Illustration for article titled iKaguya-sama: Love Is War/is Truly Romantic Comedy

The genre “romantic comedy” feels a bit misleading in Japanese media properties. Although the two words, “romantic” and “comedy,” imply a fusion of their respective genres, the comedy side of the title is almost always the real focus while the romance is usually just window dressing. A romantic connection between characters acts as the impetus for comedic interactions and rarely serves as a significant plot element outside of the very beginning and end of the series. There’s not anything inherently wrong with this, provided one tempers their expectations when they see the word “romantic” in the genre listing. For example, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun was an incredibly charming series that deserves a second season, even if Sakura’s feelings for Nozaki are clearly going nowhere.

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Sometimes romantic comedies actually do actively take advantage of both halves of their genre. When I saw that We Never Learn was based on a manga written by an assistant to the author of Nisekoi, I immediately assumed there would be absolutely no romantic progression until the last five chapters. Although I ultimately stopped watching We Never Learn, I was pleasantly surprised in the early episodes of the anime to find that the character relationships were not quite as static as I anticipated (emphasis on “early episodes,” unfortunately). The focus was still on the comedy, but the comedy didn’t feel as repetitive initially because the dynamic between the characters evolved over time and kept things fresh. Perhaps, just maybe, there is some potential here for a synergetic relationship between comedy and romantic development.

But, my dear readers, here is where I must pose a question: what if the romantic part of the genre title was just as important as the comedy? What if, dare I say, both the romantic elements and comedic beats are so well done that it actually feels like a comedic romance?

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That is what Akasaka Aka’s Kaguya-sama: Love Is War has become, much to my surprise.

It’s no secret around these parts that Kaguya-sama: Love Is War is a long-time favorite of mine. I have a multi-year-long relationship with the series that began when a friend recommended it to me off the bookshelf of a local bookstore when I studied abroad in Hokkaido in 2016. It would take me another year or so before I could properly read the original Japanese (it is very high level, especially for manga), and as such I regrettably resorted to less savory methods of reading the material in those early days.

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The early appeal of Kaguya-sama for me was simple: it’s funny. It’s really funny, actually. Humor is subjective, but Kaguya-sama has a knack for the comedy it centers around. The premise is straightforward: the president and vice president of the student council, Shirogane Miyuki and Shinomiya Kaguya, are both in love with each other. However, they are also both incredibly proud individuals with a core philosophy guiding their outlook on romance: the person who confesses is the loser. Thus, in order to make their love blossom, they are left with no choice but to force the other person into confessing first.

“And now, Shinomiya... Our battle begins.”
“And now, Shinomiya... Our battle begins.”
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Kaguya-sama is all about razor-sharp dramatic irony in the early chapters. Each chapter features a harebrained scheme in which Kaguya/Miyuki tries to force the other into a position where they have no choice but to confess their feelings. The key to the humor in Kaguya-sama is, much like similarly-styled manga, all about escalation. Both Kaguya and Miyuki overthink their strategies to the point where truly believing that your romantic target is putting that much thought into their interactions would be illogical... except in this case, where their partner actually is overthinking everything to the degree they are imagining. The result is consistent absurdity where even something as straightforward as bringing lunch to school results in a battle of the attrition to leverage a simple meal into a romantic confession.

Kaguya-sama is not the first to base its comedy off dramatic irony and extreme escalation, but it is incredibly talented at doing so. Fellow comedy series Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto has a similarly-styled comedic approach, and the most common critique I have heard is that it feels like the same joke is being played over and over again. Yes, Sakamoto is absurdly brilliant at everything he does, no matter how bizarre or banal. It may be funny at first, but as the critique goes, the bit grows old fast. Unlike Sakamoto, however, Kaguya-sama doesn’t have this problem. Part of this is due to the latter’s more diverse comedy. The jokes in the series don’t start and end at “Miyuki and Kaguya overthink a situation to a ridiculous degree.” Not all the chapters entirely hinge around a pure battle of the wills. Additionally, over the course of the first few volumes, several significant characters with their own relationship dynamics are pulled into orbit. But more importantly than the quantity is the quality, or, in this case, the characterization and development of the ever-growing cast.

