I have a confession: I don’t really like traditional rom-coms.
Written by Kathleen Townsend
I’m not exactly sure what it is that turns me off of them (though I’ve been told it’s because of the icy void in the place where my heart should be). So, you can imagine my surprise when Kaguya-sama: Love is War became one of my favourite anime series of 2019 and the show I’ve been looking most forward to this spring season.
But why is a romantic comedy anime set in contemporary times with no aspects of true fantasy, the supernatural or sci-fi something I’m looking forward to?
Well, Kaguya-sama: Love is War isn’t just a romantic comedy. It’s so much more.
From an outside perspective, Kaguya-sama: Love is War seems like a traditional high school slice of life romance. You’ve got student council president Miyuki Shirogane and vice president Kaguya Shinomiya at odds with one another—both top students, with the latter hailing from a prestigious family. They excel at everything they do. Oh, and they have feelings for each other.
But this is neither a case of misunderstood feelings or either one looking to be wooed. From the series’ very first episode, both students are absolutely convinced that the other is in love with them. But, as perfectionists go, they’re too prideful to be the first to admit it. They both want to “win,” so they try and make each other “lose.”
What ensues is a desperate battle of wits, scheming and resourcefulness to trick the other into a confession—and a hilariously smart, self-referential comedy romp.
Oh, the suspense!
Kaguya-sama: Love is War sits neatly at the intersection of comedy, romance, suspense, shounen and battle anime. A jack-of-all-trades and a master of every single one of them. You might as well call it Fist of the His & Hers Death Note.
The romance genre is tossed on its head from the very beginning, as both are quite confident of their feelings and abilities. It’s not a simple game of teasing or teen angst; it’s a human chess game played by world champions.
The actions of Kaguya and Miyuki are almost entirely dictated by their pride, which we can poke holes in as the series progresses. While neither is capable of swallowing their pride, we watch these two fall utterly in love with one another and break character, even if it’s behind closed doors.
Up front, we’re talking a high-stakes battle of intellect where losing is a total sacrifice of honour and accomplishment.
Kaguya’s method of attack is through constant scheming and clever plots, sometimes using her family’s money and staff. In contrast, Miyuki is exceptionally quick-witted and uses that to counter Kaguya.
Watching the two hatch schemes, deduce one another’s methods and attempt to gain a leg up gives us a look into their thought processes and casts a shroud of suspense and intrigue through every frame.
Innocent questions and everyday occurrences are consistently turned on their heads. Board games become battlegrounds—think Death Parade minus the afterlife. Internal thoughts and simple actions have all the intensity and gravity of any scene in an episode of Death Note. Every action, however minor, has a consequence, and you just can’t look away.
Shounen to a “T”
While packed with suspense, Kaguya-sama: Love is War takes plenty from other action influences, like tropes from shounen.
For example, the series’ narrator constantly provides background on situations and characters, offers play-by-plays of each showdown, and lets us know, in no uncertain terms, when one of our beloved protagonists is lying through their teeth.
Keystone shounen series like Yu Yu Hakusho or Dragon Ball Z tend to have narrators that function in a similar way. These narrators often develop distinct personalities and almost become characters unto themselves, with fans awaiting their next monologue.
But it’s not just the narration that links this series to shounen. Battle visuals are signalled by pistols firing, tense and frayed lines cover backdrops, and battle cues let us know when a match has finished.
And, of course, there’s the goal. Most shounen anime open with a very clear goal from the protagonist.
“I want to be stronger.”
“I want to protect my family.”
“I want to discover treasure.”
Well, Miyuki and Kaguya want a loving, committed relationship with one another. But their lawful chaotic energy prevents them from making the first move. And so…
Each day brings with it a new plot to take the other down.
Even though no one is throwing punches, casting spells or activating mecha against one another, battles are fought on a segment-to-segment basis, just like most battle-centric anime. The narrator even presents new “arcs” for the characters.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War is constructed as just that: a war. Our two protagonists constantly clash on the battlefield, enlisting allies like fellow student council members Chika and Yu for their nefarious plots.
But above all else, this series is about young love, and each and every emotion that comes along with it. Just, you know, personified. Season 1 is a ride from start to finish, and and the second season has kept that energy going right from the start so far!
Will Miyuki and Kaguya finally confess? Or will the romance genre continue to be turned on its head everlong? Only time will tell.