Wielding emotions to create a story: "Kaguya-sama Wants to Be Confessed To" author Aka Akasaka shares his strategy for writing manga
This interview contains manga spoilers.
The one who falls in love loses!
Kaguya Wants to Be Confessed to: The Geniuses' War of Love and Brains, hereinafter called Kaguya-sama, is a romantic comedy manga in which two high school geniuses that lead the prestigious Shuchiin academy’s student council fight in a battle of love and mind games to get each other to confess, despite their feelings being mutual.
Aka Akasaka is currently writing a series for the “Weekly Young Jump” magazine (published by Shueisha), and he has sold more than 9 million volumes in total (as of January 2020). In January 2019, the manga was adapted into a TV anime, and in September it was adapted into a live-action movie starring Sho Hirano (King & Prince) and Kanna Hashimoto, which boosted the series’ popularity even more. With the second anime season scheduled to be broadcast this April, it is currently one of the most distinguished manga.
In this series, the battle between a boy and a girl in love is elevated into the ultimate comedy, but in volume 16 they finally start dating and the story takes on a new development.
In this interview, we will delve into the world of Kaguya-sama, including detailed perspectives on characters and unique creative style, to his plans for the ending.
From the hellish game of death to a romantic comedy
You started Kaguya-sama while you were still writing Instant Bullet. What led to the birth of the series?
When I was visiting Shueisha for some other business, I had the opportunity to meet the editor-in-chief of Young Jump.
I pitched myself to him, telling him that I wanted to write a series for Young Jump. He told me, “All right, I’ll give you an editor, but that’s it,” and he introduced me to the editor I have now. I brought him several ideas, and after many discussions, we were able to start serializing the series relatively quickly.
So you were quite proactive then.
At the time, I knew that Instant Bullet’s serialization was coming to an end and I would be unemployed when that time came (laughs). So I figured I had to do something, and that’s why I tried really hard to sell myself.
I heard that the original plot of Kaguya-sama that you pitched was supposed to be much more violent.
Yes it actually was a fantasy story like Instant Bullet, people dying one after another, like a hellish game of death…
However, my editor asked me to write something more “mainstream”. At the time, YJ did not have a casual romcom series, so I reworked my story and created Kaguya-sama.
I have never written a rom-com before, but I didn’t dislike the genre, so I gave it a try.
The concept of two high school geniuses who want to make the other confess—where did it come from?
Yeah, that… I was making some smoked food at home, and the idea just suddenly came to me.
I never dated any girls my age during my high school days. So naturally, I’ve barely run into any rom-com cliches, like going on a date wearing my school uniform.
This happened to cross my mind while I was smoking my food, and it made me feel kind of sad. There was a huge difference between the ideal high school experience and the reality of my own experience.
So I thought I could reclaim some of my youth through my own manga. That’s why the setting of Kaguya-sama is my dream, my fantasy. For me, emotions like this often serve as the foundation of my manga.
When Kaguya-sama started in 2015, it was serialized in YJ's companion magazine Miracle Jump, not YJ.
That's right. I think they were trying to tell me, "You're not ready for YJ yet!" I was kind of offended at the time (laughs).
So you really wanted to be published in YJ, huh?
I was a part of the GANTZ generation and I've been reading YJ for a long time. So yeah, as a mangaka, I really wanted to give it a try.
Since this is your first time writing a romantic comedy, have you encountered any difficulties?
I struggled a lot at first. I just couldn’t let go of the feeling that no one would find what I wrote interesting (laugh).
And besides, I thought that “two tsunderes who like each other having battles of the mind” was a very common concept. Of course I believed that I came up with interesting takes on the concept, but still, it was my first time. I kept asking myself, “Are these ideas even good?”
That’s why I was shocked when the readers told me, “your premise is so innovative!”.
You didn’t think it was anything new, so that feedback took you by surprise.
Yeah. I thought my ideas were very ordinary, but apparently the public disagreed. Though, I guess the subtitle “The Geniuses’ War of Love and Brains” doesn’t have much of a presence lately.
At first I wanted to do intellectual battles kind of like Death Note did, but as I kept writing I understood that what everyone wants to see is the “clashing of romantic emotions”.
It’s crucial to subvert the expectations that are established for the characters initially
When creating the world of Kaguya-sama, how did you construct your main characters?
