Now here’s a manga rom-com trying something new: the pair trying to get each other to confess first. In Aka Akasuka’s Kaguya-Sama: Love is War, we are introduced to Kaguya Shinomiya and Miyuki Shirogane — respectively the vice-president and president of Shuchiin Academy’s student council — both of whom lack self-awareness to the point they project their mutual attraction onto one another, endlessly striving in getting the other to confess their love. As befitting of their aristocratic status, the two kids are so high and mighty they view love as a battleground; in other words, whoever confesses their love first is the loser, and so the battle of the brains wages on in the confines of Japan’s most prestigious high school.
Despite what the above paragraph and the creepy cover may imply, Kaguya-Sama‘s premise is mostly played for laughs as opposed to any actual suspense. Not that we aren’t charmed by its two leads, yet much of the story functions not merely on them overthinking but also their respective characters flaws; for instance, having hailed from a highly-sheltered home, our dear Kaguya is unfamiliar with the concepts of assigned theater seating and boxed bento lunches. True to her pride, she simply can’t ask Miyuki for help or for a piece of his boxed lunch; in turn, Miyuki’s own pride bounces off hers in preventing him from simply purchasing a ticket first and informing Kaguya where he’ll sit, lest she realize his goal of sitting next to her. (Oh, sorry: it’s how he’s fulfilling her wish of sitting next to him. Or so he thinks, anyway.)
It’s not uncommon for such overthinking and misunderstandings to crop up in these manga rom-coms, but this series’ framing of them as battles (right down to “battle results” descriptions concluding each chapter) is what grips our hearts. Instead of tired cliches making us go “Argh, you dense idiot! Realize what the girl wants already!”, we take a more morbid pleasure in watching this lovesick duo mentally contest against the other as their over-analyses even affect those around them, be it Kaguya mistaking the busty treasurer as putting the moves on her beloved president or Miyuki’s assisting of a love-forelorn student taking its toll on an eavesdropping Kaguya. Unlike the slow burn in harem rom-coms where one or more of the protagonists must gradually realize their love, these are characters who have come to terms with their feelings — in the most roundabout, oblique way, at any rate — and so there’s an innate cuteness in watching them stumble about.
A cuteness that’s naturally aided by the artwork: true to her public image, Kaguya is serene, prim, and proper as she conducts school business, but the moment she encounters the unfamiliar or a snag in her plan, her facade crumbles into a blushing violet you simply want to snatch off the page and gobble up. Meanwhile, as Kaguya-Sama doesn’t revolve around harems, Miyuki avoids the “ordinary black-hair self-insert” design and takes on more of a handsome figure, rendering his desperate panics and crestfallen depressions all the more pathetic; in particular, his habit of envisioning a smirking, condescending Kaguya finding his weaknesses adorable (as for the “how cute…” line in question — which has become something of a meme in the fandom, don’t fret: it’s preserved intact).
Speaking of localization, there are some interesting choices going in Kaguya-Sama; the title’s name change, for one. Originally titled Kaguya Wants to be Confessed To: The Geniuses’ War of Love and Brains, perhaps VIZ Media’s team shortened the name for convenience? Purists fond of the original title’s cuteness may not be so considerate, but it’s not like it affects the actual story. As noted on VIZ’s official blog, the team took special care in adapting the dialogue, right down to retaining a Japanese word puzzle that’s the basis for an entire chapter. Given how it reads perfectly natural to an English-speaking reader, their hard work is evident.
This first volume doesn’t offer much in terms of extras, but we are treated to some character profiles that help fill in the blanks. Interestingly, one of them mentions there’s “no guarantee” Kaguya and Miyuki will get together, but, well, we know better than that, don’t we? (By the way, this is the first time I can recall a localized manga including gags/drawings found underneath the original Japanese edition’s dust covers)
With VIZ’s other rom-com offerings either concluded (Nisekoi) or buried in on-going volumes (From Me to You), Kaguya-Sama offers an engaging cat-and-mouse twist that’s sure to capture fans of the genre. The main duo is likable enough to root for despite their inner motives, and by the volume’s end, I actually found myself asking: who will end up confessing first? No one knows, but gosh, do I want to find out.
Final Verdict: 4/5
This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.