in mind, the idea of setting up promotional "shrine" to μ's suddenly makes a lot more sense. Worshiping a character to curry favor gels nicely with the sort of loyalty that fans have been encouraged to feel for the franchise. What people hope to get out of leaving gifts for the girls is anyone's guess. But maybe, just maybe, if they pray hard enough, μ's will hear their pleas and bless them with a holy performance.