What does a kiss mean? It is an admission of love? Does it have the power to change a relationship into something new and more meaningful? Or is it, at the end of the day, just a kiss?
Kaguya-sama: Love Is War -The First Kiss That Never Ends- picks up immediately from the ending of season 3, after the moment when Shuchiin Academy Vice President Shinomiya kissed President Shirogane on a rooftop during the Hoshin Festival as hundreds of balloons filled the air. This moment, otherwise unthinkable for the two student council officers who have struggled so diligently to each pressure the other into admitting their feelings first, should have opened up a new path before the pair—one in which they become an official couple. But this is Shinomiya and Shirogane we’re talking about, and it may take more than just a kiss—as passionate as it was—to finally discover that love is not war.
Showing in theaters just yesterday and today, this is the first movie for the franchise, adapting the manga arc of the same name. It’s no filler film: The First Kiss That Never Ends takes the leads through pivotal character development and sees the series complete a subtle, but meaningful shift in genre as it moves away from straight-up romcom toward more heartfelt, meaningful fare, all while continuing with the uproarious overreactions, surrealist animation, and deadpan dialogue that that the series is known for.
Director Mamoru Hatakeyama cleverly chooses to have some fun with the characters’ flaws first though. Shinomiya isn’t sure at all what to do now that she’s taken the initiative and kissed Shirogane. She is literally divided over the situation, alternating inside between the immature and huggable “Kaguya-chan” and the “ice queen” version of herself, who ultimately takes control, deciding that she will indeed win this “war” by forcing Shirogane to make the next move. Meanwhile, Shirogane moves from a place of confidence to one of confusion and second-guessing—and almost all those second guesses are wrong.
The countdown is on. The festival has concluded mere days before Christmas, and now that holiday—with all its romantic implications for the Japanese—is just sitting there, a half-week away. Talk about pressure! Not one, but two Christmas parties are being held for the student council members to attend! Will Shinomiya and Shirogane be able to sort out their relationship in time for a storybook romantic Christmas ending?
Or is that even the point?
The movie isn’t about Christmas, but it makes use of the holiday in a way I haven’t seen in anime before—and this is coming from a viewer who’s watched (and written about) at least four dozen Christmas anime episodes and movies over the years. Notably, this Kaguya-Sama Christmas isn’t white. It isn’t overly decorated, and there are no sky-high Christmas trees or holiday melodies gracing the air. But most distinctively, this Christmas is very specifically not filled with romantic gifts. Instead, this is a stripped-down version of Christmas, and one that conveys perfectly the unornamented romance the two leads are pursuing. It gets at the heart of what Christmas is really all about: the genuine love beneath all the sentimentality of the holiday and the “ultra-romantic” scene that concludes season three. Christmas is meant to be authentic.
While the first half of the film is heavy on humor (and very heavy indeed—my jaw hurt from all the laugh-out-loud moments!), the second half turns the story to the complex task of transforming two characters who are jokes in and of themselves, into real people with backstories, dreams, desires, anxieties, and fears. Shinomiya takes center stage in all this as the movie strips away her facade, pulling away her symbolic mask more than at any point to date. We learn why she is the way she is. And there’s subtle but powerful growth happening within her. Shinomiya’s inner monologue and actions are not played for laughs as the story progresses; instead, they are used to develop her into a more fully realized character, much like the second season arc did for Ishigami.
The result is something quite special. While the movie begins with Shinomiya talking about adulthood in terms of French kisses and sex, it ends with her and Shirogane expressing adulthood through their decisions regarding the masks they wear, the effort they put toward being “perfect,” and their relationship with one another. These decisions are intertwined, and they push the story into “coming of age” territory in addition to its established grounding in romance and comedy. It’s a good film no matter which of those three categories you place it in.
But alas, with all that’s going on here, The First Kiss That Never Ends is a little overstuffed. Although there is an attempt to pace it well, ultimately, the sharp turn in genre in this 90-minute film is the stuff of whiplash. The shift from the comedic to the serious was handled more effectively in the TV series, where it could unfold more gradually. Along with the appearance of so many characters and the aforementioned big laughs, the tonal shift results in a bit of head-spinning. The movie has a pacing problem generally, as there were times when I began to nod off. At some points, there’s too much energy, and at others, not enough.
Those problems are admittedly nit-picky though, and ultimately the pacing issues don’t prevent the movie from serving as a new high point for a franchise that’s already taken its place as a classic among anime romcoms. The First Kiss That Never Ends delivers the laughs and engaging animation of the TV series while inserting a romantic and thoughtful story, making it big enough and, like its leads, brave enough to deserve the grander stage of a theatrical film release. It’s destined to be a particularly memorable part of a franchise that will be a model for the next generation of romantic comedies.
And at the end of the day, as we near the conclusion of the series, this movie makes me wish that, like Shinomiya and Shirogane’s first kiss, it would never end.