In the beginning, the waters were rough for the character Kanan Matsuura in Love Live! Sunshine!! One of the nine new girls introduced as part of the school idol group Aqours, the deep-sea diver turned idol was among the least popular, even placing dead last in the very first center election—the process by which fans vote for the lead performer for the next album.
A year later, however, Kanan’s fortunes have reversed dramatically, to the extent that she’s the center for Aqours’ newest single, “Happy Party Train.” While there are likely a number of factors that go into changing people’s opinions of a character, the Love Live! Sunshine!! anime undoubtedly played a major role.
When the Love Live! Sunshine!! media mix first began, the Aqours members basically existed as still images, profiles, and small diary entries. In that format, the popularity of characters is dependent upon how effectively those sparse bits of information ignite the imagination. It’s a style of character appeal that can be seen in franchises like Touken Ranbu and Kantai Collection. Unfortunately for Kanan, she came across as relatively bland compared to the other girls under these circumstances.
The Love Live! Sunshine!! anime added dimension to Kanan’s character—depth that might have been implied in those initial pieces and details, but were far too hidden. Now, Kanan isn’t just a skilled diver, she’s an impressively athletic individual in general, far beyond the other Aqours members. Seeing her barely break a sweat as the other girls collapse in exhaustion is one of the more amusing moments of the TV series. Rather than Kanan being grouped with Dia and Mari because they’re all third years, they now have a real history together. Kanan’s passionate desire to restore their friendship, usually obscured by a somewhat stoic demeanor, is on full display in animation. Looking at Kanan’s tears of joy and sorrow, it’s perhaps no wonder that her stock has risen.
The difference between a character that thrives as “artwork and text” and one that succeeds as “a character within a story” falls somewhat along what the scholar Go Ito refers to as kyara vs. kyarakutaa. Kyara describes the traits that make a character seem more “alive,” to the extent that they can be divorced from the context of their story and still maintain an identity. Kyarakutaa, in turn, describes a character in terms of how they’re presented within a story. While this does not apply 100% to Kanan (aspects such as her diving suits and even the shape of her eyes can imply certain character traits) it’s also clear that the fans find her more memorable when an actual narrative arc is involved.
With the second season of Love Live! Sunshine!! on the way, there will be plenty more opportunities to flesh out the Aqours girls. Will there be another character who reaches the center position thanks to the power of anime? It’s certainly likely, and Kanan showed that it was possible.