I’ve never seen the Kaguya-sama: Love is War anime, although I have read the first volume of the manga, so I went into this film mostly blind about where the story would go past the goofy premise. I was surprised at how much ground it covered by the end and the sheer range of emotions on display. This film shapes up as one of the more entertaining live-action manga adaptations in recent memory because of how successfully it captures the larger-than-life qualities of a gag manga.
It’s for the best that the film fully embraces the camp nature of its format. It’s inevitable that exaggerated cartoon actions will look goofy when a real-life actor tries to perform them, but that’s a deliberate part of the comedic appeal here. If anything, some of the jokes may even be improved by setting them in a realistic space. Kaguya and Shirogane frequently turn away from the other characters as they monologue their thoughts, which would normally break the flow of the scene. Here, however, it’s hilarious because the other characters look on in bemusement during the extended histrionics, and then carry on like nothing happened when the monologuing character decides to rejoin them.
The film is also great at making its low-budget special effects a genuinely appealing part of the visual presentation. For a live-action film, there’s quite a lot of animation, as well as a blend of live-action and animated elements. The very first scene features the actors’ heads awkwardly photoshopped onto cartoon characters, which should give you an indication of the kind of goofy visuals you can expect from the film. Kaguya-sama: Love is War shares the same director as the Nisekoi live-action film, which also had its fair share of campy elements. If anything, Kaguya-sama is even more over-the-top than Nisekoi, to the extent that it gets to be a bit much for the eyes.
Unfortunately, camp alone can only take you so far through an almost two-hour long film. Structurally, the film is a mess; the first half is a series of episodic skits that don’t have much to do with the more dramatic (though still comedic) second half. It’s one thing for a manga to tell self-contained stories on a chapter-by-chapter basis, but adapting them into a film makes the overall narrative feel aimless at times. Eventually, a plot emerges, as Shirogane and Kaguya attempt to outdo the other at the student council elections due to a misunderstanding, but this part of the film is too short for it to feel like a substantial conflict.
Meanwhile, if I’m going to be honest, the acting isn’t that great. A romantic comedy lives and dies by the strength of its lead actors, and while I’m happy to report that Shō Hirano and Kanna Hashimoto get the banter and over-the-top histrionics down well, they struggle to maintain their chemistry in the more serious moments. Fortunately, the core of the relationship between Shirogane and Kaguya is so strong that I found it easy to root for them as a couple regardless. The side characters have their distinct charms as well, especially Kaguya’s troop of housemaids and servants, although Shirogane’s father and sister failed to leave much of an impression.
Kaguya-sama: Love is War was a polarizing film domestically. I suspect that’s the fate of any live-action film adaptation of a manga that leans completely into manga-style acting and presentation. You’re either going to love it or hate it. Personally, I was cracking up throughout the film, and that made it easier for me to swallow its structural flaws and unconvincing drama. It’s just a bit odd that this came out in the same year as the anime adaptation, which was much better equipped at capturing the tone of the manga. Nobody was saying they needed this film, least of all the Kaguya-sama fans who already have their favorite telling of the story. My overriding impression of this movie is that it was, for better or worse, completely and utterly Extra.