Love is one of the sweetest things a person can experience. From the heart palpitations to the gastrointestinal irritability we get whenever we see the apple of our eye, love colors the world opal and can pull a jig out of a guy on the subway. It reminds us that, no matter the mistakes we’ve made or the faults we have, there’s someone who will think of us and hold us no matter what. Few other things in life drive a person as much as the desire to make their partner so unbelievably happy that they’ll willingly rip off all their clothes so they’ll romp you.
Love is all about seizing power and wielding it with an iron fist. He/She who confesses first forfeits their position in the relationship. The moment you confess is the moment you submit yourself before you lover’s feet, because screw standing as equals—if you’re not the one on top, you’re the one kissing the other’s toes. Love is mayhem. Love is a battlefield. Love is war in Kaguya-sama: Love Is War.
Miyuki Shirogane and Kaguya Shinomiya are the president and vice president, respectively, of the Shuchiin Academy student council. Shirogane believes Shinomiya is in love with him and has the goal of getting her to confess to him, which is funny, because Shinomiya believes Shirogane is in love with her and has the goal of getting him to confess to her. Through trickery, deceit, and countless mind games and thoroughly constructed schemes, the two try their darndest to get the other to say those three magic words, but in an ironic twist of fate prevalent in stories worldwide, they wind up really, actually falling for each other.
When I first picked up Kaguya-sama, I was skeptical as to how much I would like it. Episodic series tend to not jive with me, so even something fantastic as Gravity Falls didn’t wake me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I needed my fix of the next episode. I saw the praise but had been burned before, so I kept my expectations in check. Before I knew it I was burning for Kaguya-sama.
Where do I begin with my praise for this manga? Since I brought up its episodic nature, might well use that as a springboard into the rest of its good qualities.
Tricking the other into confessing their affections through underhanded means is the endgame for this series, and while it’s at the forefront of the two leads’ minds, chapters don’t focus exclusively on the scheming of those two, especially as additional council members debut and the two become more and more infatuated with each other. Plots vary from conversations on where to go for summer vacation to a cooking competition to decide who makes the best rice, and however dull a topic seems from the outset, Kaguya-sama has the tendency to pinch the excitement dial on an activity and crank it up to 11. Of course, the manga itself lacks fingers for pinching imaginary dials, so it sends in its characters to do the pinching in its stead.
Gags begin and end with the characters, and the Shuchiin Academy student council is filled with some of the most amusing human beings around.
Shirogane possesses no talents and doesn’t come from wealth of any kind, so in order to catch up with the affluence of the academy’s other students, he has to double his legwork, transforming himself into a workaholic. He’s great at thinking on his feet and will stop at nothing to be on top, but his confidence is prone to waning, and when he’s terrible at something, he causes the secretary, Chika Fujiwara, to drop into a seizure.
This slot was reserved for Shinomiya, but since I brought Fujiwara up, I’ll just squeeze her in. Fitting, considering she’s the agent of chaos, constantly, if inadvertently, thwarting the schemes of the SS Pair with her sporadic appearances and nonsensical proposals. She’s the poster child of air-headed nitwits, or is on the surface, at least, because she’s a musical prodigy and can speak five languages. She can also be a complete and total bitch sometimes, unabashedly pointing out the others’ faults with no regard for their feelings and willing to cheat if it means netting the W in a competition. Her constant interference in the vice president’s ploys eventually earns her a spot on her hit list.
Shinomiya comes from a Bezos-rich, traditional Japanese family and thusly was raised as a prim and proper lady. She was once cold and aloof, but her term on the student council warmed her up in time for the series’s debut. She’s the more cunning between her and Shirogane, drawing up entire plots for the sole purpose of lassoing a confession out of him, and when things don’t go her way, her mood swings toward either adorable, blushie-rich flusteredness or an insatiable bloodlust for whoever’s standing in her way (usually Fujiwara).
Yu Ishigami, the council treasurer, is a bit of a late-bloomer, not debuting until chapter 24. Whereas Shirogane has some confidence some of the time, Yu Ishigami has no confidence none of the time. He’s got something of a dark and troubled past, and he keeps to himself, preferring to play video games when he has nothing else going on. But he’s also willing to help others, even at his own expense, and is at times something of a straight-shooter, kinda like Fujiwara, but without inducing the same trail of tears.
Last seat on the council, and something of a spoiler, is Miko Iino, the auditor. She has a strong, though jagged, moral compass, sticking it to those who don’t adhere to the rules to the finest T, and she’s especially prissy about romantic contact. Despite her position on the discipline committee, she shrinks when confronted, lacks confidence like Ishigami, and is irritably reluctant to reveal her true feelings. Shinomiya also believes she’s brain-damaged, because she idolizes Fujiwara.
