The Winter 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Kaguya-sama: Love is War
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kaguya-sama: Love is War ?
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How was the first episode?
Kaguya-sama: Love is War was yet another show I had my eye on coming into this season, entirely because of its esteemed director. After developing a distinctive style at studio Shaft, Shinichi Omata has spent the last several years demonstrating his unique talents across a variety of projects, culminating in the staggering Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. That show and its sequel were two of the best, most evocatively composed shows of the last few years, so I had high hopes for what Omata might bring to a more conventional production.
Kaguya-sama is indeed a more conventional production, though it's still quite charming in its own right. The show's whole premise is basically just “Kaguya and Miyuki are in love with each other, but each too proud to confess themselves, and so determined to make the other confess first.” This first episode covers three separate “battles” between them, as their profound wits clash in their heroic attempts to prove the other one likes them. Kaguya-sama basically crosses the will-they-or-won't-they appeal central to romantic comedies with the mad strategizing of something like Death Note, arriving at a comedic spin on the romance genre that feels reminiscent of Haven't You Heard, I'm Sakamoto? or Nozaki-kun's absurd theater.
If those reference points attract your interest, you'll probably have a great time with this first episode. Both of the leads are already proving themselves to be pretty charmingly inept people, and Omata's creative visual sensibilities give this production a very distinctive character. Omata's focus on extremely minimalist, block color compositions and very narrow color palettes actually feel more reminiscent of early Akiyuki Shinbo work than Shaft's own recent material, and Kaguya-sama frequently dips into engaging visual metaphors to illustrate its heroes' trials. The animation is fairly limited, but Omata's style frankly just doesn't require that much animation; he's a director who focuses on the overall composition as a coherent visual statement, and this premiere is one striking composition after another.
I didn't like everything about this premiere. First off, even this episode had me wondering if the show has a premise that can support a full season. Our leads are likable enough, but I already was feeling a sense of “all right, let's get on with it” by the conclusion, and knowing the very premise means we won't get much dramatic progression felt more like a threat than a promise. Additionally, while Omata's visual flourishes were engaging in their own right, I didn't feel like they actually elevated the show's jokes. The show's gags aren't all that creative or punchily executed in their own right - it's the charm of the characters that sells them, whereas the show's visual strengths seem more an embellishment than a contributor to its central goals. That said, this was still a reasonably funny and visually compelling episode on the whole, and if you're more amenable to the premise, I'm guessing you'll have a fine time with it. Kaguya-sama gets a thumbs up from me.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War goes all-in on a type of comedy that I really enjoy: smart characters using their intellect for an idiotic purpose. There's something inherently funny about watching Kaguya and Shirogane engage in the verbal equivalent of a chess match in order to “win” a conflict that only exists because they're both clueless about romance. There's also a hint of painful truth to the situation for anyone who's ever gotten so caught up in trying to look smart or witty that they completely forgot to express their emotions. Not that I've ever done such a thing, of course.
This “romance through competition” premise relies on having an evenly-matched pair of main characters, and this series has pretty much nailed that requirement. There are enough slight differences between Kaguya and Shirogane that they feel like distinct individuals, but their strengths and weaknesses place them on a level playing ground for this battle of wits. That, in turn, adds an element of unpredictability to each of this episode's three segments, as even a small detail can tip the balance of power in favor of one character or the other. Chika is a useful supporting character in that regard, since her blissful ignorance allows her to pour fuel onto the fire without warning. Her presence is especially vital in the final segment, where Kaguya swings back and forth between friendship and hatred depending on what Chika's doing at any given moment.
Most of my complaints at the moment involve the show's art and writing styles. I like its approach overall, and little details like the cartoonish appearance of Kaguya's would-be suitor add some variety to the otherwise dialogue-heavy humor. If it were up to me, though, I'd dial back the narration and let the characters do more of the play-by-play commentary themselves. Kaguya and Shirogane have much more distinct voices than the generic comedy narrator, so the series would likely be better off letting them handle as much of the script as possible. I'm also not sold on the abstract backgrounds that frequently accompany the characters' inner monologues, as some of them are so elaborate and stylized that they become a distraction.
This one might be something of an acquired taste, as I can see some viewers getting turned off by antagonistic nature of Kaguya and Shirogane's relationship or by the speed at which the subtitle track has to advance in order to keep up with the non-stop dialogue. As long as those things don't bother you, though, Kaguya-sama looks like it'll be a fun spin on the elaborate schemes and miscommunications of romantic comedy anime. Just make sure you're braced for a lot of speed-reading before you watch it.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War is the kind of comedy that runs off of however many derivations it can come up with based on one central joke. For this rom-com, the premise revolves around the titular Kaguya Shinomiya, a multi-talented and obscenely rich heiress to one of the largest corporations in Japan, and her rival/paramour, Miyuki Shirogane. Kaguya is the student council vice-president for an illustrious private academy, and Miyuki is its ambitious and brilliant president. Both of these kids harbor levels of pride that border on superhuman, and they are each convinced that love is indeed a battle to be won, and that anyone who is foolish enough to fall prey to their romantic emotions is on that war's losing side. The joke, of course, is that these two dorks are already completely head-over-heels for each other, yet both of them are so consumed by pride and adolescent awkwardness that neither is willing to admit it. Instead, the two compete in increasingly ridiculous head-games of deceit and manipulation, in an effort to get the other to confess their feelings first.