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In his essay for GoombaStomp, blogger and AniTAY friend Declan Biswas-Hughes argues that many characters in comedy anime can be broken into two categories: “flaw-based characters” and “role-based characters.” By his description, for flaw-based characters, “the audience knows how the characters will respond to and behave in a situation, but you could give them a simple dilemma and each would be able to carry on on the basis of their flaws and be funny.” On the other hand, a role-based character “would need a particular problem and sparring partner to find that same comedic value.” In series like Nozaki-kun and Sakamoto, much of the comedy is designed to center around role-based characters. The authors, therefore, create scenarios in which their characters can carry out their predetermined comedic roles, such as Seo’s (Nozaki-kun) confrontational behavior or Sakamoto’s oblivious perfection.

If done right, the difference between these two is minimal, but sometimes the execution leaves something to be desired. In Sakamoto’s case, Sakamoto himself is grating for some viewers because his repeated usage for the same role makes him feel like a single-joke character. Within this dichotomy, Kaguya-sama’s characters are likely best viewed as flaw-based characters. The audience understands some of the general flaws that each character has, and can vaguely predict how they will respond to different situations. Author Akasaka, thus, keeps Kaguya-sama fresh by writing diverse scenarios and elaborately designed personalities for the main cast. Unlike Sakamoto, neither Kaguya nor Miyuki can easily be described as one-note.

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Kaguya: “That was quite painful (lol).” Miyuki: “Someone! Someone please kill me now!!”
Kaguya: “That was quite painful (lol).” Miyuki: “Someone! Someone please kill me now!!”

In the early stages of the manga, Kaguya, Miyuki and crew’s constantly-developing characterizations are a highlight that make the comedy even more funny. Kaguya, the ultra-wealthy heiress to a massive family fortune, has never experienced many of the basic, humble activities of the masses, from making her own lunch to buying a ticket at the movie theater. Although she carries herself haughtily, she has a soft side for many of her friends and a particularly shy side when it comes to Miyuki. Miyuki, for his part, shares an extremely shy attitude towards Kaguya, as well. Unlike Kaguya, however, he comes from an extremely poor family. Despite this, he was able to enter the prestigious Shuchiin Academy and achieve the top academic scores through extreme effort. His humble origins both financially and intellectually embarrass him, and he does his best to keep them from entering general conversation.

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The writing in Kaguya-sama is competent and incredibly funny from the very first chapter. I struggled for a long time to read the Japanese manga because (especially in the narrated introductions) the series uses deliberately complex and high-level vocabulary, a fitting choice considering the academic prowess of the lead couple. But despite the difficulty, the humor was worth it and I continued the struggle until I could read a volume without the use of a dictionary. My linguistic journey is perhaps a story for another time, but the appeal of the manga speaks for itself.

For the first few volumes of Kaguya-sama’s manga, despite developed characters and slowly-evolving relationships, the “romantic” part of the series still served mostly as a source from which to mine material for the comedy. Kaguya and Miyuki’s relationship progressed bit by bit and managed to avoid the same level of “blue-balling” or sudden reversals of potential romantic progress for which some series, such as Nisekoi, are infamous. It was memorable and maybe even one of the best comedy manga that I had ever read. But then my feelings towards the series changed.

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Kaguya-sama has been serialized weekly by Shueisha since May of 2015 and is nearing its fifth birthday. My life has changed significantly since the early days when I first attempted to read the manga in 2016, and my tastes in media have evolved, too. Many series that I once adored, while precious memories, do not always hold up as well upon a second read-through. Part of this is due to me wanting more from my media than in my younger years. When I first watched the Nisekoi anime back in 2014, I loved it, but now I find it mediocre and at times frustrating for its lack of development.

Much like Nisekoi, my relationship with Kaguya-sama has shifted considerably in the past few years, but unlike Nisekoi, I actually find myself enjoying Kaguya-sama more and more as time goes on. The reason is quite simple: the manga is much, much better now than it was five years ago. Kaguya-sama has transitioned from a clever romantic comedy to something more aptly described as a surprisingly thrilling comedic romance.

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Kaguya: “Make it count.” Ishigami Yu: “I will.”
Kaguya: “Make it count.” Ishigami Yu: “I will.”

This shift didn’t happen overnight, but was instead the result of the deepening characterizations of the core cast. One of the best examples of this is student council treasurer, Ishigami Yu. When first introduced a couple of volumes into the manga, Ishigami feels like a role-based character. He is a quiet, otaku-type guy who tends to show up at the wrong time or commit social faux-pas without realizing. His seemingly video game-influenced cynical view of high school society (particularly young love) plays into the otaku archetype Akasaka modeled him after, and his role is mostly to say the wrong thing or be in the wrong place at the wrong time and humorously pay the price for his unintentional indiscretion. He’s funny, but initially serves more as an unfortunate punching bag than a fully fleshed-out character.

