Reaper's Reviews: 'Kaguya-Sama: Love is War'
Production: A-1 Pictures
Format: 12 episodes
Release: January 12, 2019 – March 30, 2019
Rather than alluding to this review’s subject, or talking in-depth about specific elements that will probably have a large impact on the anime’s successes or failures, I would like to start my usual introduction section by saying that this review was rather exhausting to write.
It took me about three rewrites until I decided to finally publish it, and to tell the truth, I am still a bit lukewarm about this review’s whole structure. This happens every so often where I write a new review, and it enters into a short case of development hell as I try figuring out what I like or don't like from what I’ve written.
And I especially hate it when this happens in reviews for anime that I really enjoyed. This is perhaps a bit of a spoiler, but Kaguya-Sama: Love is War is pretty good; I do not think there is any reason to keep it a secret until I will actually talk about the series’ merits. Kaguya-Sama was one of those delightful experiences that come every so often to shake its genre up a little.
I have no desire in being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian; like the vast majority of the anime community during the series’ airing, I found Kaguya-Sama to be one of the better shows to kick off 2019. Does it have flaws? Absolutely, as all things in the entertainment industry and beyond.
That’s why this review exists in the first place: to both praise the series for its achievements and point out where it wasn’t so brilliant, and I hope that I managed to elaborate my praise and criticism well this time around.
So finally, without any further delays, allow me to actually begin my review of the 2019 anime, based on the ongoing manga by Aka Akasaka, directed by Mamoru Hatakeyama and produced by studio A-1 Pictures: Kaguya-Sama: Love is War.
Story & Setting
The student council of Shuchiin Academy is headed by two individuals: President Miyuki Shirogane and Vice President Kaguya Shinomiya. The two are among the most powerful and well-known students in the entire school body, with Shirogane being renewed as the top student of Shuchiin while Kaguya comes from one of the wealthiest families in Japan. And a lot of people also see them as a power couple.
But there is a little problem.
See, both Shirogane and Kaguya ARE fond of each other and would very much like the idea of being together. The thing is that both of them are extremely prideful tsunderes who refuse to confess to each other. In stead, they begin an elaborated mind battle to trick the other into confessing. And thus, hilarity ensues, especially due to involvement of other characters.
Kaguya-Sama takes such a simple premise that it’s almost hilarious that nobody has ever tried to take it to the fullest of its potential until now. The mere idea of basing an entire series around a confession war between two tsunderes is so simplistic and straightforward, and yet Kaguya-Sama builds upon this concept in clever and, more importantly, amusing ways.
Almost every episode has a familiar structure: it is broken into three segments, each initially dealing with Shirogane and Kaguya’s battle of wits (and later delves into secondary characters too), notably narrated throughout.
While the comedic timing is usually gold and the characters have enough depth to use more than one punchline, one of the best aspects of the show is - surprisingly - narration in the background. And this is something that I usually detest in anime, but Kaguya-Sama spoofs this element with style and I can’t imagine the series without this brilliant feature.
The narrator is hilarious; acting more like a sports commentator, this omnipresent spectator fills each scene he plays a role in with an over the top performance and his overenthusiastic sharp sense of humor. He never serves as a bland explanation vehicle but as a bombastic and lively voice never shy away of pointing things out in the goofiest ways possible, whether he mocks Shirogane’s lack of sexual experience, ridicules over Kaguya’s powerless against Fujiwara, or simply notes their socially awkward manners.
But this is hardly the only reason why Kaguya-Sama is a good comedy series, and more like a thin layer around the real meat of the series: the characters’ interactions.
Kaguya-Sama knows how to utilize its characters to the fullest, and gradually adds up more cast members to shake things up. Each episode shows several battles between Shirogane and Kaguya, usually exaggerated to ridiculous levels but it avoids the reliance of the exact same jokes and punchlines with the exception of some signature actions.
Instead, the comedy is derived from the characters’ personalities and quirks rather than basing them around punchlines and repeated gags (although those are there too), all building upon the premise of two people being way too prideful and shy to confess to each other.
The very first segment of the series, for example, focuses on Shirogane trying to make up his mind whether he wants to invite Kaguya to a movie or not, without knowing that the entire scheme was actually planned by Kaguya herself. This throws the two into an intense and utterly stupid mind game where every single word - every single shade of action - is meticulously calculated by the two.
You have Kaguya on one side, musing over the foundations on her plan, and Shirogane on the other side, just narrowly countering her mechanisms. The tension, the overly dramatic outbursts, the bombastic narration and the wild card element brought up by the supporting cast all create a deliciously entertaining segment that manages to be both funny and surprisingly epic.
