“I Can’t Hear The Fireworks”. Quite the title, isn’t it?
Kaguya-sama: Love Is War! is a romcom, but for most of its run, it’s focused pretty heavily on the -com part of that equation. The show’s had tender moments, to be sure, but it’s mostly been jokes.
Anyone who tuned in for the start of the Fireworks Arc, at the end of the second to last episode, knew that that would not be the case for the finale. Kaguya’s sole summer plan, to attend a festival with her friends, is dashed by her remote father recalling her to the main family mansion in Tokyo. Her friends decide to reschedule, and plan on going to a fireworks show instead. Fireworks have come up before. A full arc ago, a sick Kaguya deliriously asked to be shown some. This arc, though, is where we get the context for all of this.
Imagine the plight of young Kaguya, if you will. The sole daughter of the wealthiest family in the country. Raised to be exactly as ruthless, conniving, and exploitative as her father. Kaguya is obviously not someone who had a good childhood. We’re shown through flashbacks that the entire idea of going out and having fun with friends over summer vacation is foreign to her. The one thing she does like to do? Watch fireworks from her window. Far away from where they’re actually happening.
Fast forward to this episode, the series finale. Kaguya is elated. Her summer vacation has been incredibly dull and depressing. Defined by pining for the class president and not actually doing much of anything. The fireworks are, near-literally, a bright spot in a very grey time in Kaguya’s teenage life. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager has had events like these. Things that you put so much expectation on that it feels like the make or break moment for the rest of your life.
Kaguya gets ready to leave, ready in her yukata. She is stopped by one of her father’s bodyguards. Then she is read what feels like an excuse about how easily she might get lost in a large crowd. Finally, she is told she can’t go. Again.
Anyone who has ever had one of those events go wrong knows exactly how she feels.
Kaguya-sama is sometimes called “innovative”, but that’s not quite right. Kaguya-sama absolutely does have an intimate understanding of its genre, though. Something it shows off in this episode. In this leadup sequence; even if you can see what’s coming a mile away. Even if you read the manga and already know. It just feels absolutely devastating.
Where Kaguya-sama’s command of its genre comes in is here. Not many people enjoy stories about sad girls wallowing in their rooms because they just had their dreams crushed, after all. Kaguya does mope, and mopes hard. Who could blame her? Hayasaka, her ever loyal maid, thankfully nudges her into the realization that she doesn’t have to stay in her room and just take all this.
So she escapes. Simple as that.
Hayasaka, at this point clearly the proverbial Rogue of the D&D party, whips together a convincing enough disguise to fool Kaguya’s father’s bodyguard when she comes to check on her. Kaguya is already jumping out her window and making a break for it by the time that happens.
One of the best anime segments of the young year is what follows.
A cab driver. Kaguya’s three friends worriedly checking their phones. Shirogane setting off on his bike. It’s hard to describe something this visual in text. Many sequences in Kaguya’s adventure draw her at a distance. This technique makes her look small, and it’s a brilliantly direct visual analogue for how she feels. Lost, alone, isolated, scared. She feels like a pawn in a game she has no control over. Her personal low point comes when she arrives to the fireworks show too late. She literally goes to sob in a nearby alley. The tears are ones of frustration, bitterness, but perhaps most of all, of regret, because she didn’t get to see the fireworks with her friends.
This show, we should all be thankful, understands when to crank up the “rom-” half of “romcom”. Shirogane is hardly a knight in shining armor, and his beat-up bicycle isn’t much of a white horse. He is, nonetheless, who shows up in Kaguya’s time of need. Right on schedule.
The boy deserves some credit, he’s got good timing.
It’s all rising action from here. Shirogane takes Kaguya to meet up with their friends. They run back into the driver from earlier. He’s then tasked with driving them through an undersea tunnel to a different nearby fireworks show, with only 20 minutes to spare. The filter effects, illustrated conversational asides, and so on from the first few episodes of Kaguya-sama are totally gone here. They’re replaced by a softer, more deliberate style that really makes you feel each swell of emotion. This is combined with a redoubling on something that’s become the show’s stylistic staple, a hyper thin-lined style that highly emphasizes contrasts. It’s a knockout.
I am completely unashamed to admit it. I got just a tiny bit choked up when I saw this on the screen.
I’ve seen fireworks probably dozens of times in my life. I don’t think any have ever affected me quite the way these did.
What Kaguya-sama does in this 14-minute segment is step out of its comfort zone long enough to remind anyone who’s ever experienced it what young love really feels like. That’s worth something. It’s telling that, the fireworks finally blossoming all around her in the sky, Kaguya cannot focus on them. Her vision is obscured, because she’s staring at Shirogane’s smile. She can’t hear the fireworks over the sound of her pounding heart.
This is the kind of thing that gets called cheesy. I’d argue that being so willing to commit that hard to something that’d be cliche in lesser hands is what true artistry–one kind at least–really is. The first half of the final episode of Kaguya-sama: Love Is War! is a triumph for its animators, for source material author Aka Akasaka, for Kaguya’s voice actress Aoi Koga. It’s a success for all involved. The show has had its ups and downs, but the final episode taken in total is a very high note to end on indeed.
This is without touching on the second half of the episode.
The second half of the finale pivots hard back to comedy. In less skilled hands, this would have the unfortunate connotation of undercutting the emotional heights of the previous story. The way it’s paced though, makes this feel more like a nice cooldown rather than some kind of refutation. The second semester begins and our cast are back to their old tricks. Shirogane frets over his Cool Guy-isms on the night of the firework show. Kaguya, by contrast, thinks he actually was really cool and can’t get herself to talk to him. Pretty normal teenage stuff, in other words.
The final 12-ish minutes of the episode are another cavalcade of gags. Chiefly, the misunderstandings are framed in terms of aerial combat. This even features a truly bizarre visual aside where our cast are depicted as planes.
I swear to you that this is from the same episode.
Kaguya-sama thus, in a way, kind of ends where it began. Two dorky teenagers in love. Both too proud to admit it. Convinced, in turn, that they must make the other confess first. Kaguya-sama is not the sort of show that’s trying to change the world. It is, however, trying to make you feel a certain way. That can be–and often is!–laughter. Here in the finale, there’s that too, but the show’s storytelling is put to higher aims.
It may seem perhaps a touch strange to end the show on a “and everything’s back to normal” note after such a sincere first half of the finale. I’m of a less cynical position though. I think, at the risk of jinxing it, that the Kaguya-sama staff (and funding committee) knew full well that this series was going to take off. The show may seem to end back at zero, but despite their redoubled efforts, Kaguya and Shirogane are closer than ever. Material aplenty exists for a second season, and the existence of a (continuity unrelated) live action film in the works is promising.
Time will tell if future seasons can hold up to the high standards set by this one. The material they’d have to work with has both some of the manga’s highest highs and lowest lows, but it’s all in the adaptation. At the end of the day, Kaguya-sama stands as one of the best shows of the season. One of the most recommendable, too. Something that it fought hard for. It may have had a natural advantage, though. Love, after all, is war.
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” – Sun Tzu
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