As evident from their names, the characters are based upon The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The reason is simply because I like stories about princesses, and the most famous princess in Japan is Kaguya-hime, so I decided to use the tale as inspiration.
In particular, the main heroine Kaguya Shinomiya is quite similar to Princess Kaguya, who gave impossible tasks to her suitors. They both feel hard to deal with.
I think they are the same in that they are both princesses with something more to them than first meets the eye. And when it came to Kaguya’s counterpart, Miyuki Shirogane, I wanted to name him Mikado at first, but I was more fond of Otomo no Miyuki, who went to slay the dragon, so I used him as a model instead.
Speaking of Kaguya and Shirogane’s characteristics, they pretty much start at the same point. They have the same personality, and their thought processes are similar. That’s why they repel each other. I made them out to be the same, like twins.
Why is that?
Because it meant that I could describe both characters using fewer pages in the first chapter. “This character has these qualities. And the other one is exactly the same!” And just like that, the exposition is cut in half.
I wanted to avoid long-winded exposition when hooking the readers, so I wrote the characters to be similar for the sake of convenience. But as the series went on, they started to walk opposite paths, with Kaguya as the “bad girl” and Shirogane as the “good boy.”
Did you plan out this divergence in advance?
There were some parts where I just let the characters develop on their own, but I was always planning to subvert the expectations that were established initially. Because it’s important for the readers to have something to relate to at the beginning of a new series, I used tropes as much as I could. However, I inserted them with the goal of subverting them in the future.
For example, since I intended to write Kaguya and Shirogane to be goofy idiots, I set them up as geniuses in the beginning. And for Miko (Iino), since she’s lewd on the inside, I made her an overly serious Discipline Committee member on the outside.
So you use character traits as a tool to create contrast with a character's inner self.
The joy of comedy lies in the gap between expectations and reality. The larger the gap, the funnier something is.
When creating characters, I like to start with an empty template and then fill it in with feelings that are as realistic as possible, drawing from my own experiences or stories from others. That way, these characters grow and eventually become powerful enough to destroy the story itself. That's what a good character looks like.
That's why the characters I make all appear to be shallow and template-like at the beginning. But after about ten chapters' worth of development, they finally start to show their true appeal.
I see. Then, what roles do Chika Fujiwara and Yu Ishigami play?
Fujiwara serves as a foil to Kaguya and Shirogane. She pops up when the two of them are in the middle of their scheming and sows chaos through her silliness.
The relationships between Shirogane, Kaguya, and Fujiwara basically drive the plot, so I designed Ishigami to not interfere with their relationship. He's taciturn and has little presence, so he can come and go at any time. That has become its own gag too, so he's quite a convenient character.
Speaking of which, Miko is also a useful character. Since she first appeared, she has been enabling some very easy punchlines. Like coming into the student council room and going, "That's just wrong!" Just like that, I’m able to wrap up the chapter (laughs).
So the way that the story develops has changed between the beginning of the series and what it is now?
When the actors change, the structure of the stories change too. You could break down a typical chapter today into the following four-part structure:
Fujiwara establishes the scenario (which she is great at). Kaguya and Shirogane build up tension through their arguing, and then Ishigami throws down a logical argument to lead us to the climax. Finally, Miko concludes the story. It's a very simple and beautiful formula.
He puts up sticky notes in his office with emotions he wants to remember for later
Two trademarks of Kaguya-sama are its wide variety of scenarios, such as wanting to get someone to invite you to a movie, and its depiction of characters dealing with new emotions every chapter.
The stories in Kaguya-sama have always been written based on emotions to begin with.
Take jealousy as an example. I think about when Kaguya would be jealous and what sort of jealousy she would be feeling. I establish situations around that and arrange events and characters accordingly.
An ordinary school romcom organizes its chapters around events like the Culture Festival or the final exams. You're saying you do things differently.
Negative emotions in particular are rich in variety. I try to probe into the various emotions that I feel every day, and when I discover something I haven't worked with yet, I write it on a sticky note and put it up in the office to remember for later.
But since you've already written more than 170 chapters, there aren't that many emotions left to explore, are there?
That's not true, actually. Even if we consider just a single emotion, how that emotion is experienced will be very different depending on who's feeling it, who they're feeling it about, and their relationships with those around them. So, for every situation there are an infinite number of possible reactions, I think.
For example, I was chatting with the anime cast the other day and we happened to be talking about the cherries someone got as a present. I thought to myself, "Huh, I can make a chapter out of this."
