OP: 「ラブ・ドラマティック feat.伊原六花」 (Love Dramatic feat. Rikka Ihara) by (Masayuki Suzuki (鈴木雅之))
「映画に誘わせたい／かぐや様は止められたい／かぐや様はいただきたい」 (Eiga ni sasowa setai/ Kaguya-sama wa tome raretai/ kaguya-sama wa itadakitai)
“I Will Make You Invite Me to a Movie, ‘Kaguya Wants to Be Stopped, Kaguya Wants It”
Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai: Tensai-tachi no Renai Zunousen is the last of the major new series on my radar for this somewhat undersized winter schedule. And it’s a big one too, the third of my top-level expectations shows for the season. But I was feeling oddly trepidatious going into this premiere. Usually with those series I’m either familiar with the material and extremely confident, or going in cold turkey on a hunch. But though I haven’t read the Kaguya-sama (fuck me if I’m going to type that whole title out one more time this week) manga, it almost feels like it because a lot of folks have – and it seems as if almost all of them have strong feelings about it one way or the other.
Still, in all, this is one of the best aggregator-reviewed romcom manga out there (for whatever that’s worth). It’s published in a seinen magazine (which is probably worth more). And it’s directed by Hatakeyama Mamoru, fresh off one of the finest anime of the decade in Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (which counts most of all). So yeah, my expectations had to be pretty damn high – but the tempestuous reactions of manga readers had me thinking I was either going to love this series or hate it.
Funnily enough, it was neither. I liked a lot about this first episode, some stuff about it bothered me, but my main reaction in the end was mild puzzlement over why this series seems to be such a big deal. It’s certainly not awful, so hard to get why some folks would feel strongly in that direction – but it didn’t strike me as being anything all that exceptional, either. I mean premise wise, it’s strictly retread tires with one twist (albeit the twist is central to the plot). That really means the strong feeling it elicits comes down to execution I guess, and the jury would still be out on that for me.
First off let’s get the negatives out of the way, so we can focus on the good parts. The narration – that was a lot to take. I certainly have nothing against Aoyama Yutaka as an actor, or even with his performance here, and I get that the narration is part of the gag construction. But that was a lot to take. A lot – I mean, it was unrelenting. And it created a sort of implicit hand-holding by the narrative to make sure we knew when we were supposed to laugh. I don’t need or want that – I’ll laugh when something is funny (and I often did with this ep) and I won’t if it isn’t. One of the oldest rules of joke-telling is never explain the joke.
That unrelenting quality – which extended to the visuals too – gave the whole episode a sort of SHAFT quality which hung in the air like a slightly-off smell in a crowded elevator. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Hatekayama-sensei cut his teeth at SHAFT, though he worked under the name Omata Shinichi there. Hey, I’d change my name if I used to work at SHAFT too, but old habits sometimes die hard. Shouwa Genroku certainly represented a big stylistic shift but 2012’s Sankarea was a lot closer to this post-SHAFT vibe Kaguya-sama is repping. I will say that it worked quite well for me with Sankarea for the most part (it might have even been a top 10 series if 2012 hadn’t been an all-time great anime year), but it remains to be seen if it will with this series.
Apart from that, what essentially saved this premiere from going down the sinkhole was that it actually was funny a good chunk of the time. Romcoms about two essentially unlikable people have some hills to climb, and student council veep and general ojou-sama Kaguya Shinomiya (Koga Aoi) and seitoukaichou and top-ranked student Shirogane Miyuki (Furukawa Makoto) are pretty unlikable by design. You climb the hills mainly by casting those people as vulnerable (check) and by not taking the material too seriously (check). The gag is that the two of them are in-love with each other but so driven by pride and the idea that “love is war” that they’ll be damned if they’re going to be the first to confess. Hijinks, naturally, ensue.
There were three mini-stories packed into this episode, with each principal “winning” one of them and one ending in a draw (I don’t know if that will be the case every week). The funniest of the three was the bento chapter, and it may not be a coincidence that it was the one that most prominently featured Fujiwara Chika (Kohara Konomi), the cheerfully airheaded student council secretary and general relationship obstacle/facilitator. Funnily enough, it helps when Fujiwara is around because she talks so much she pre-empts the narration, which feels like a welcome break. There were some good gags, sight and otherwise (the weed, and the indirect kiss) and the general youthful foolishness of the leads was exposited quite well.
My worry here is staying power. The first episode was exhausting, yes – but equally of concern, my sense is that this is basically a one-joke premise. I love a good joke as much as the next man and probably more, but you’ve really got to be on your game if you’re going to milk the same one for an entire series and not have it go stale at some point. I see comic potential here, but unless the execution is so spectacular it changes the rules of the game, I would think there’d need to be some tonal variation and diversification of the humor to carry Kaguya-sama for an entire cour. Who knows, my read could be totally off and both of those things may be on the way in weeks ahead. I hope so, because I really want this show to work.