Kaguya-sama: A Marxist Analysis

Kaguya-sama is a series that’s deeply concerned with conflict, in all of its forms. As the opening narration describes, even romance, that oh-so-sacred space where human beings can directly connect with one another, is ultimately a battleground, a place of division where the strong conquer and the weak submit. This is a very intriguing hook for a romantic comedy, a genre which typically shunts its power dynamics off to the side, barring those cases where they’re used to fulfill the fetishistic desires of their audiences. To pose a romantic relationship as one that bears significant similarities to that of a master and slave or a boss and worker is a strong statement on the way in which all aspects of society, including those that tend to be regarded as pure, are mediated by the general social dynamics which are always present. The satirical nature of this statement does little to temper the implications which are present; in fact, it only reinforces them, bringing the work to its fullest conclusion. What’s key to understand is that the show does not portray the leads’ error as being their belief that there are tensions in a relationship, ones indicative of hierarchy and class. Rather, it posits that conflict is the incorrect way to resolve these contradictions. Minor spoilers for the manga, though nothing that would ruin the story for you.

Shuuchiin Academy, the stage on which the entire series is set, is no ordinary school, not even by upper-class private educational standards. Having stood since the era of aristocracy, it has seen a shift in the mode of production over time, remaining a space dominated by the elites in spite of that. In this respect, it reflects the Japanese state itself. For as many qualitative differences as there may have been, Japan, like Britain and unlike, say, France, was able to weather the transition to capitalism with the state intact. The aristocracy may have been abolished, but its sons and daughters often retained their wealth, and were persuaded to accept the rising robber baron stock into the control room for the levers which manage society. Shuuchiin is a battlefield, absolutely, but a tempered one. As with the state it stands in for, it has many warring interests. The son of a major fast food chain and the daughter of a weight loss company’s CEO would have different goals, after all. Similarly, the daughter of a major LDP politician wouldn’t have the same interests as the son of the leader of whichever opposition party formed two years ago. However, there is still a common understanding that, as a class, these people are on the same side. Intraclass conflict may occur, it is after all a remarkably competitive school where exam scores are paramount, but at the same time, it can not distract from the fact that these students are the future rulers of Japan. To put it in other words, Shuuchiin is a mock battlefield on which the conflicts between the bourgeoisie can be set, teaching the not-quite-leaders of the nation how they should behave around their fellow class, leaving open some room for conflict while still ultimately tending towards the benign antics befitting a comedy.

However, Shuuchiin is not a place which bars all non-bourgeois voices, only one that makes their appearance difficult. Shirogane’s existence is evidence of this fact; the state is a battleground on which classes can attempt to assert their interests, even if it is necessarily under the control of capital as long as it’s the dominant mode of production. Working-class representatives can make it into the state apparatus, even rising to the top of its ranks with enough strategic know-how. Similarly, workers who try hard enough, and find enough luck while doing so, have access to some degree of class mobility. For this reason, the Shuuchiin of the 21st century is demonstrably different from its aristocratic incarnation; the working class is not barred from power as a result of their ignoble birth, at least not as long as capital avoids a real threat to its very existence, but through the simple fact that things are so stacked against any given individual not born into the bourgeois lineage that their ascension is functionally impossible.

The series makes no attempt to hide the fact that things are weighted against those of poorer means. Bribery is a common method for getting into the school, and those who haven’t attended for their entire lives, known as “impure” students, are ruthlessly mocked, making up only 1% of the student body in spite of its official stance as a meritocratic institution. The class struggle of society at large is just as present here, but with a caveat. Impure students are totally incapable of toppling the hierarchy of the pures, as they make up a miniscule amount of the populace, a marked difference from the world as a whole, where the proletariat far outnumbers the bourgeoisie. This puts anyone who would want to change things in a precarious position. Formally, the school is equally open to all who put in effort, but entry is not actually possible for the vast majority of common people, and in fact, it is actively discouraged by the blatant cheating by those in power. With this, Kaguya-sama acknowledges the essential nature of the bourgeois state as corrupt at its core, incapable of being truly won over in spite of its public-facing attempts to claim otherwise.

Shirogane poses a unique perspective in this broader system. His role as the sole “impure” member of the cast, born outside the bourgeois hegemony that controls the school, is a key one in interpreting how the show believes class dynamics must be mediated and what the unique classes look like. Shirogane is, above all else, notable for the degree of work he puts into anything he does. His sharp eyes reflect the amount of time he devotes to studying, student council duties, and working jobs to support his otherwise income-less family. His presence is indicative of individualist impulses, those which claim that anyone could make it to the top if they just try hard enough. Imbalanced as he may be in many fields, Shirogane has gotten where he has in Shuuchiin by applying himself towards higher positions, something which to most working people would not only be an unfavorable prospect but an impossible one. However, him having done this does not cause any structural change in the way the school works. He may be an inspiring representative of the “impures” as one of the few student council presidents to come from that caste, yet as you would expect, there’s no discussion of other “impures” attending on account of this. The system of bribery and exclusion that occurs at the school does not disappear; even when running for re-election, there are those who won’t vote for him purely due to his emergence from outside the school. In the battleground that is the bourgeois state, the workers can put forth their hard working delegates, and yet the system will not fundamentally change through voting and individualist rising-up-the-ranks. If anything, Shirogane begins to be subsumed into the attitudes of the rich students who surround him. At the same time, his identity as a part of his own class is clear; he maintains a belief that his relationship with Shinomiya is one of struggle on an inherent level and as a result, refuses to confess to her. In many ways, the series appears deeply ambivalent about the value of his actions; while he brings a moral center to the council as someone from a humbler background, his personal fortunes show little sign of changing, indicating the futility of even attempting to move up the class pyramid. Despite this, he continues to engage on this bourgeois battlefield, conceding to the principle that workers can gain from “trying their best” yet refusing to fully capitulate to capital and acknowledge its victory over him by confessing to her.

