This will be a spoiler free review! I will talk about the positives and negatives as vaguely as possible, because my enjoyment of the manga stemmed from how well it plays with the same formulas over the course of the series. There’s a enough recurring elements and consistency on the author’s part that it shouldn’t be too difficult. Also, the title’s so dang long, so I’m calling it Kaguya-sama wa Kokuretasai when referring to the manga by name, because the English title’s way too wordy.
With that said, what exactly is Kaguya-sama wa Kokuretasai?
Shuchi’in Academy is one of the most prestigious schools in Japan, attended by only the wealthiest families. Our protagonists are the student council of this school. The vice president, Kaguya Shinomiya, is the heiress of one of the largest companies in Japan, mastering multiple forms of artistic and intellectual subjects. The president, Miyuki Shirogane, while of common birth, is a Teen Genius with one of the highest grades in the country.
These two geniuses slowly fell for each other, yet their gigantic prides would not let them be the one to confess. So, they secretly began a battle. That is, the battle to make the other side confess first!
I first heard about this manga when the anime adaptation was announced. It was also very popular on r/manga, so I had no choice but to read it before the adaptation comes out!
Now, let’s take a look at the main cast of characters that we will be following throughout the series. I took the short descriptions from TVtropes. I would link to it, but you’d get spoiled.
The Main Duo:
Shinomiya Kaguya – The titular character and vice president of the Shuchi’in student council. She is the heiress to one of Japan’s largest companies. As befitting her distinguished lineage, she excels in a large variety of subjects and is considered a “true genius.” Engaged in a Battle of Wits with Shirogane to make the other confess their love.
Shirogane Miyuki – The president of the Shuchi’in student council. Despite being of common birth, he is held in high regard as a “genius among geniuses” with unparalleled wisdom and intellect, and holding the top scores throughout the entire country. He is engaged in a long Battle of Wits with Kaguya to make the other confess their love.
The descriptions of the main couple may seem perfect, but they actually have a lot of flaws. Kaguya is a VERY recently defrosted ice queen at the start of the manga, and along with her sheltered lifestyle, she has a hard time with socializing properly and misses out on things most teenagers would get, ranging from buying a ticket at a movie theater to knowing about the birds and the bees. Shirogane, on the other hand, is a workaholic, and lacks a lot of the recreational talents such as sports and music because of his obsessive focus on academics. A flaw that both of them share is their tendency to overthink and “dominate” their love interest. When they DO end up getting what they want, they end up all flustered and forget whatever it was they were scheming.
They can go from terrifying genisues to blushing messes in the span of a second. It’s as annoyingly charming as it sounds!
Fujiwara Chika – The secretary of the Shuchi’in student council. A nice, upbeat, and cheerful girl, she is very close friends with Kaguya (though sometimes it is debatable if the feeling is completely mutual) and also highly respects Shirogane. She is supposedly completely oblivious to the “high-stakes war” being waged in the minds between Kaguya and Shirogane.
Ishigami Yuu – A first year student at Shuchi’in and the treasurer of the Student Council. Incredibly unlucky, depressed and cynical, he lives his days scared of Kaguya.
Hayasaka Ai – A second year student at Shuchi’in and valet of the Shinomiya family, specifically for Kaguya. Her family has served the Shinomiyas for generations and gained their trust. Ai was personally assigned to enter Shuchi’in with Kaguya and support her high school life.
Iino Miko – A straightlaced freshman girl who joins the student council as auditing officer in Shirogane’s second year as president. She’s also a member of the public morals committee.
The fun part about the supporting cast is how much they channel our feelings towards the incredibly obvious couple. They’re all cheering them on, but the two are too prideful to actually notice how flirty they actually look. They also have their own mindgames and plans at work to get their goals. Fujiwara is an agent of chaos, with her genki attitude and airhead tendencies putting a damper on any plans the two leads might have. Hayasaka is the agent of order, and as Kaguya’s aide, she makes sure all of her attempts go smoothly, and talks sense into Kaguya’s more harebrained schemes. She also just wants her to spit it out.
Ishigami just wants to go home.
But as the plot plods along, these characters are also given their own time to shine, so things are always fresh.
The story is quite formulaic at first, but it only sticks to it in the earlier chapters. The middle chapters branch out the mindgames formula in very interesting ways, such as getting the supporting cast in on the game as agents of chaos or order.
There are chapters that are also character focused, which are a nice break from all the NGNL mindgames happening all the time with Kaguya and Shirogane about. One example is when Shirogane’s sister is first introduced, and the formula is now focused on how Kaguya will use her to get close to the president (it’s a lot less mean than it sounds, trust me).
The mindgames themselves are very fun and captivating to watch, because the two geniuses constantly misinterpret the other’s actions. It’s like watching an episode of No Game No Life at times due to how many layers of planning there is, and then you remember the end goal is a simple confession of love, which makes it even more hilarious.
However, later on in the manga, it becomes much more plot-driven, so the established formula was really only there as hook, so to speak, from the first 40 or so chapters. At a certain point, the core formula is dropped altogether, and the mindgames become more flirting than anything. Not that they’ll ever admit it.
There are also some very emotionally heavy chapters that develop certain characters, in particular Ishigami and Kaguya’s individual backstories. The ways the author plays around with foreshadowing, the great writing of the dialogue and even messing with the chapter titles, are nothing short of masterful. These serious breaks are one of the reasons why I stuck by this manga. It reminds me of Koe no Katachi in that regard.
Funny thing about the art for this manga, is that it portrays the feeling of various scenes very well. Some panels are straight shoujo, with all the blush and white backgrounds of that genre:
Some panels are straight comedy art, with exaggerated expressions and a simpler style, feeling more at home in a 4koma or a comedy manga-
But the most captivating thing about the manga’s style, is how terrifying it can look at times, especially out of context-
These Death Note/Higurashi looking panels are what make the manga so enjoyable to read comedy-wise. The contrast of the dark and shady artstyle during the mindgames with the rather juvenile intent of getting a confession out of your crush is hilarious and somehow fitting. It perfectly conveys how seriously our two leads handle the conflict , and not as funny as we do.
There are some very good serious panels though, but I’m not spoiling those.
Recommendation and Final Thoughts:
If you like mindgames, and you like fluffy manga and can understand that the simple act of confessing is not gonna be coming anytime soon, Kaguya-sama wa Kokuretasai is a wonderfully funny, heartfelt and clever manga about two people in love who are too smart for their own good. In the second half though, the story gets a bit more serious, and focuses more on the characters. There’s still lots of funny to go around, but now the plot takes center stage over the scheming.
It also hits a lot of very good emotional notes, with some very hard tearjerkers at certain parts. No spoilers from me though, but it might come from the characters you least expect. Some of the best characters moments are also so absurd I don’t know wether to laugh or cry.
When the anime adaptation comes out, I will definitely be doing an episode by episode breakdown, and a more serious spoilerific analysis of the manga. The manga is at a point that I think it can adapt two seasons worth no problem.
That’s it for the recommendation, until next time!