And the series is simply stacked with those scenarios, including Shirogane trying to stop Kaguya from seeing his phone’s wallpaper, or Kaguya desperately trying to get Shirogane into offering her some of his lunch box. Since the humor itself is never the real focus - the characters’ actions are - Kaguya-Sama rarely gets stale.
The series is even aware enough to shake things up by including segments focusing on other characters, with one of my favorite scenarios in the entire show being a middle-aged ramen enthusiastic - a new, one-shot character - silently declaring war on Fujiwara when she arrives at a ramen bar. Thanks to a clever script and stylish direction, the series works even without the main hook of the premise.
And I love that Kaguya-Sama really BUILDS upon its humor and setting; unlike so many other sitcom-like anime shows, a strong continuity is present, with some segments directly leading to others and jokes mature alongside the series’ progress, often finding new and wacky ways to utilize them. This is not just great comedy - this is great writing in general.
But if you think that I have only praise for the show’s synopsis, you’d be wrong, because as much as I enjoyed Kaguya-Sama throughout its one cour airing, I found myself having gripes with how the series progressed as it neared the climax.
I somewhat expected this slight decline; as the series went on, Kaguya-Sama slowly shifted from laughs and eccentric confrontations to subtler focus on romance and drama, with Shirogane and Kaguya’s interactions evolving from outlandish mind games to more genuine attempts at love confessions.
And let’s be honest, the more serious storylines and topics are great; the tone is dominated by a touch of drama and emotion without losing its more lighthearted nature. The deliberate pace helps building up towards heartwarming resolutions. And Kaguya-Sama treats some surprisingly poignant and depressing themes such as parental neglect and loneliness with respect.
It’s just that what I would have considered the real meat of the show, namely Kaguya versus Shirogane, loses some of its edge as the series shifts gears from an hyperactive romance comedy to a romance drama.
It’s still literal mountains of fun until the very last scene, but at the same time it feels somewhat tamer and not as fresh as the earlier episodes were.
That said, I wouldn’t really say that this is a truly “serious” criticism against the show, which made me feel curious about this review. Sure, I am disappointed the comedic elements get toned down a bit in the latter half of the series. Sure, the premise of two tsunderes fighting for a love confession gets sidelined a bit. But the pay-off from the exchange is still very good.
The last episode of the series, specifically the “I Can’t Hear the Fireworks” segment, is one of my favorite final episodes in recent years. It truly serves as the pinnacle of the series, a fantastic climatic moment to the characters we grew to love over the course of 12 hilarious and heartwarming episodes.
Even if Kaguya-Sama won’t receive a second season to continue its source material, I can hardly complain given how complete the finale was. It left me satisfied. Perhaps wanting more, but in a good way. It closes off the season on an incredibly high note that makes any criticisms against the show negligible.
I can’t really express how much I love the characters in Kaguya-Sama and how big their role is in the series’ critical and commercial success. And this isn’t only because of Shirogane, Kaguya and fellow Council members Fujiwara and Ishigami, but because of the cast as a whole, both supporting and minor characters.
Now let me be clear regarding Shirogane and Kaguya before delving into the character themselves; they are tsunderes - characters who may sometimes appear as cold or aloof (or irritated), but then may reveal a softer side. And our main two leads are more or less a parody on the character archetype taken to its logical extreme.
So I’ll just warn you in case my review hasn’t helped thus far: if you don’t like tsunderes, you may have problems with Kaguya-Sama. That is my opinion, as I’ve noticed that some of my friends who hate the tsundere archetype were rather polarized in their opinions regarding the show, so there’s that. Now let’s move on.
Shirogane and Kaguya boast some of the strongest character dynamics in recent memory that I had the pleasure to watch. In a typical fashion, they bicker and race with each other a lot. They share many similarities such as their intelligence and lack of social skills - which make them fight at times - but also differentiate in their backstories and life experiences, which help them get attached to each other.
I’d say that Shirogane is the more mature out the two, if only just. To the general school body, he appears as the cool-headed and stoic council president that everyone worships, Kaguya included. However, his actual personality of a lovable goofball that studies himself to hell due to insecurities and his love issues make him endearing and relatable. He is also the better one out of them in terms of social interactions. Again, if only just.