She is equally important, of course. As the opening description says, Shinomiya is the daughter of a family whose total assets equate to 200 trillion yen. This would make them the 10th largest nation by GDP, composing more than a third of Japan’s wealth all-told. In short, she’s rich on a scale that can not even be imagined, practically a personification of the bourgeoisie in herself. As with Shirogane, her depiction is characteristic of her class as a whole; for while most of the school’s students are quite rich, that trait is far less important to the personalities of those aside from Shinomiya. Above all else, she is an incredibly sheltered girl. Take, for instance, the case of the “first time”. Not having been educated on what sex is, she assumes that a “first time” is kissing someone, inadvertently implying that her family regularly has sex with one another to the rest of the council. This joke is referred back to frequently throughout the series — though that’s true for many gags, and part of what makes it such an effective romcom — and it’s characteristic of how Shinomiya is treated as a representative of her class. While her initial description of “doing it” with family members regularly implies to the others that she’s a deviant, a common stereotype of the rich, the reveal that this was all a misunderstanding paints her instead as naive. Essentially, it’s saying that the customs of the world’s rulers are not, in themselves, particularly strange, but appear as such due to their estrangement from the rest of society. Compared to Shirogane, who’s been forced to learn about the world as a result of his upbringing, Shinomiya has not a hint of how things might work outside what her family deigned to tell her. She is, at the same time, quite capable, holding her own against Shirogane when it comes to exams, possessing talent in nearly every field she participates in, and serving as an excellent vice president for the school. She’s not useless, merely soaking up the value of others’ labor; she herself may not have earned where she is, in fact, she certainly didn’t, but she does deserve the spot she’s in. Her cuter traits only serve to accompany this; for as much as the ruling class may seem snide and uncaring on the outside, there’s a core within them that demonstrates their care for the world at large, albeit one accompanied by a healthy degree of elitism. She is in essence a being made of contradictions; rightfully proud and powerful on the one hand while utterly estranged from the goings on of the vast majority of the population on the other hand. While for Shirogane, the text concerns itself with the paradoxical struggle of waging war for bourgeois betterment while refusing to fully concede to capital, for Shinomiya, the principle challenge is in finding her place as a member of the bourgeoisie, eschewing both the aristocratic tendencies of extreme wealth and the proletarian temptations of Shirogane, finding a place as a proper inheritor of modern society.

The other students occupy an interesting space in light of this. Their place is not to directly represent the bourgeoisie in a single individual — that role is already taken by Shinomiya — but to demonstrate the normalcy of their broader numbers. Many members of the school bear names which are incredibly prestigious, if not as much so as the Shinomiya clan. Fujiwara, for instance, comes from a long line of politicians, including prime ministers. Yet they’re all shockingly normal, at least as the members of romantic comedies go. The bourgeoisie in Kaguya-sama is so similar to members of the rest of society that the difference could scarcely be noticed if we were not informed of it. This allows Shirogane to fit in more easily, though he still has difficulty doing so at first, and it also make clear the fact that the proletariat and the bourgeoisie would be able to interact peaceably if they were to drop their guards as the council does around one another and recognize that the inherent class tensions are not end-all be-all.

Shinomiya and Shirogane are, of course, shy. This is the trait that, at least to a large extent, motivates their continued refusal to confess to the other, one which the series mocks. The narrator’s’ insistence that all love is conflict is naturally satirical; it grounds the reasoning behind the leads’ so-called “game of love and war”, yet the continued mocking of them for their shyer and cuter elements is an essential element of disproving the idea that they must struggle. Shyness, here, is a lens through which we can view class relations. The two primary classes of our period, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, are caught at an impasse, and in many ways their interests do not align. This is something acknowledged by the placing of Shuuchiin as a space meant entirely for the rich. However, Shirogane’s entrance marks the opening of possibilities. The shyness exhibited by the pair is conditioned by their beliefs that they must not lose this struggle — any concession would be a deadly defeat. To resolve these things, however, both must lose and put their differences beside them. The conflict that they pose is not a real one, but to end it, the pair must unite. Essentially, Kaguya-sama accepts Metropolis’s characterization of the heart — or, in this case, the hearts — as the mediator between hand and brain. It essentially poses its utopian future as one of class collaboration, where the two struggling classes unite in order to create a situation which is mutually beneficial, a romantic relationship on a grand scale. Of course, this possibility is as always a fraught one. Dating will not ultimately upset the system, especially as the other students remain secluded from the proletarian masses, and Shirogane’s ascent being necessarily individual limits this potential further, a signal of the work’s inability to fully believe that class collaboration is a possible or positive outcome. Perhaps above everything, the notable existence of other prestigious schools, including those which are far less exclusionary of those of proletarian birth, challenges the potential of Shuuchiin as a grounds on which a utopian vision of collaboration can thrive, and serves to indicate the ways in which revolutionary sentiment remains in this work if on the margins. It would perhaps be useful for someone to conduct a nationalist reading of this, though I’m not fit to do so. Regardless, its point remains clear. The power struggle of relationships is a constructed one which exists due to misunderstandings between potential partners. While real tensions may be present, only by coming together and dropping your own guard can they be properly resolved. Also, it’s a damn great show and a fantastic manga, really hope everyone enjoys it.

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