Kaguya-sama: Love Is War — The First Kiss That Never Ends Movie Review
Crunchyroll is definitely on a (crunchy) roll with their theatrical releases of late. Not only did they release the recent Laid-Back Camp, The Quintessential Quintuplets and Reincarnated as a Slime movies, on Valentine’s Day 2023 they brought us the latest movie instalment of one of my favourite manga-to-anime adaptations of all time — Kaguya-sama: Love is War. Back in early 2020 I ranked the first TV season as my number one anime of 2019, and both second and third seasons retained that insane level of polish and quality. Of all Crunchyroll’s latest franchise movie releases, Kaguya’s was my most anticipated.
Following Demon Slayer: Mugen Train’s incredible 2020–2021 box office performance, it seems that (mostly) canon movie installments of ongoing TV anime franchises are big business. Previously, the majority of similar movies tied into big shonen action properties like Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, Inu-Yasha etc, and they were usually unrelated, or at least only tenuously-linked, to their respective series’ ongoing plotlines. The three recent My Hero Academia movies fit this mould, as would the Slime and Laid-Back Camp movies. However other films like Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul and The Saga of Tanya the Evil are essential to their shows’ ongoing plotlines, and are directly followed-up in subsequent seasons (except in the case of The Quintessential Quintuplets where the movie is the story’s conclusion, and we’re still waiting on the already-announced second season for Tanya.)
SPOILERS FOR KAGUYA-SAMA’S THIRD SEASON, AND SOME VAGUE SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE FOLLOW:
The First Kiss That Never Ends follows directly on from the final scenes of Kaguya-sama’s third season Ultra Romantic and features the culmination of co-protagonists Miyuki Shirogane and Kaguya Shinomiya’s tortured romance. The movie adapts the second half of manga volume 14, and the entirety of volume 15. Surprisingly, this is only the mid-point of the story, as the manga only recently ended at volume 28. I have no idea what happens at the end as I have studiously avoided spoilers, but as of today I have read up to volume 23 (with volume 24 waiting on my bedside table).
Among Kaguya-sama fans, this mid-section is commonly held as the highest point of the entire story, and its thematic consistency compared to previous volumes’ more episodic/sketch-like structure do lend it well to movie adaptation. Although lip service is paid to other subplots (like long-haired geeky boy Yu Ishigami’s pursuit of conflicted older female student Tsubame Koyasu, and Miko Iino’s related jealousy), the movie is mostly laser-focused on the interiority of its two leads and their struggles to communicate their true feelings to one another.
In the final episode of season three, Miyuki meticulously creates the perfect opportunity with which to confess his love for Kaguya — beneath the starry sky, atop a high tower, above the school festival’s concluding bonfire, surrounded by heart-shaped balloons. He asks Kaguya to study abroad with him, and overwhelmed by emotion, Kaguya takes the initiative and kisses him. The movie examines the emotional fallout from this surprising moment of honesty and vulnerability.
In any other anime or manga, the climactic kiss scene would probably be “And so they kissed, they’re dating now, The End.” Kaguya-sama isn’t like that though, just as life isn’t like that. Everything doesn’t stop as soon as a couple kiss. In some ways the raging emotions unleased by such intimate contact only lead to more questions and insecurities — especially when it comes to Miyuki and Shinomiya, two overly-intellectual idiots who spend most of their lives trapped inside their own heads with racing, inordinately-analytical thoughts and fears of rejection.
Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in Kaguya’s twisted mental landscape, where various aspects of her personality take turns to berate and legally prosecute one another over perceived failings, mistakes and regrets. The First Kiss That Never Ends dives deep into Kaguya’s psychology to give us the clearest analysis yet of why she acts the way she does, and of all the characters she is the one who gains the most development. For a supposed comedy, the movie explores some dark psychological territory, tied into Kaguya’s difficult, spartan upbringing, and the cruel tenets of her family’s culture that she has internalised, both consciously and unconsciously. Through the superficially humorous technique of splitting her personality into opposing aspects, we learn just how sad, self-defeating and lonely she really is.
Even the funny and cute “Kaguya-chan” super-deformed version she manifests as at the beginning of the movie is described as her being “60% happy, 40% in denial and completely sleep-deprived”. She essentially gives herself a lobotomy via stress and is unable to function, regressing to a childlike state as she’s unable to healthily process her emotions. (At one point it’s stated that her brain has shrunk to a size of a tangerine, which seems… strangely specific.)