The titular Kaguya doesn’t really get as much as focus as her name would imply, but she is still the centerpiece of several stories. While both Shirogane and Kaguya strive to best each other, Kaguya is the one taking it to the extreme, planning elaborated and highly convoluted shenanigans to make Shirogane confess to her. And it’s every bit as entertaining as you’d expect.
At the same time she is surprisingly innocent and shy underneath both her graceful front and more callous nature. For example, she is almost completely oblivious to the concept of sexual activities, and unlike Shirogane, she is far more introverted and lacks much of a life experience due to being sheltered for so long.
While I do feel that they lose some of their edge as clever masterminds due to the story’s shift away from the initial premise, it is their similarities and differences that ultimately compliment the other’s development. Despite their rivalry, they care for each other immensely and grow thanks to the mutual support; Shirogane not so much aside from becoming more affable, but Kaguya learns how deep her friendship with him is, becomes more approachable and visibly caring, even if it is subtle.
Aside from them you also have what is probably the series’ poster girl, Chika Fujiwara. A cheerful and hyperactive girl, Chika often serves to contrast the more brooding personalities as her peers while also adding the aforementioned wild card element into the different sitcom sections. And oh, what a joy she is.
Despite coming off as somewhat ditzy, Chika is hilariously mischievous and shameless at times. If she feels like it, she will expose weaknesses of both Shirogane and Kaguya (the latter whom she sees as her best friend) for her own amusement. She is a constant delight to watch with her energetic and dramatic (even for this series) demeanor, and I can’t imagine the series being as memorable as it is without her on-board.
Finally you have Ishigami, the student council’s reluctant and gloomy treasurer. Despite not appearing as often as the above three, it’s hard not to care for him; he is seen as an outcast and has a very nihilistic outlook on life, but then you also get scenes of him correctly deducing the intentions of his peers, and then his bombastic rants to Shirogane.
He gets abused easily and while normally I hate this in comedy anime, he gets a few bones throws with a standout scene of him criticizing Fujiwara for her selfishness before being supported by both Shirogane and Kaguya, the latter whom usually terrifies him.
And those core four are simply so much fun to watch, even if having the entire ensemble of them is incredibly rare. Whether it’s Fujiwara ruining Kaguya’s plans for Shirogane, Kaguya and Shirogane share a small moment of intimacy or Ishigami venting to Shirogane, I just can’t express in words how much have I enjoyed seeing those interactions.
The same goes for the supporting cast, which isn’t that big, so the majority of them get enough characterization to make them stand out.
Different segments may include the council’s friend Kashiwagi and her recent issues with her boyfriend, or Kaguya’s icily sarcastic maid Hayasaka, or even Shirogane’s younger sister Kei. Even more minor characters such the school principal Adolphe or Shirogane’s father - or even a completely random salary-man - are memorable additions.
I especially enjoy Hayasaka’s character and it won’t make me surprised at all if she will get more prominent roles in a future season. Her cold expressions and monotone voice hide a sharp sense of humor and an appetite for sarcasm. Every time Hayasaka has a role in a segment, you can be sure it will be a joyous experience.
Animation & Art
The animation for Kaguya-Sama is really on point. While I wouldn’t say that the series was exactly cheap in terms of budget or poor in terms of talent behind it, you can tell it wasn’t done on premium costs. But Kaguya-Sama is a great example of how clever direction and a creative presentation can make a series look amazing.
I haven’t watched director Shinichi Omata’s previous works, but something tells me that for this particular series, he took a look at fellow director Tetsuro Araki and his work on 2006’s Death Note, and thought to himself, “now how can we make fun of that?”. Quick shots, dramatic close ups to the characters’ eyes, bombastic movements and vibrant color palettes give Kaguya-Sama a familiar vibe taken in a funny new manner.
But that’s not everything about Kaguya-Sama’s visual presentation, and the series is rather flexible in that regard.
Scenes quickly yet smoothly transition from standard fare aesthetics to wacky and exaggerated character designs, to atmospheric horror-like visuals played for laughs or vibrant, stock backgrounds, and even cheap, janky character models. Kaguya-Sama’s production values are at their best when the series is allowed to go wild and experiment with different styles.
Even in its basic form, Kaguya-Sama is still a cute-looking show. The character designs are overall simple, but the relatively small cast is given enough distinctive visual quirks from one another to make each one stand out, which is an impressive thing when the majority of your characters wear a similar uniform.
Now the general quality (i.e. fluidity, detail, etcetera) of the animation itself is solid overall, but there are times where it flies through the roof. What is probably the series’ most famous scene is the gorgeously animated and unbelievably adorable dance performed by Chika in the end of episode 3.
