Ok, buckle up for a very passionate and detailed look at March Comes in Like a Lion! This anime hit me extremely hard when I first set out to watch it, and since Episode 1 I’ve been itching to get going and review it. Get ready for some analysis and overall thoughts!
3gatsu no Lion is a manga written by Chica Umino that started publication in 2007, and received an anime adaptation by Studio Shaft between 2016-2018. We follow Rei Kiriyama, a teenager working as a professional shogi (Japanese traditional chess) player, and explore his developing relationships with neighbours, competitors, and family. While the anime is ostensibly about Rei’s growth as a professional shogi player, the real work happens in Rei’s emotional growth and maturity as we slowly learn about his past and what makes him tick as he finds his way in the world.
Shogi: Emotions and Drive
The core of 3gatsu no Lion is definitely Rei’s relationship with shogi and his gradual acceptance of his emotions. Rei’s shogi life comes as a result of family tragedy and is essentially a life support system. He’s both loved and hated for his work, and has the added pressure of being extremely young. Since the majority of professional shogi players are older men, Rei’s able to see how inappropriately they handle their rank despite having spent time earning it. Rei never had the luxury of seeing shogi as a distraction from responsibility. Worse still, early influences in his life such as his father and adoptive father, as well as his adoptive sister and her eventual affair with an older married man, link shogi to an ugliness that Rei grows into without realizing. Here’s a great Reddit thread I found discussing the influence of these relationships on the story that’s totally worth the read!
Rei realizes that by investing in those around him and allowing himself to address his emotions, he will begin to notice weak points, and this is tough to handle. He discovers that he has a drive to win when he thought he didn’t care. While he’s introduced to us rather cruelly through a comment on his worthlessness (Rei means ‘zero’ in Japanese), Rei slowly finds value and fulfillment by investing in his work and relationships. This sort of plot has been done over and over, but there’s something special about seeing Rei slowly come into his own without anyone directly prompting him to do so. Rei realizes that he wants to be needed, and this realization is key to his growth.
Spaces and Relationships
Shogi consumes Rei, but he’s surprisingly strict about separating his work and personal lives. The Kawamoto family that befriends him isn’t aware of his professional status until well into S1, and the same can be said of his classmates and teachers at school. This can be seen as a way for Rei to cope with the developing emotions he feels towards shogi and his past, because the two are so deeply entangled. But it also allows the anime to form a clear division in spaces. As Rei opens up more, the audience sees his competitors as familiar faces, and these characters get their own arcs and motivations. Rei’s apartment is surprisingly empty and doesn’t get a lot of screen time. He’s slowly given things to furnish it, but it never feels like a place where he wants to spend time.
In fact, most of Rei’s life happens at the shogi hall, the Kawamoto family home, or in hotel rooms and trains, going to compete in a shogi match. One weird thing about 3gatsu no Lion is how empty all of the streets are; you don’t see many background characters or signs of life. Even when he visits larger areas, Rei seems to be alone. This simplifies the animation, but it also tells us how Rei sees his spaces and relationships. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Uncle Iroh tells Zuko, “life happens wherever you are,” and this sums up how Rei goes about making friends out of circumstance and investing in their spaces later on. These realizations help him to come to terms with his deceased family, as well as his adoptive one; both of which left traumas in their wake.
The Kawamotos: Seasons, Food, and Family
The Kawamoto family is the emotional heart of 3gatsu no Lion. The show does a beautiful job of visualizing the seasons through the Kawamoto family: Akari and her sisters, Hina and Momo. In the Kawamoto home, kotatsu blankets come out and are packed away, season-specific flowers bloom around the house, and special occasions are celebrated with specific meals. The Kawamoto’s grandfather runs a wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) shop, a practice that serves different sweets depending on the time of year. Even the opening themes are dedicated to depicting the seasons as Rei navigates a year growing and changing.