A chapter just about cherries?
There's a popular saying that if you can tie a cherry stem in your mouth, then you're a good kisser. I thought, "I bet Kaguya and Shirogane would want to be thought of as good kissers if they heard about this."
I'm sure they would.
Kaguya is very dexterous, so she ties the stem easily on the first try. But it would be embarrassing if the others thought she was too good of a kisser, so she unties the knot in her mouth and pretends that she can't do it (laughs).
I can certainly imagine that (laughs). On the other hand, I can see Shirogane having trouble with it.
Shirogane is well aware of his clumsiness, so on the outside he'll say "I'm not going to do something that stupid," but on the inside he's anxious.
That being said, he's also the type of person who gets worked up in these kinds of situations, so I think he'd rack his brain for different ideas to try and tie the stem. Maybe he'd think that he can soften the stem by chewing it, for instance. He'd act cool on the outside, but actually his mind is racing.
Do you have any plans to write that story in the future?
I'm thinking of writing it next time, but it probably won't go as far as I just said. The other Student Council members will be there too, so maybe they'll take the spotlight. I won't know until I write it.
It's interesting that the readers still love the characters even though you depict them as calculating and incorporate all these negative emotions. Is there anything you pay attention to when you're drawing?
I'm just always conscious of things that would make the readers truly hate them and try not to cross that line. It's not that these characters must be liked, but I think they shouldn't be hated either.
There's a big difference between "not being liked" and "being hated." Once a reader hates a character, they'll always think, "Ugh, I can't stand this character," and their chances of liking them drop to zero for good.
But the nice thing about a long series is that the longer it goes, the more everyone gets attached to it, so I think it's important to keep a steady balance between the characters’ downsides and upsides.
For example, Kaguya has a dark side to her. You must have been very careful with how you portrayed her.
That was a hurdle presented in the very first chapter, so if readers were okay with that, then I think it should be fine.
Although, I have heard people saying that they genuinely hate Kaguya, so I want to say sorry to those people. Please love Fujiwara-san instead (laughs).
Since Chika Fujiwara never has any monologues, one could say that her true feelings are a mystery.
No, Fujiwara is exactly who she is. She doesn't harbor any darkness (laughs). The fact that she doesn't have monologues was just an early idea of mine; at the time, I felt it was better to leave a little mystery somewhere. But now that the series has run for so long, that's not really necessary anymore.
I draw Fujiwara like she's everyone's heroine. Please feel free to like her.
He creates something that can become the salvation for someone instead of just making them laugh
I think Kaguya-sama is a work that can be enjoyed by men and women, both in terms of art and story, but what kind of readership did you expect it to have?
Personally, I want this to be a manga that helps weary office ladies relax. It's not my intention at all to cater to otaku. Unfortunately, because I'm an otaku myself, it's possible that when I try to aim the manga at OLs, it ends up falling into the otaku zone instead (wry smile).
But this is the right stance to have, in my opinion. If an otaku caters to other otaku, their work will have a hard time echoing with ordinary women.
Kaguya-sama isn't your average romantic comedy—it’s more a “story manga” that's centered around its characters and how their relationships change.
Kaguya-sama’s mission is less about showing how amusing the characters are when they talk, and more about making people laugh while providing them with something exciting.
Also, if I had to draw manga that didn't make any progress and only contained gags for the rest of my life, I would probably go insane.
That fact that there are serious story arcs is a testament to the story-driven nature of the manga, isn’t it?
My biggest motivation for drawing manga is to tell something important to someone out there. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I want to be someone's salvation.
Compared to that, making people laugh and drawing cute pictures are low-priority. They're just a means to convey important messages. But regardless of what I personally think, there are certainly people who read to enjoy the characters' reactions. As a mangaka, I also want to draw what the readers desire.
So you're always thinking about the balance between comedy and drama?
“I Can't Hear the Fireworks” was the first chapter that had multiple parts, and it was surprisingly well received. It felt like the readers gave me permission to write a long story arc once in a while.
On the other hand, while the chapters about Ishigami's past gave rise to some diehard Ishigami fans, there were also people who didn't want that sort of heavy content in Kaguya-sama. I'd still like to write those kinds of stories going forward though, finding ways to keep a better balance between the funny and the serious.
And because the typical chapter is comedic, serious chapters leave a far greater impression on readers.
