The recent manga series Kaguya-Sama: Love is War may be a romance series on the surface, but the presentation has far more in common with a psychological thriller like Death Note. While the two genres seem about as far apart as any two genres could be, the styles actually fit together surprisingly well, creating a unique take on what might be an otherwise run-of-the-mill slice of life.
Kaguya-Sama, written by Aka Akasaka, plays out in brief increments, each just one day in the life of Kaguya Shinomiya and Miyuki Shirogane, two overachieving high school students who are far too proud to admit how much they like each other. Instead, life becomes the intellectual equivalent of trench warfare, as each tries repeatedly to goad the other into confessing their feelings without tipping their hand and revealing their own. There are often long segments of interiority as either character explores the possibilities for the situation they’re in and tries to avoid being cornered, which both stylistically and visually echoes the kind of deductive reasoning seen in other thriller anime and manga, like those of L and Light in Death Note.
Shinomiya and Shirogane have a classic dynamic of coming from different worlds, as she’s the heiress to a fabulously wealthy and powerful family, and he’s a hard-working boy from a poorer background who’s cultivated an image of being effortlessly perfect at everything from tests to sports. The expectations placed on both of them seem to be the root cause of their reluctance to confess, as they feel the first to admit their feelings will be in a weaker position in the power dynamic forevermore.
Shinomiya and Shirogane aren’t just up against each other, however; as they both work on the student council, they’re also frequently around the secretary Chika Fujiwara, the cute, kind, and oblivious girl who’s either a total airhead or the greatest mastermind of the three. Chika acts as an agent of raw chaos, sending their carefully crafted plans astray without warning, often leaving one or the other mentally scrambling. There are also occasional appearances from the treasurer, Yu Ishigami, a gloomy boy who is (rightfully) terrified of Kaguya Shinomiya and would really rather not be present at all.
Despite what are objectively low stakes in simple romance, every chapter carries with it a life-and-death intensity, as in the moment, there’s no worse fate than being put in the position of having one’s feelings exposed. Older readers are sure to relate, remembering their own high school days when it really did feel like life was over after public embarrassment in front of a crush. Those still in high school may well recognize the same absurdity in their day-to-day life, as that anxious chain of thoughts and planning is all too familiar to those who’ve experienced it. Kaguya-Sama: Love is War is aimed at the older “Seinen” manga reader, rather than the more w “Shonen” audience that Death Note targetted, it’s still perfectly appropriate for most ages, and is, fortunately, light on the fan-service elements that typically plague anime and manga’s romantic comedies.