Perhaps slightly easier to parse is her “ice-Kaguya” variant, a regression to the way she acted prior to meeting Miyuki, and for much of the movie this is the version of Kaguya we see. She’s passive-aggressive, indirect in her communication, cold and overtly hostile. She’s like every stereotype of the woman who won’t say what she wants from a partner, as she expects them to somehow read her mind. Poor Miyuki is pretty dumb at the best of times, unable to take hints or read non-verbal cues so of course he’s completely tortured by Kaguya’s apparent disregard of their recent romantic entaglement. Because we have a direct access to Kaguya’s subconscious, we know exactly what she’s doing and why — and it’s both rational and irrational, depending on your perspective. It’s not that Kaguya is vindictive or cruel — she acts like an ice queen in order to protect other people from being hurt by her, by keeping them at arm’s length. It’s very sad.
What elevates Kaguya-sama above other, lesser anime romcoms (i.e. almost every other one that exists) is in its understanding of human psychology. People screw up all the time, and work against their best interests because of fear of being hurt, of poor coping strategies, lack of self-knowledge, cowardice, adverse upbringing. Human beings are a seething mess of conflicting emotions and drives, of selfishness and altruism, of greed and generosity. This movie offers a deep and fascinating study of a deeply flawed yet sympathetic female character, the like of which I’ve not seen anywhere else. That it does this with both humour and tact is quite remarkable.
Despite ostensibly being a comedy, apart from the first few scenes and a few interstitial gags here and there, The First Kiss That Never Ends is a mostly serious story about two loveable, frustrating idiots getting over themselves and letting themselves love and be loved. The humour is mostly character-based, and does rely on familiarity with either the TV show or the manga. This is absolutely not a good place to start watching Kaguya-sama.
I particularly adored the scene where Kaguya’s maid Hayasaka wears a Miyuki mask and secretly types Kaguya’s text message answers to Miyuki’s questions, pretending to Kaguya that his responses are an AI simulation. Unexpectedly timely! Also I must award extra marks for a mainstream high school anime that actually admits that teenagers have sex and that hand-holding isn’t the lewdest thing a boy and a girl can do alone together. The only other romcom I can think of that demonstrates such refreshing honestly is Horimiya. Kaguya’s interrogation of her friend Nagisa Kashiwagi (who has a long-term boyfriend with whom she shares obvious physical intimacy) is hilariously matter-of fact, and Hayasaka’s tormenting of Kaguya over her “adult kiss” is a definite highlight.
In terms of production, this looks exactly like four TV episodes stitched together, for better or worse. It’s split into four “days”, from December 21st leading up to the climax on Christmas Eve, and there’s even title card breaks where either ads or ending credits could be added. It doesn’t look that there was a significantly larger budget than usual allocated to this story, apart from a couple of short, flashy sequences, it just looks like the TV show on a big screen. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as production studio A1 pictures provides the TV show with spectacularly good visual quality anyway, with frequent creative flourishes and surreal interludes that really help sell some of the more absurd humour, and at times even elevate the material above the already fantastic manga.
As usual, the music is incredible and fits the tone of each scene very well. On particular scene that stands out is an utterly absurd chase sequence where Kaguya demonstrates some improbably superhuman gymnastic skills, set to something that sounds like a copyright-free take on Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero. Veteran singer Masayuki Suzuki (singer for all three TV season openings) provides another fittingly bombastic opening song banger with Love is Show, featuring a duet with idol singer Reni Takagi. Soulful and inspiring closing song Heart Notes is performed by Airi Suzuki who also sang the fantastic ending song to the third season. Lyrics are by Meg Rock, who Monogatari fans will recognise as a contributor to many of that franchise’s songs.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation — although I will say that my attention did start to wander a little towards the end. Kaguya-sama is probably best consumed in slightly smaller quantities than what amounts to four episodes smushed together. There can be too much of a good thing, and it certainly benefits from being digested in short TV-episode length chunks. It doesn’t quite manage to transcend its roots as an episodic sketch-based comedy, despite its unified themes. It wasn’t a bad decision to release this as a film, but I suspect it would work just as well being chopped up for weekly broadcast Mugen Train-style.
With another thirteen volumes left of the manga unadapted, I really hope this isn’t the end for the animated version of Kaguya-sama. Although as I mentioned earlier, general fan opinion seems to be that this part is the peak, I particularly like the volumes that follow on from this, charting the ups and downs of Kaguya and Miyuki’s (now confirmed) romantic relationship. It goes places that other rom-com’s just don’t and it deserves a full adaptation. As long as they keep the same production philosophy and tone, I will stick with it to the very end.
Kaguya-sama: Love Is War — The First Kiss That Never Ends
Director: Shinichi Omata
Writer: Yasuhiro Nakanishi
Music: Kei Haneoka
Based on the manga by: Aka Akasaka
Studio: A-1 Pictures
US/UK Distributor: Crunchyroll (Sony Pictures International)
Japanese cinematic release: 17th Dec. 2022
Western cinematic release: 14th Feb. 2023 (US), 15th Feb. 2023 (UK)
Runtime: 95 minutes
BBFC rating: 12
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