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One particularly common situation for poor Ishigami is to run afoul of Kaguya without realizing it, causing him to have a deep-seated fear of interacting with her, even going as far as to fear for his life. This misunderstanding dogs their relationship for a long time and is another example of Kaguya-sama’s intense dramatic irony. Ishigami’s fear of Kaguya (murdering him) is not proportional to her actual feelings towards him; although she gets frustrated with him at times, her actual thoughts are that of a concerned senpai trying to look out for her wayward underclassman (kohai).

Ishigami and Kaguya’s senpai-kohai dynamic grows over time from a misunderstanding (such as Ishigami interpreting Kaguya’s concern for his test scores as her wanting to torture him) to a mutually beneficial connection as Ishigami begins to understand that Kaguya’s forced study sessions are a token of her genuine concern for his well-being. As their relationship progresses, the tone and delivery of the comedic bits evolve as well. Ishigami’s flight from a forced study session becomes less about fearing for his life and more about rebelling against Kaguya’s overbearing attempt to restrict his video game time.

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Even more importantly, Ishigami’s own background story provides new context to his personality and further diversifies his interactions with the other characters. Leaving details vague for spoiler-related reasons, his cynical and brooding demeanor are both due to a past experience in middle school hinted at early on but later explored in great detail. Despite doing the right thing in a difficult social situation, Ishigami is ostracized by his classmates who lack the full context for his decision. This is the origin of his distaste for high school social cliques and high school romance. This past comes to the forefront in an emotional arc that provides more context to his friendship with Miyuki and deepens his bond with the rest of the cast, including Kaguya. Over time, Ishigami even develops a (spicy!) romance subplot of his very own.

Pictured: numerous people calling poor Ishigami a terrible person. “What’s wrong with you?” “Gross.” “You’re done, man.”
Pictured: numerous people calling poor Ishigami a terrible person. “What’s wrong with you?” “Gross.” “You’re done, man.”
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Ishigami’s story is one of steady development and an example of numerous surprisingly serious narrative arcs that become more and more commonplace as Kaguya-sama progresses. There’s no one moment where Ishigami’s situation is suddenly completely changed; one day, I just realized that not only had Ishigami’s comedic dynamic with everyone shifted, but his very worldview had evolved and he had grown as a person in a way that felt earned because of the long-term effort Akasaka had spent writing his character arc.

Ishigami is but one example of Akasaka’s painstaking attention to detail that deepens the connection readers have to the characters and makes emotional moments really hit hard. The comedy also benefits heavily from these developments, as complex characters, when well-written, can accentuate the comedy chops of the series beyond what anyone could possibly imagine otherwise. Ishigami is not an outlier, or even the best character arc — that award would have to fall to the primary pairing of Kaguya and Miyuki. Despite a constantly growing cast of characters who themselves are incredibly entertaining to watch, Kaguya-sama’s main pair and their relationship come into greater and greater focus over time as the story advances.

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To reiterate, Kaguya-sama’s early chapters follow a basic narrative basic narrative structure of Kaguya and Miyuki engaging in a battle of romantic wits that ends with one of them or a rogue third party being declared victorious. While the idea of declaring a “victor” of the chapter remains a constant as the manga progresses, the “battles” become less clearly defined and, for the most part, disappear altogether. As Kaguya and Miyuki’s relationship develops, not only do they both grow increasingly close to acknowledging their feelings, but the depth of those feelings intensifies as more details come to light. Over time, character drama takes an increasingly central stage, and the focus shifts from a pure comedy to a genuinely moving romance that somehow continues to be hilarious when the time is right.

“I’m too afraid to put it into words.”
“I’m too afraid to put it into words.”
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(Massive spoilers for the manga in the following paragraphs- skip to the final paragraph to avoid in-depth discussion about developments up to volume 15.)

Much like Ishigami, the initial characterizations of both Kaguya and Miyuki are deepened far beyond their early borderline-archetypal backgrounds over time. In the case of our main pair, however, this development is a result of a growing romance in all but name… until it actually does become official after what is now one of my favorite manga moments of all time.

