“Love is war! The person who falls in love loses!” a narrator yells in the first episode of the hit anime series Kaguya-sama: Love Is War. It’s a statement meant to reflect the teenage protagonists’ warped views on romance. Across three seasons of scheming, Miyuki Shirogane and Kaguya Shinomiya, president and vice president of the student council at the prestigious Shuchiin Academy, move from phony aloofness to more open intimacy as they realize the self-defeating nature of their game: Each wants to make the other confess their crush first. The show eventually resolves that plot — but now a full-length feature, The First Kiss That Never Ends, takes them on to the next skirmish in their long romantic battle.
The show, adapted from the equally beloved manga by Aka Asakasa, quickly removes the veneer surrounding this sentiment. Miyuki and Kaguya’s elaborate schemes and battles of the mind, all designed to get the other to confess their love first, are simply a way of avoiding the pain of rejection and preserving their pride. Both are at the top of their class, at the top of the school. But like any teenager, these two have areas where they have no confidence or experience, and their relationship is about as far out into uncharted territory as they’ve ever been.
Kaguya-sama: Love Is War - The First Kiss That Never Ends (a subtitle length Asakasa has poked fun at in his manga) is a culmination of the first part of their story, though it’s far from the end. The opening credits read like a final highlight reel, a greatest-hits montage of moments from the show, scored to a crooning original song from series mainstay Masayuki Suzuki, who has provided love songs for every season opening so far.
After three seasons of tsundere subterfuge and will-they-won’t-they near misses, the two finally kiss in a climatic moment of romantic drama. Many rom-coms, animated or otherwise, would probably be content to call things there, and maybe cut to the wedding. What sets the series and its feature-length follow-up apart is the fascination with the aftermath, and the acknowledgment that romance isn’t neatly wrapped up when two people confess their feelings for each other.
Kaguya-sama: Love Is War is devoted to the chaos of courtship, not to tidy idealism. So the couple’s big kiss only muddles things further as the holiday season goes on. It was a satisfying ending to the season, but the film adds that the kiss turned out more intense than Miyuki and Kaguya anticipated, thanks to some misappropriated advice from Kaguya’s friend Kashiwagi (the only cast member in a couple, labeled a “war criminal” for PDA). On top of that, a proposal that the would-be couple attend college together leaves them flustered, and they go into a tailspin.
Because of their kiss, the rules of engagement in their war have changed. Previously, they’d each refused to admit to themselves that they were in love with the other, let alone admit it to anyone else. In the movie, these two clueless geniuses have to figure out how to move forward. At the same time, Miyuki’s constant exhaustion and overworking comes to a head, and Kaguya reckons with how her family has denied her normalcy through a strict and myopic upbringing conditioned by the ruthlessness of nobility, which leaves no room for friendship. A briefly shown side plot with the usually gloomy Yu Ishigami, who unwittingly confessed to his crush in season 3, shows a different dimension to the issues of admitting those feelings: His love interest, Tsubame, doesn’t seem to share his feelings.
So even with that first kiss out of the way, the Kaguya-sama: Love Is War movie still has plenty of ground to cover regarding the characters’ many insecurities about themselves. The impulse that drove Miyuki and Kaguya to their cold war of provocation reveals itself again, in messier ways. For different but interlocking reasons, they’re proud people, and they can’t let themselves be vulnerable. But vulnerability is crucial to intimacy, so the writers explore how they might take that next step together, the first of many in the ongoing journey of a romantic relationship.
As funny and sweet as The First Kiss That Never Ends is, it isn’t a jumping-on point for someone interested in trying Love Is War for the first time. The feature begins with characters not acting like themselves, and there’s a lot of context missing beyond that. Though many of the gags and romantic moments work well even without the background of the series, most of the movie would only appear strange to those jumping in at what’s essentially the finale of the series’ first act. Plus, much of the humor is tied up in character work: Knowing these characters is what makes a lot of it funny.
But the target audience is already invested, and fans will find that everything great about the show carries forward into this film. Its music production brings in more ridiculous references. Tying it together is the overzealous narrator, highlighting the suspense in every awkward misstep, treating uncomfortable encounters with the gravity of life and death. The voice performances are excellent across the board: a courtroom scene with multiple Kaguya personas all arguing with each other is basically a wonderful, prolonged opportunity for voice actor Aoi Koga to show off her range. It’s also an incredibly romantic film, as it evokes the tension of the moment before a kiss, or simply in being in close proximity to your crush. Director Mamoru Hatakeyama (a pseudonym for Shinichi Omata, director of Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju) and the animation staff emphasize an acute awareness of sharing touch, among other senses.