The entire dance was rotoscoped; rotoscoping is the process of animating over live-action footage. Some famous examples of it in anime include Yuki’s guitar playing in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and action sequences in The End of Evangelion, and some infamous examples include the entirety of The Flowers of Evil.
Thankfully Chika’s dance falls to the former category elegantly, and it’s hands down jaw-dropping in its level of polish and detail.
Audio & Sound
While I wouldn’t say that the music for Kaguya-Sama, done by Kei Haneoka (post-Kizumonogatari soundtracks in the Monogatarifranchise) is stellar, I do think it’s very well-made and used brilliantly throughout the series. It sometimes has this European, classical vibe to it, before going for a more upbeat, almost laid-back sort of music, and then something that sounds like it came out a telenovela.
But what really makes this soundtrack shine is how it is utilized in various scenes, which is not something I usually talk about in my reviews, but this time around the general sound design of the series got my interest. It just continues this concept of flexibility in how it gets integrated and compliments the scene, swiftly changing to fit the mood without dominating what happens on the screen.
Now the catchy opening theme “Love Dramatic” didn’t grasp me initially as I would have wanted to, but Masayuki Suzuki’s deep vocal performance and Rikka Ihara’s accompanying singing eventually began to grow on me, and I enjoy the retro funk feel that the song gives off.
The ending theme - no, not that one - “Sentimental Crisis” by Halca is probably my favorite theme song in the series despite the competition it has, mostly because of its more somber tone in comparison to the rest of the soundtrack, and even though it ends on a more hopeful tune than I expected, the way it relates to Kaguya’s personality and struggles is beautiful, short and simple.
Of course… It had the misfortune of being replaced for one episode with the aforementioned "Chika Dance". And I love both songs, immensely so. "Chika Dance" itself is just so fun and jovial to listen to, not to mention addicting with Konomi Kohara’s childish and energetic vocals. And I could talk all day about it, but that’s just further evidence to this one-off ending theme’s excellence.
There is no English dub yet. Not as far as I know, at least. That said, the Japanese voice acting is superb, with Aoi Koga’s “high lady” performance as Kaguya, Makoto Furukawa’s confident work as Shirogane, Konomi Kohara’s hyperactive Chika and Ryouta Suzuki’s gloomy yet affectionate job as Ishigami.
But we all know who truly takes the spotlight, don’t we? Yutaka Aoyama’s performance as the narrator should be remembered as one of 2019’s best voice acting roles. One can only guess how much fun he had portraying the show’s omnipresent watcher, but it’s undoubtedly a stellar work from him.
From its central premise of a goofy mind battle between two brilliant tsunderes to its lavish direction and hilarious scenarios, Kaguya-Sama ranks among some of the best romantic comedies of the past few years. It boasts an incredible visual presentation dominated by stylish direction rather than straight-up money, alongside excellent comedic timing and lovable characters of zany students.
The show’s slow tonal shift towards the end of its run is noticeable, but I feel like Kaguya-Sama earned those emotional payoffs right until the very end of the series. And even if the humor declines a bit by the end, it still remains one of the funniest series that I’ve watched in a long time, and I wouldn’t mind a second season to grace us. Kaguya-Sama is a fantastic comedy that takes an over-saturated character archetype and turns it on its head with clever writing and charming characters.
- Simple yet clever premise with effective execution
- Characters are simply brilliant, especially Fujiwara and Hayasaka
- Creative animation and solid music used wonderfully throughout
- Loses its edge a little as story begins to include dramatic elements
- If you don't like tsunderes at all, this series won't really fix that
& the Ugly:
- If this season was inspired by Death Note meeting ToraDora, will the next season be a union between Ouran Host Club and Berserk?
- ToraDora - Speaking of tsunderes in romantic comedies, no alternate recommendation can compete against studio J.C. Staff’s delightful 2008 series. ToraDora doesn’t have an intense gender war like Kaguya-Sama, but it does have attachable characters, light-hearted jokes and powerful drama under its belt. If you enjoyed Kaguya and Shirogane’s personalities, you might also enjoy Taiga.
- Teasing Master Takagi-san - This is a more blind recommendation as I have only watched one episode and several clips of this show, but Takagi-san seems to be a lovely little show with inoffensive humor and cute characters. While it also builds upon a premise of a boy and girl being a little too proud to confess to each, it overall feels a little less sophisticated and cutting than Kaguya-san. That said, it still looks fun enough to recommend.
© 2019 Raziel Reaper