Rei sees Kawamoto home as a kotatsu: impossibly warm in a way that makes the outside feel much colder when he’s away. Much of the homeliness of the Kawamoto’s has to do with their love of cooking, which gives Rei opportunities to share meals and help out the family, strengthening his relationship with them. There’s a real effort to portray relaxation and routine in the Kawamoto home, something that’s reflected in the slow and methodical game of shogi. This comfort kept me coming back to the show just as Rei grows to invest in the Kawamotos, and also make me want to try all those delicious meals! Here’s a great video essay that discusses the Kawamotos in greater detail, since I don’t have the time to go too into it!
3gatsu no Lion uses water imagery everywhere. My first little while of watching was almost entirely devoted to figuring out what the water imagery meant, it was that present in the show. Water is tied to Rei and his emotions, how he comes out of his shell and learns to handle his feelings with grace and acceptance. Rooms will flood in his imagination when he gets overwhelmed, he’ll bring the same drinks to matches every day, and he recounts his childhood with imagery of drowning in a sea while clinging to a shogi board. Water appears in the form of rivers, rain, sweat– the list goes on. However, this is only part of the puzzle.
Water also appears in other characters. Kyouko, for example, is bathed in reflections from the river when lamenting her complicated relationships. The Kawamoto family uses water imagery to frame Hina’s bully arc in tears and baths. Rei offers his friend Nikaido water on a hot day when they first play against each other as children. Water represents feeling overwhelmed, contained, unhinged, or even freed. These feelings are not inherently tied to shogi, but shogi is instead a way that can contextualize them. Throughout the show, all of the characters touched by water imagery develop emotionally. Coloured by Rei’s POV, water helps shape characters and defines their struggles, usually with breathtaking sequences.
Style and Sound
3gatsu no Lion is an intensely beautiful anime. It paints its world in so many ways besides standard cel animation that I can wholeheartedly recommend watching it for the aesthetic alone. Watercolour, flat comic screentone, and pastels are all used to enrich the anime’s emotional beats. The camera delights in getting up close to characters, framing them in beautiful ways, and creating chaotic images. Episode 1 features a frightening sequence of Rei’s past, and one little head tilt from Kyouko was all I needed to confirm that it was animated by Studio Shaft, infamous for that particular angle. I can’t think of any other show that has such artistry to it, and it immediately shot to the top of my list in that department.
The anime also has a tendency to heavily rely on onomatopoeia onscreen like you’d see in a manga. There’s a ton of decorative text in scenes to convey emotions in the “doki doki” sense, but also in explanations written beside characters. These pieces of text happen too quickly to get proper subtitles, so i found myself taking photos of them and using Google Translate to figure out what they said. This didn’t always work, but it really helped me learn some new kanji!
On the music side of things, 3gatsu no Lion had an incredible OST and insert songs. The first ED, ‘Fighter’ is gorgeous and stuck with me the whole way through the show to the point where i downloaded piano sheet music for it. And the second season’s second ED, ‘I Am Standing’, led to me discovering Ruann, a young and extremely talented singer who also sang for the 2018 Eureka Seven movie, confirming that Eureka Seven will definitely be August’s YOA entry!
COVID-19 and Conclusion: Quotorium x Slice of Life
3gatsu no Lion affected me deeply. A conference I was invited to in Kyoto was cancelled due to COVID-19, and all of a sudden the plans I had been subconsciously making weren’t going to happen, and all the lists of things I missed just ached more. Experiencing 3gatsu no Lion’s first episode immediately took me back to all the walks around my hilly neighbourhood, the convenience store stops, the endless hidden shrines, visiting houses, admiring the mountains and all the history…it came back all at once and it was really overwhelming.
I miss Japan so much and the fact that I have to put such large plans on hold is harder to deal with than I expected. I’m trying to find bits of Japan in everything around me, which is a bit hard to do when ordering online adds up and anime conventions are being cancelled left and right. 3gatsu no Lion made me cry because of how comfortable and effortless it was in showing those aspects of Japan that I fell in love with, and it reminded me via a touching story and beautiful animation what those things felt like when it was my reality for several months. If you’re missing travel, or need a gentle nudge to spark your creativity, please watch 3gatsu no Lion!