As anyone who is familiar with my deep and unbinding love for shows like Karakai Jōzu no Takagi-san can attest, I have a terminal weakness for any romance that focuses on dorky kids being dorks to each other because they like each other. Other series can keep their excessive fanserivce and their harems – I'm more than happy to watch one hilariously overconfident weirdo work overtime to try and scheme her way into tricking another, equally ridiculous weirdo into confessing his obvious love for her. Kaguya and Miyuki are each in their own ways insufferable, arrogant, and completely lacking in self-awareness, but I ended up becoming really endeared to the ways they channel all of those quirks into their uniquely combative version of “having a crush on a classmate”.
What helps the show keep its tone in check is the boisterous production on display from A-1 Pictures – director Mamoru Hatakeyama and the rest of the crew work overtime into highlighting just how seriously Kaguya and Miyuki take their game of romantic 4-D chess. The camera is constantly moving, close-up shots highlight every range of contempt and simmering fury that Kaguya can express, Miyuka's ineptness is highlighted by overblown zoom shots and Dutch-angles aplenty. Given that the show seems to mostly take place in the student council office that Kaguya and Miyuki both share, it makes sense that the visuals and direction would be bolstered to make the setting as dynamic as possible, and I found it to be energetic enough to keep me engaged, without ever getting be too much.
The only other characters is Chika, the oblivious and bubbly straight-woman to Kaguya and Miyuki's antics. She seems like a perfectly serviceable buffer to balance out the core dynamic of the show, though one of my favorite moments of the premiere did end up being how Kaguya's reacted to Miyuka's ploy of sharing food with Chika: She went from irritation, to envy, to borderline murderous rage, before ending the episode by reminding herself and the audience of what a loyal, sweet, and caring friend Chika is at the end of the day. I doubt this is going to win any awards or anything, but I'm always happy to see one of these shows make its way into a season's roster, and you can bet I'll be keeping up with Kaguya-sama: Love is a War this winter.
While I can't see myself watching any more of this series, I can easily see this ending up being the season's funniest comedy. Despite not being overly impressed with the first episode as a whole, I did laugh out loud at it on at least a couple of occasions. That's a feat that no other series so far this season has managed.
The premise is a basic one that many a romantic comedy has been built on before, both in anime and out: both Kaguya and Miyuki are at least interested in each other, but they're so prideful that neither dares be the first to admit it, for they see that as being put at a disadvantage in the relationship. In other words, they both see love as a power struggle. That this is keeping both of them from having a relationship that would seem natural to any outsider is silly, but also probably for the best, since that view on love doesn't at all strike me as a healthy foundation for a relationship. However, what's best for the characters is immaterial here; whether or not it's funny is what matters, and at that the first episode is at least sporadically successful.
The approach to humor is a typical anime variant of the basic concept: the two leads are so over-the-top with their obsessions that they forge complicated schemes and use words as punches and counter-punches, while also occasionally completely misunderstanding what their adversary is doing. The one problem to such calculated approaches is that they are very vulnerable to clueless outside interference, and Kaguya's ditzy friend Chika fits that role perfectly. The way she unwittingly slams down their schemes in two of the three scenarios presented here is comedy gold, and her cheery, pale-haired appearance stands as a welcome, stark contrast to the darker and sometimes more sinister looks of the two leads. As much as she might seem like she'd be a plaything for either of Kaguta or Miyuki, she's the Chaos Theory element to their orderly worlds. She's really just a version of a fairly common disruptive character archetype, but she's still already one of my favorite new characters of the season. The great set-up for the steamed bun joke is another highlight.
The visual production, while not great, suits the content well and the musical score does a fine job of playing up the ridiculous melodrama. Overall, the series might have something going for it if it can at least maintain the level that it's operating at so far.
The manga that this show is based on (available from Viz) is very funny, but it does take its time to get going. That seems like it will be the case with the anime adaptation as well, although there are a few elements that give me pause in this episode. The major one is the overuse of the narrator. While I recognize that excessive narration is a stylistic choice I generally don't like, in the case of Kaguya-sama: Love is War, the narrator takes some of the punch out of the jokes. We can clearly see what the characters are doing without having to be told at each juncture. In cases where some verbal explanation is needed, having the characters themselves say it (as does happen more as the episode goes on) would give this less of a spoon-feeding feel.
The other problem I have with this episode is that the visuals are very busy. While we're not talking Hand Shakers levels of motion sickness, there's a heavy use of wavy lines, blurring images, and the occasional black-and-white background that seems like it's blinking. This made it difficult for me to focus on the images, and in a couple of cases I actually had to look away from the screen because I could feel a headache coming on. If you're sensitive to this sort of thing, it's worth being aware of going in.
However, the basic story remains a lot of fun. Kaguya and Shirogane could basically solve all of their problems by talking to each other rationally, but that wouldn't be funny nor are they nearly as grown-up as they think they are, so they lack the ability to see how easy things could be put to rest. That means they're constantly trying to out-think each other about every silly little thing, seeing everything as an opportunity to get the other to admit their love. That neither of them have stopped to consider whether or not they actually like each other just adds another layer to the insanity, and by the time Kaguya has a meltdown over her inability to ask Shirogane for one of his octopus hotdogs, she's managed to work herself up to impressive heights of jealousy over her friend Chika, while Shirogane panics over what he assumes is Kaguya looking down on his lunch. It's a comedy of escalation, and the three-segment format (each adapting a chapter of the manga) works well to emphasize that.
If Domestic Girlfriend is too serious and melodramatic for you, this show may fit the bill. It covers the same overwrought teenage emotions, but in a lighter and sillier fashion, fully aware of its own lunacy. By pretending seriousness with its 1970s-style gritty opening theme and characters' attitudes, it's able to poke at more dramatic tropes with success.
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