Moreso than other genres, romantic comedies are either loved or loathed by different people. Although many fans thrive on lighthearted melodrama and compelling characters, few rom-coms ever reach a broad audience. However, “Spy × Family” and “Kaguya-sama: Love Is War” (sometimes shortened to “Love Is War”) represent rare exceptions to this rule. The two anime series share multiple traits, but their distinctive twists on the rom-com formula illustrate new ways the genre can satisfy both its devotees and detractors.
Everyday Battlefields in “Kaguya-sama: Love Is War”
“Love Is War,” the anime adaptation of the 2015 manga series, offers a subversive twist on the traditional high-school romantic comedy. The series follows student council president Miyuki Shirogane and vice president Kaguya Shinomiya, who both realize they’re in love with the other. Although this would be enough to conclude most romance stories, these prideful protagonists believe that an open confession is a sign of weakness. To uphold their high reputations and advance their relationship, the two maintain their own pretenses while attempting to manipulate the other into inadvertently unveiling their true feelings. This deceptively simple concept transforms mundane events into hilarious, low-stakes battles of wit.
Every “battle” in “Love Is War” unfolds through carefully chosen words and actions, as a slip of the tongue or impulsive decision can unwittingly reveal the characters’ true feelings. Whether this involves board games, text messages or something as simple as giving a compliment, the two protagonists will attempt to use any ordinary situation to bait the other into an accidental confession. These back-and-forth mind games and the dramatic narration that accompanies them produce a mixture of comedy and suspense that’s rarely seen in the rom-com genre. Although Miyuki and Kaguya treat their psychological clashes as matters of life or death, the absurdity that unfolds contributes to the show’s outlandish sense of humor. However, “Love Is War” doesn’t always adhere to this formula, which prevents the series from ever feeling repetitive.
Like many other rom-coms, the show’s comedic and dramatic storytelling succeed due to its excellent characters. The two main protagonists each work as clever inversions of the other, with Kaguya’s strengths lying in her cunning and strategic talents and Miyuki’s in his carefulness and resourcefulness. This contrast not only leads to enjoyable chemistry between the two characters but also heightens the suspense of each episode by showing them to be equally capable of overcoming any challenge set by the other.
Side characters in “Love Is War” are similarly well written, with the other members of the student council being the standout examples. The morose treasurer, Yu Ishigami, brings a pessimistic outlook that contrasts with the other characters’ upbeat attitudes, leading to moments of dark comedy and even a dramatic story arc that wouldn’t fit the other characters. On the other hand, the energetic, pink-haired secretary, Chika Fujiwara, unintentionally acts as the embodiment of chaos theory, as her presence is typically accompanied by a sudden complication or unexpected resolution to the battles between Kaguya and Miyuki. The cast expands as the series progresses, with nearly every character adding a new personality and dynamic to the episodic formula.
“Love Is War” boasts the traditional hallmarks of a good rom-com but repurposes the genre’s tropes to suit its distinctive premise. A miscommunication between characters or refusal to reveal a secret might spark minor drama in other series, but “Love Is War” allows these recognizable situations to escalate to their most absurd heights. The result is a rom-com that redefines overused storylines through its anarchic and unpredictable style of comedy. Some fans of more conventional romantic comedies might not be fond of the overarching narrative’s admittedly glacial pace, but the emphasis on comedy and character development makes “Love Is War” one of the best entries in the rom-com genre.
A Cocktail of Genres in “Spy × Family”
On the surface, “Spy × Family” shares a surprising number of similarities with “Love Is War.” Its main trio consists of a quick-witted main character who alternates between the voice of reason and the oblivious butt of many jokes, a pink-haired wild-card who possesses more control over the plot than she realizes and a skilled love interest whose abilities rarely translate to everyday tasks. Despite the obvious similarities in their designs and characterizations, “Spy × Family” completely inverts its predecessor’s approach to romantic comedy. In contrast to the ordinary scenarios with outlandish executions in “Love Is War,” the series depicts a more conventional rom-com story within the setting of a spy thriller.
“Spy × Family” follows Agent Twilight — a spy for the fictional country of Westalis — who’s assigned to prevent a potential war by networking with an influential politician. However, this target only makes public appearances at his son’s school, placing Twilight in the unfortunate position of needing to start a family to reach his target. Pressed for time, he assumes the name “Loid Forger,” adopts a daughter named Anya (who’s secretly telepathic) and arranges a fake marriage with Yor Briar, an assassin posing as a civil servant. With each member of the family carrying their own secrets, the show depicts their dysfunctional attempts at adapting to a regular life.
Although this premise seems perfect for the type of chaos that “Love Is War” constantly delivers, “Spy × Family” rarely places drama at its forefront. Instead, the spy-thriller elements provide a humorous contrast to the mundane events, as demonstrated in scenes like Loid substituting an engagement ring with a grenade pin or Yor attempting to tutor Anya by comparing fractions to dismemberment. Even the episodes that emphasize the show’s espionage-focused drama include plenty of light-hearted humor while showcasing excellent fight scenes that surpass many action anime.
A significant portion of the show also focuses on Anya, whose telepathic powers allow her to hear the thoughts and secrets of others, including her adoptive parents. Her exclusive knowledge of both secret identities makes her the show’s most important character, serving as both an audience stand-in and the connective tissue between the spy-thriller and family-comedy plotlines. However, Anya frequently alternates between being an ingenious schemer and a disastrous klutz, meaning the information she hears can be either incredibly beneficial or worthless in her hands. Her power gives her just enough wisdom to aid Loid and Yor in important moments without sacrificing the low stakes of the show’s serious moments. This balance of intelligence and ignorance drives much of the show’s humor while also making Anya one of its most believable and likable characters.
“Spy × Family” never tries to redefine romantic comedy like “Love Is War,” but instead plants elements from other genres to recontextualize its rom-com tropes. For example, kissing scenes are an obvious staple of the genre, but they adopt a different meaning and tone when portrayed as part of a cover to deceive government agents. “Spy × Family” constantly repurposes common storylines and setups to fit its unusual premise, leading to moments of both hilarity and surprisingly superb action. This blending of genres could have failed due to their extreme differences, but the show seems to adopt only the best traits of both styles. The show never gets too intense or violent for those looking for a cozy romantic comedy, while fans of actions and thriller stories still receive plenty of fight scenes and drama. By striking this perfect balance with a highly creative and hilarious execution, “Spy × Family” successfully made rom-coms and spy thrillers seem appealing to people who otherwise wouldn’t care for these genres.
Creative Twists on Formulaic Stories
Not every romantic comedy needs to appeal to a wide demographic. Works that try to appeal to as many viewers as possible usually fail to excel in any one aspect, whereas those that understand their own strengths and weaknesses will inevitably attract an audience. But the broad appeal of “Love Is War” and “Spy × Family” doesn’t originate from any attempts to please everyone. “Love Is War” adds stress and tension to a formula known for being relaxing, and “Spy × Family” relies on a risky combination of two vastly different genres for its premise; each series demonstrates the experimental potential for rom-coms, either by completely reinventing the formula or by delivering refreshingly different takes on old ideas. In a genre in which most works refuse to deviate from tired tropes and worn-out concepts, this inventiveness can help new entries stand out from their competition and attract a wider viewership. Rom-coms don’t have to stay stagnant; they just need to be willing to take risks.