I think it’s safe to say that whoever said that all is fair and love and war clearly never met Kaguya Shinomiya and Miyuki Shirogane, respectively the vice president and president of Shuchiin Academy’s student council. Rumors fly by here and there, and the entire student body eventually regards them as the perfect couple—the daughter of one of Japan’s largest financial conglomerates and the smartest boy in the whole school; what more could you ask for?—but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, they clearly want each other; that much is true, yet both of them would rather die than be the first to admit it. Thus the name of the game is “How do I get the other person to confess first?” all for seemingly establishing who will be the top and who will be the bottom in a relationship that both sides can see coming from a mile away. Such is the rule of Kaguya-sama: Love is War: “The one who confesses first loses!”
Falling in love can make a smart person dumb and a dumb person dumber: that’s the general pillar of every romantic comedy you’ve ever heard of in your life. I’ve talked before about how Gamers!, the anime adaptation of which aired back in 2017, took a (in)famous rom-com convention—the misunderstanding—and managed to form an almost demonic pentagon of comedic chaos from almost hysterical lapses in judgment, rubbing its hands together and cackling like Mr. Burns as (nonfatal) disaster after (nonfatal) disaster plays out (if that’s you jam, of course). You may also recall the 2018 winter anime adaptation of Teasing Master Takagi-san, which features a boy trying to outsmart his classmate-slash-rival (Takagi) in an adorable game of wits (and failing every time).
Well, if Takagi-san is about adorable childhood crushes and middle school hijinks, then the 2019 winter anime adaptation of Kaguya-sama is the hormone-riddled-teenager remake. Here we have smart people deliberately using their brains for the dumbest reasons. Competitive romance is by no means a new concept in anime, but I safely say that this may be one of the funniest rom-coms I’ve seen in a while because of that competitive angle.
Every couple has a good amount of awkwardness before the big confession, but Kaguya-sama chooses instead to make that same awkwardness the main event—rather than the hurdle toward the final hookup—of a series of deliciously titanic, as well as hysterical, mind games derived from the most simple of high school interactions. Asking one another to the movies, going to the beach, sharing lunches, sharing an umbrella during a rainstorm, even trying on cat ears; these are nothing more than tools designated solely to solidify your superiority over your opponent. Each member does their best to force the opponent into a situation where they have no choice but to confess their love for the other, thus making the confessor insubordinate and inferior to the confessee for the relationship to come. It’s all about the loser’s total destruction; nothing matters less.
Okay, so Beauty and the Beast this anime is most certainly not. In any average, run-of-the-mill rom-com, basic romantic moments are just that—conventions crossed off a checklist of rom-com 101. Yet in the hands of Kaguya-sama, these conventions are transformed in such a way that make the entire premise look like a fighting show in the guise of a shojo romance. In Kaguya-sama, what are supposed to be generic shojo-manga tropes get mutated into these needlessly (and hilariously) over-the-top attempts to overthrow their opponents’ strategies to defeat each other, like a spy lacing a wine with poison, but not before the victim laces the spy’s wine with a poison that gets the spy to admit that he just laced the victim’s wine with poison. Something like that. Although nothing that happens between Kaguya and Miyuki is as intense as, say, diffusing a bomb or fighting a villain that’s been chasing you your entire life, their almost single minded obsession with conquest makes that intensity a reality. All this anime would need is a riff on the classic gun barrel sequence from James Bond just to complete the image of “assassinating with romance.”
Lending to this perspective is the deliciously colorful and innovative visual direction provided by A-1 Pictures. You can tell the staff really loves the source material; under their guiding hands, sometimes something as mundane as figuring out your feelings feels like something out of an old-fashioned standoff in the old West. But you wouldn’t say otherwise, though, because you really can’t tell the difference at that point. Heck, the psychedelic 007-esque opening song alone—with our two leads wielding knives and guns and lord knows what else—is a solid indicator of just what kind of antics you’re in for. Plus, any facial expression you find this show really echoes the sort of anxieties the characters feels when their plans go awry.
Of course, no intricate battle of fifth-dimensional chess would be complete without the necessary chaos factor. Enter Fujiwara Chika, who funnily enough ends up stealing the show half of the time with her personal brand of teenage shenanigans. In the spy-wine-poison metaphor, she would be the hapless waiter who accidentally (or maybe not?) knocks over both drinks because she heard BTS was preforming in the other room, thus ruining the efforts of both the spy and victim completely. She’s the perfect balance of a good-natured, though blissfully ignorant, friend and a total troll (whether she knows this or not) without really falling into the generic “ditzy sidekick” stereotype she appears to display around Kaguya.
Ironically for a show that plays basic moments of attraction as intricate opportunities for manipulation and pushing your enemy into a corner, Kaguya-sama is, believe it or not, surprisingly grounded in its emotional design. None of these characters are aliens misinterpreting basic wants and needs; they’re just kids walking through the deadly wastelands of adolescent awkwardness. We’ve all had to keep our anxieties under wrap in front of our crushes at some point in life; if there’s one thing a teen hates, it’s looking “weak” in front of others. Kaguya and Miyuki can’t just “talk to each to other” like rational human beings, because laying all your cards on the table is the last thing someone at that age wants to do. Then again, Kaguya and Miyuki aren’t exactly rational in terms of how they interact. Even when they come close to an epiphany, they quickly recede back into pure irony. Underneath all of the plans, counterplans, counter-counterplans, counter-counter-counterplans, and so on and so on lies a very realistic fear, hence the need to “outwit” each other in lieu of authentic emotional connections. They say that comedy comes from pain, and Kaguya-sama does a bang-up job at displaying just that.
Figuring out who you are is hard. Confessing to your crush is harder. Doing both at the same time is some Infinity War–level madness. Kaguya-sama knows this very well and thus, against all the sixth-dimensional chess antics—and Chika, obviously—it engages in, paints its lead characters simply growing up into adults; they’re just not really good at it for the most parts. Still, what would a romantic comedy be without some form of irony and escalation? After all, all is fair game in love and war.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War is available from Funimation.