I think of serious chapters like Doraemon films: while Doraemon the anime is light-hearted, the films are darker in tone. This may sound naive, but I want to tackle questions of morality like “How should people live?” and “What is right?”.
What I want to depict in Kaguya-sama are human relationships: rivalries, relationships between senpai and kouhai, and friendships between men and women. By exploring those in a serious manner once in a while, I can convey something real to the readers, I think.
There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from the feeling, "Even someone like me can produce something meaningful.”
You really do have the aura of a “story mangaka.”
Well, some readers might say, “Don’t do that with Kaguya-sama” (laughs).
My father was a game producer, and he worked on Terranigma and Illusion of Gaia, so maybe it’s in my DNA. I feel that my father's games are somewhat similar to my work, so perhaps it really does run in the family.
Entering the second half of the third-year arc. The possibility of new characters
I’d like to ask you about the future development of the story. First of all, are there any plans to introduce new characters?
I want to keep new characters to a minimum, but there are still plenty of characters I’d like to introduce. Most importantly, there’s still a suitor from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter who hasn't made an appearance yet, so I have a quota to meet.
It’s pretty difficult to introduce new male characters, so I’m still debating when to introduce them, among other things. It’ll probably be after Kaguya and Shirogane become third years.
Speaking of which, there are some characters like Ai Hayasaka who still harbor many mysteries and are worth digging into.
That's right. After all, it has yet to be determined which Hayasaka is her “main personality.” I actually designed Hayasaka with the intent of having her become friends with Shirogane from the beginning. She was never supposed to be a heroine, but there are some people who consider her as one.
I thought she’d take center stage at some point.
I’m thinking of digging deep into her character one day. Maybe in 7 volumes she’ll show her “True Hayasaka” form and take the main stage (laughs).
Sounds like a final boss. By the way, why after 7 volumes?
It’s related to the new character I was talking about earlier, but I’m setting up a lot of things to prepare for the third-year arc. Ishigami’s love interest, Tsubame (Koyasu)-senpai, will be graduating before then, so I’ll need to revisit the topic of Ishigami’s relationships.
Also, classes will change once Kaguya and Shirogane start their third year, so I think there will be more stories that take place in the class as opposed to just the Student Council room. And True Hayasaka will show up at that point too (laughs). Of course, this is all speculation—who knows what will happen.
The ending is still up in the air. But he has thought about how he’s ending it.
Is the end of the series in sight?
Well, Kaguya and Shirogane’s third year marks the start of the final half of the series. It might be a bit exhausting if the story continues at the current pace, so I plan to pick up the pace a little. I’m thinking one volume per in-universe month.
Since Kaguya-sama is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, some fans might be suspecting a bad ending...
I don’t know what the ending will be yet. But isn’t there a certain allure to stories that foreshadow a bad ending? Of course, it doesn’t have to end that way, but I think it’d be fine if it did, too.
So at this point, you haven’t thought about the ending yet?
I've been thinking more about how to end the series, rather than the ending itself. I’m thinking of giving each character a finale, after which they’ll no longer appear. Like a curtain call, but in a more special way.
It’ll be like a dating sim where the characters start to disappear one by one as the story diverges. In Kaguya-sama’s case, the plot won’t actually diverge, but I’d like to capture that sort of vibe when the series comes to a close.
Of course, I have no idea whether that’s how things will actually turn out (laughs).
Speaking of story endings, Negi Haruba-sensei announced that his romcom series The Quintessential Quintuplets will be ending in volume 14, which has attracted a lot of attention.
That's right. When I saw that, I thought, “You traitor! Keep going!” (laughs).
It was another weekly series, so I saw it as a rival, but I was also a big fan myself.
It’s finally becoming clear who the bride is.
From a mangaka’s point of view, I thought the bride had to be a certain someone right from the start, and it just became more and more clear as the series continued.
I got to watch another mangaka develop a story and its characters, and I really felt like I could put myself in Negi Haruba-sensei’s shoes. Man, It’s really coming to an end. I’ll miss it.
I can't wait to see the next special Chika thing in the second season of the anime.
The anime adaptation of Kaguya-sama ran last year from January to March.
I’m so happy that the staff worked so hard to create such a wonderful anime.
As the original author, what parts of the anime impressed you the most?
I thought the emotional scenes were outstanding. Director Mamoru Hatakeyama did a great job adapting the scenes that I had put so much work into and made them even better on screen, and I was thrilled by the performance of the cast.