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After Miyuki decides to attend Stanford University in the United States, he makes a pact with himself to confess to Kaguya at the end of the school festival. He goes to extreme lengths to make the setup for his confession as romantic as possible. Highlights of his plot include an elaborate riddle that only Kaguya can solve, a mysterious costume, and hundreds of heart-shaped balloons. In the end, he doesn’t quite confess his love directly, but he does ask Kaguya to apply to Stanford with him, and in the heat of the moment Kaguya kisses him, seemingly sealing the deal at long last (this moment is great, but it gets even better).

A picture worth a thousand words.
A picture worth a thousand words.
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However, Kaguya’s spur-of-the-moment decision to kiss Miyuki and go against her father’s wishes that she attend school in Japan cause an intense internal struggle to erupt. Miyuki’s confession is an incredible romantic gesture, but neither it nor the kiss feel right. It feels to Kaguya as though she and Miyuki are putting on a show. In an attempt to woo Kaguya, Miyuki (as always) has gone above and beyond to create the perfect confession scene, but she feels that he isn’t willing to be open with her, and likewise that she is unable to be open with him. This contradiction spikes Kaguya’s anxiety that Miyuki won’t love the “real” her and results in her regressing to her cold, unfriendly personality from when they first met.

There has always existed a crucial disconnect between Kaguya and Miyuki that has prevented them from sealing the deal, and that disconnect is not mere shyness. It is a fundamental misunderstanding over what each finds attractive about the other. Kaguya thinks that only by covering up her cold and sometimes distant personality can she possibly get Miyuki to fall in love with her, and this disheartens her. She wants Miyuki to fall in love with every part of her the same way that she has fallen in love with every part of him. Miyuki likewise believes that only by covering up his lack of raw talent can he possibly get Kaguya to fall in love with him. He worries that if Kaguya ever realizes his lack of natural talent, she will lose interest in him. He has long since fallen in love with every part of her, but he doubts she could fall in love with him in the same way.

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And this is the ultimate dramatic irony of the series. Kaguya has always known about Miyuki’s efforts to become “worthy” of her, and Miyuki has always known about Kaguya’s efforts to be friendly to him, even when it doesn’t come naturally to her. In other words, they have both always loved each other not for their respective public faces but for their true selves. All of their efforts to conceal the parts of themselves that they thought were unlovable only made it more difficult for them to realize that what they were concealing was the very person that each had fallen in love with long ago. Miyuki always loved Kaguya, not because she was outwardly friendly but because she cared enough about people to make the effort to reach out, even if she was uncomfortable. Kaguya always loved Miyuki, not because he was a star student but because she knew the effort he had put into rising to that status in the first place.

“Hey, president, take a good look. I won’t hide any part of myself from you.”
“Hey, president, take a good look. I won’t hide any part of myself from you.”
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The problem was not that their partner would not accept them, but rather that they would not accept themselves.

At long last, on Christmas Day Kaguya and Miyuki have an honest conversation about their feelings. They realize that they had always loved each other all along. They futher come to understand that they love each other not for who they pretend to be, but for who they have always been. Their romantic battle isn’t even close to over; it has just begun.

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Kaguya and Miyuki’s romance hits so hard because Akasaka has worked to assemble the building blocks from the very beginning. Their character arcs not only furthers their relationship, but lead the readers to re-contextualize even the early chapters and jokes of the manga. The personality traits were there all along, but we lacked the supporting details to realize the full depths of their internal struggles and their feelings for each other. What appeared superficial turns out to be profound. Kaguya-sama then brings these emotions to a truly earned romantic climax, all without missing a single comedic beat. It’s a satisfying conclusion in every meaning of the word, but (thankfully) it is merely the end of an arc and hints at even more to come.

Kaguya-sama: Love Is War has always been a fun series. Its comedic punches have always delivered in diversity and hilarity, and its cast of characters have always been a cut above the average romantic comedy archetypes. But Kaguya-sama’s true strength becomes apparent over time as Akasaka Aka’s carefully planned character arcs coalesce into an all-time romance that still manages to be incredibly funny. The series today is a completely different beast from where it was five years ago, but that progression feels natural and the shift has transformed Kaguya-sama from a competent series to a must-read for fans of romantic comedy. Kaguya-sama could have satisfied itself with being uproariously hilarious, but instead it aspired to reach the pinnacle of heartwarming love stories, too, becoming a true comedic romance in the process.

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*A special thanks to TheMamaLuigi for his help proofreading this piece!!


You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, follow us on Twitter, or give us a like on our Facebook page.

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