That closeness can just as easily turn into comedy, too, as it punctures the drama with adolescent embarrassments, like how Kaguya’s femme fatale-like manipulation of her fellow council member Miko Iino is shattered in an instant when Iino says Kaguya’s perfume smells like an old woman’s. But it’s also earnest and big-hearted, investing sincerely in its long romance. Even its jokes are expressions of the characters’ perspectives and experiences.
As he does in the show, writer Yasuhiro Nakanishi creates drama out of the silliest circumstances and comedy out of its most serious. The script drives home how every moment in adolescent romance can feel life-or-death, but can also quickly turn ridiculous. Miyuki’s lead-up to his confession, turning the school festival into a mystery to solve, is simultaneously dumb and adorable.
Both halves of the central couple are navigating territory they don’t fully understand: Another highlight of the show and the manga is their frankness about sexual relationships. Asakasa refuses to play coy about sex in the manga, while thoughtfully unpacking how impressionable characters approach it in first-time romance, when information doesn’t always equate to understanding. Coupled with the exploration of how avenues of digital communication open up new possibilities as well as new complications, it feels like a believable portrayal of first love even with its often absurd premise.
The leap to feature length doesn’t change much visually from the anime — the production quality here is on a level with the show. But it’s no less creative with its imagery: Even scenes with limited movement are used to hammer jokes home. Love Is War is packed to the gills with clever little references and homages used to communicate its characters’ feelings, though as a director, Hatakeyama eases off this element a little, favoring more straightforward sight gags and physical comedy.
The character drawings are as funny as ever, from smaller details like the excessive bags under Miyuki’s eyes to more absurd imagery, like “Little Kaguya,” a visual representation of Kaguya’s state of mind brought on by “60% happiness, 40% denial and sleep deprivation.” As the students’ December becomes increasingly bewildering, the animators dance between surprise bursts of action and tender interactions, emulating the contrasting emotions its characters are going through.
Even with the clever visual gags and some sudden bursts of lavish animation, The First Kiss That Never Ends isn’t exactly cinematic. It maintains the show’s pacing, right down to the periodic eye-catches that come before and after ad breaks in the series. It’s clear where each installment would end and the next would begin if this were just a run of episodes. (And it isn’t hard to imagine it being edited into episodes, like the record-breaking Demon Slayer movie Mugen Train eventually was.) Familiarity with the show goes a long way to smoothing this dynamic over, but it doesn’t make for an essentially theatrical experience.
At the same time, a feature makes perfect sense as a way to express such a major turning point for the series. The First Kiss That Never Ends completes the series’ gradual tonal pivot from “What if Death Note was a meta rom-com?” to more straightforward but still satisfying relationship drama. The comedy of errors in romance will continue with the anime series, but the “battle” is effectively concluded, with two winners.
The First Kiss That Never Ends feels like a grand finale, but the interesting thing about Kaguya-sama is how it implies that romance is continuous work, rather than simply fated. Not all of its subsequent steps are perfect — some of its family-related melodrama isn’t as compelling as the smaller-scale problems — but Asakasa’s now-concluded series never lost its confidence as it explored the messiness of love with silliness and sincerity.
So an era ends and a new one begins, closing the book on this Love War and starting something new, as the protagonists learn to accept their own vulnerability as a necessary step toward making their relationship work. “You fall in love, confess, and become a couple. Anyone would agree that’s a wonderful thing. But that notion is wrong,” the narrator states, in a reprise of the show’s opening monologue. But with newfound clarity, The First Kiss That Never Ends transforms that statement into a more realistic but uncynical point of view, reworking the show’s initial, absurd cynicism into something earnest, big-hearted, and — as the subtitle of season 3 dubbed it — ultra-romantic. As the monologue plainly states, the end of this movie is just the beginning of something else, a battle of a different kind.
Kaguya-sama: Love Is War - The First Kiss That Never Ends plays in theaters for a limited theatrical release on Feb. 14 and 15. All three seasons of the series are currently streaming on Crunchyroll, and season 1 is streaming on Hulu. The first two seasons are available for purchase on Amazon and other digital platforms.