Kaguya-sama Love Is War

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

The romantic-comedy, much like its cousin the horror-comedy, more often than not ends up sacrificing the romance for the comedy. Or the comedy for the romance. But where there are plenty of romantic anime shows, few end up being as sweet and as hilarious as Kaguya-sama: Love is War.

Looking from the outside in, Kaguya-sama seems like a traditional slice of life high school romance. In a prestigious academy for Japan’s brightest students (and those from the wealthiest and most influential families), student council president Miyuki Shirogane and vice president Kaguya Shinomiya excel at everything they do and are revered by everyone in the academy. Oh, and the entire academy thinks they should be together.

The good news is that they also very much have feelings for each other, and know that the other is in love with them. The problem? They are too damn stubborn and prideful to admit their feelings. In love, there’s a winner, and a loser (or so says the narrator), so neither Shirogane or Shinomiya want to lose. What ensues is a brilliant and hilarious battle of the wits, a game of psychological warfare where two stellar minds try to out-scheme the other to confess their love first. 

What Makes It Great

Based on the incredibly popular manga from Aka Akasaka titled Kaguya Wants to be Confessed to: The Geniuses’ War of Hearts and MindsKaguya-sama stands at the intersection of comedy, romance, high school slice of life, and also battle anime, and the show effortlessly navigates each of the genres with fantastic results. 

From its James Bond-esque opening titles, with Shinomiya and Shirogane acting as rival spies trying to get the jump on one another, Kaguya-sama turns ridiculous overreactions into its whole modus operandi. From Shinomiya staging contests so that she and Shirogane win free tickets to see a romantic movie at the theater, or researching the weather so that she’s stuck at school during heavy rain without an umbrella just so Shirogane offers to walk her home while sharing the same umbrella, their plots are increasingly elaborate and over the top. 

The comedy then comes from seeing such elaborate plans fail miserably because they get undone by pure chance, their meddling friends, or simply one of the two leads panicking at the prospect of opening up and expressing their feelings to the other. Though it can be infuriating how the show goes to great lengths to maintain a ridiculous yet intentional stalemate, seeing all the side characters remain oblivious to what’s going on will have you in stitches.

Of course, Kaguya-sama is more than just a rom-com, it also follows the best tropes and visual cues of the battle anime. There’s a Ron Howard in Arrested Development-style narrator that provides play-by-plays of each romantic showdown while also letting us know when one of the characters is lying. Likewise, the show gives visual cues like battle lines, gun sound effects and more to let you know that love is indeed a war, and each attempt at getting a confession from the other is a challenge you can win or lose. Indeed, each episode of the show ends with a scorecard pointing out who won or lost the most.

But there’s more to the show than over the top shenanigans. Despite playing like a parody, Kaguya-sama also ends up working as a proper rom-com, and a surprisingly sweet and emotional at that. The first season is mostly told from Shinomiya’s perspective, and the show slowly peels back the layers to examine the many lifelong insecurities that drive this wealthy heiress to obsessively try to make Shirogane confess to her instead of doing so herself. The show goes into the mindset and background of the characters to make us care about them beyond their dumb games, and the show manages to bring out the emotions in the clever plots, resulting in a properly romantic tale even if it doesn’t even result in anyone actually holding hands or anything.

What It Brings to the Conversation

Though not a huge part of the show, Kaguya-sama doesn’t ignore the class disparity between its two main characters, commenting on the high-school microcosm of Japanese society. Kaguya-sama makes it clear that Shirogane’s obsession with work and studying comes from his family’s financial insecurity, which informs his character and his prideful refusal to admit he likes the wealthier, more high-class Shinomiya. 

Meanwhile, season 2 is setting the spotlight on side characters. An early episode in the season focuses on Shinomiya’s long-suffering but somehow still loyal servant, Ai Hayasaka. She and Shinomiya have a master/servant dynamic despite being both from affluent families and both attending the same class. Even if it’s not a main part of the plot, Kaguya-sama does make an effort to comment on the way we consider people to be somehow superior to us despite being our equals in many ways, all while still making time to devote two whole minutes to a rotoscope dance number.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

The beauty of the animation medium is how it can take something familiar, like a romantic comedy, and turn it on its head by creating something that simply couldn’t be replicated in live-action (though they did try!). The show presents a sweet and often relatable scenario and mixes it with Looney Tunes, resulting in an emotional and also hysterically funny rom-com that will make you want to hug the characters almost as often as it will make you want to smack them in the head for taking so long to do anything.

Watch This If You Like: You’re The Worst, The Set Up, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

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Kaguya-sama: Love is War is now streaming on Hulu, while season 2 is streaming on Funimation.

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