Also can’t forget the narrator. Not an actual character, but the characters’ personalities, thought processes, and plots are phoned to us in unironic detail, as though their silly partakings are another objective fact of everyday life.
There’re plenty more characters outside the council room doors, and they’re all equally great in their own regard. Ai Hayasaka is Shinomiya’s snarky servant, who does her best to encourage her master but more often than not has to resist punching herself in the face to avoid dealing with her boundless demands. Nagisa Kashiwagi is a mostly ordinary girl who has bouts of jealousy and trust issues regarding her boyfriend. Kashiwagi’s boyfriend is a ditz who commonly upsets his girlfriend by missing out on obvious signs of what she wants but manages to make it up to her in the end. Shirogane’s little sister, Kei, abhors his existence and wishes he would die in a ditch, but maybe she actually sorta kinda holds some level of familial affection for him, however faint. Et al.
Normally, I wouldn’t devote so much word space to character bios, but I just love this gang so much that I had to indulge myself. No matter a character’s trait, this manga has a talent for spinning a joke from it, which makes them so much fun to be with. If a truck mowed me down and a beautiful goddess granted me the opportunity to bunk with any cast of characters in an isekai afterlife, the Shuchiin Academy student council would probably be the top pick of my roomie list.
To talk about Kaguya-sama’s deftness with comedy is to talk about an arm wrestling champion who spends 97% of his time in the gym doing bicep curls. If you’ve read Bakuman, you’ll recall the manga Perfect Crime Party, or PCP, and if you haven’t read Bakuman, go read it, but in the meantime just know that the technique to that manga within a manga’s comedy is to avoid punchlines altogether. Rather, the humor is that the characters are taking the most mundane, uninteresting events as serious as surgeons in the operating theater.
Punchlines are present and plentiful in Kaguya-sama, but overreacting to the mundane serves as the foundation for its humor, and from there it has an entire supply train of materials to construct the framework of its jokes. Honestly, it floors me how many tricks this manga has up its sleeve when you look real closely at how it sets up its jokes. Reactions are typically drawn in grim, ghastly tones, oftentimes with a speech bubble covering one eye to create this uncanniness to the characters’ expressions, but it’ll also throw down sparkles for a shojo-styled panel or take the boldest pen for simple, cartoonish faces that look like they were drawn by a six-year-old.
The fault with plenty of manga calling themselves comedies is that they don’t know how to capitalize on the comedic potential of the medium. They’re heavily misguided into believing drawing a character in chibi form or making the protagonist call someone an idiot is suitable as a joke, when really my eyes gloss over such panels with the same unprovoked reaction as noticing a fly land on a wall. The lot of comedy manga should gather round Kaguya-sama to watch and learn how it tells a proper joke, from insane visuals to going to absurd extremes to chapter-exclusive running gags to having nonsensical dialogue.
Kittenish as Kaguya-sama can get, it knows when to straighten its back and act as a civilized adult by slapping us with an out-of-nowhere emotional chapter. Much as the council members grin and bear the headaches they cause each other, they’re real people with real problems and desires, and the manga isn’t afraid to shake off jokes to take a serious, hard look at someone having a tough time. Usually, it’s Shinomiya, coming from a strict and stern upbringing that severely limited her lifetime experiences, and I get the feeling such segments are priming us for the trouble that’ll arise when her family inevitably finds out the boy she’s fallen for isn’t one for their approval. The juxtaposition of these chapters from those bookending them can be jarring, but they also make for some of the best moments in the series, such as when everybody runs their hamstrings off to get Shinomiya to a fireworks show. The lead-up of the page spread to the finale of that chapter is so simply yet beautifully done that it’s easily one of the best endings to any manga chapter I’ve ever read.
For all the gushing I’ve been doing, talking about what makes this manga so top-hole is difficult because it doesn’t do anything inherently unique or special. Everything it does is stuff every story does. It’s just that Kaguya-sama does it exceptionally well. Jokes are shrewdly set up to lead the action of a chapter on an upward slope. Chapters are ordered presumably on whatever was pulled out a hat, but gags, character development, and subplots carry over and pop up at a later date. The characters appear so animated and lively, but without the omniscient perspective, they would just be sitting or standing around while making the occasional disgruntled face.
I love this manga. It’s one of the few series I keep up with that whenever the latest volume comes in the mail my life stops just so I can catch up. I’m a sucker for a good rom-com, and this series has me sucking up to it hard. If I’m allowed one tiny, insignificant criticism, it’s that it sheds the lot of the mind games so prevalent in its first couple dozen batches of chapters, but this shows progress in the relationship between the two leads, so I can only forgive it for this rectification. I also guess that since I confessed my love for Kaguya-sama first, that makes me its bitch.