This is a bit specific, but the wiener episode (episode 7, part C, “Kaguya Wants to Endure”) was so much funnier than I could have ever expected (laughs). So that’s the kind of plot that makes for good TV, I discovered.
One the other hand, the exam episode (episode 8, part B, “Miyuki Shirogane Can’t Lose”), where the narrator says “That was a lie!” repeatedly, gave me a different impression than the original. This is how I learned that there are some things that are unique to manga. Overall, the anime had many fantastic scenes, and as the author, I was very pleased.
The ending for episode 3 of the anime, “Chikatto Chika Chika,” got a lot of attention.
Well, that was insane (laughs).
In fact, the animation was done by a single animator, Naoya Nakayama, who storyboarded, directed, and animated it. When I met him in person, he said, “Yeah, that was rough...” (laughs). Apparently, the producer came up with the idea, isn’t that crazy? Anyway, it was really funny.
Personally, I also love the regular ending animation (“Sentimental Crisis” by halca). When I first saw the completed video, I thought the flight scene was so beautiful. I got carried away and said, “This will totally beat [a certain anime that ran at the same time].” Turns out that a voice actor from that anime was right behind me...
Everyone there scolded me—they were like, “whoa, whoa, whoa!” (wry smile). My heart almost stopped.
By the way, how were you involved in the production of the anime?
I looked over the screenplays and the storyboards, and I was also involved in casting auditions. I don’t know much about voice actors, however, so I simply listened to their voices and gave my opinions based on that.
I see. The second season of the anime starts in April. What are your expectations?
Since the quality of the first season was so high, the bar has been raised considerably. I can't wait to find out what special Chika thing we’re going to see next.
Miko Iino is going to appear as a new character in season 2.
She is the type of character that gradually becomes more appealing compared to the other characters I draw, so as the author, I’m a little worried whether the audience will like her. I can only pray.
Will his next work be aimed towards making a live-action?
Last September, a live-action adaptation starring Sho Hirano and Kanna Hashimoto was released in theaters.
It was always a personal goal of mine to create a manga that could be adapted into an anime, but I had never even considered live-action. So when the live-action adaptation was greenlit, it felt like a huge bonus to me.
And it was successful at the box office.
When a manga is made into a live-action film, you can’t predict how it’ll turn out until it’s released. There are so many of these films that just flop despite everyone’s best efforts, so I think things turned out great for us.
Of course, I suspect that our success was largely thanks to the popularity of the two lead actors, but I’m pleased regardless. After the movie aired, we received a lot of fan letters from young girls, which was something we hadn’t seen before. It made me realize just how much impact a movie could have.
By the way, did you go on set?
Of course I did. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it was really fun!
So all you did was look around then?
Yeah. I’m not at all qualified to be telling people what to do on a film set, after all (laughs). I just enjoyed the opportunity of visiting the set as a privilege of being the original author.
Did you discover anything that you can use in your own creative endeavors?
I did. In case any of my future works are adapted to live-action, I wanted to absorb as much as I could about how manga as a medium changes when it is captured on film and understand what an author should be aware of.
Sounds like you have a lot of motivation to improve.
Yeah, it’s not like I went on set just to see Kanna Hashimoto or anything!
So, are you saying that you’re going to create your next manga with live-action in mind?
That's right. It’ll probably be a realistic story set in the real world. No more fantasy.
But even in Young Jump, there are non-realistic series like GANTZ and Kingdom whose live-action adaptations were big hits.
Those movie budgets are on a totally different level (laughs). I’d like to put out something at a more reasonable price, so please look forward to my next manga.
...No, Kaguya-sama isn't over yet (laughs).
Aka Akasaka-sensei's Workplace Gallery
Born August 29, 1988, in Niigata Prefecture. Mangaka and illustrator. After working as an assistant, he debuted in a commercial magazine in 2011 with the comic version of Goodbye Piano Sonata (original by Hikaru Sugii) in Dengeki Maoh (Kadokawa).
His main manga works are ib: Instant Bullet and Kaguya-sama Wants to Be Confessed To: ~ The Geniuses’ War of Love and Brains ~. He also was the illustrator for Mystery Lover Girl Series (by Kou Segawa) and Bartender Judicial Scrivener Kaede's Case Notebook (by Makoto Kondo). He has also been involved in a wide variety of projects, including character design.