After waking up from a bad dream, Rei Kiriyama gets ready for another game of shogi. The train ride is peaceful enough but Rei’s silence begins to merit concern as it carries over to the match itself. The fact that his opponent is his own stepfather only makes things worse as Rei recalls some upsetting memories. After the match, Rei visits the Kawamoto residence for dinner. Suddenly, the atmosphere becomes a lot lighter as Rei finds himself in the company of the mature and kind Akari and her two energetic little sisters, Hinata and Momo. Rei doesn’t say much about his game. It’s only when Hinata puts a blanket on a sleeping Rei and notices the tears in his eyes does anyone become aware of how his day truly went. And at that point, the best she can do to support Rei is to simply say, “Good Night”.
The paragraph I just wrote summarizes the first fifteen or so minutes of 3-gatsu no Lion, a beginning that exemplifies how the whole show very frequently shifts its own tone. Such a fluctuation can be problematic in any work of art but something about how 3-gatsu executes this aspect makes the narrative feel very believable. While plenty of us probably like to describe our day as just good or bad, how it went is usually through a gradient. In 3-gatsu, a single episode can go from Rei alone and stuck in the darkest of his inner thoughts, to him suddenly in the company of people like the Kawamoto sisters who wouldn’t necessarily adhere to any gloominess he might feel. Very rarely does this tonal shift ever feel jarring. There seems to an acute awareness within the staff making 3-gatsu that pulling a 180 would jeopardize the production. While the story can go from a slow moving and depressing scene that transforms into a fast-paced and happy one (or vice versa), the transition is almost always done with purpose and with care. It paces through these shifts rather than jump right into it and as a result, the day to day life Rei lives through feels easy to relate with.
As lifelike as this story can get, 3-gatsu no Lion is actually a very stylistic anime. While, there are a ton of scenes where everything in the shot is diegetic, a large portion of the show is directed with all sorts of visual and auditory stimuli. It’s not a perfect approach by any means. I’ll admit that I found myself annoyed that the kanji graphics you see on screen are voiced acted and that we hear the internal thoughts of animals that really don’t contribute anything meaningful to the text. But in general, the emphasis on style does make various scenes feel a lot more evocative. You do feel Rei’s depression a lot more thanks to a duller and more subdued color palette and a somber soundtrack. You do sense a wave of levity a lot more when the music gets more whimsical, the colors get brighter, and people express themselves bit more cartoonishly. And to the credit of 3-gatsu‘s staff, never does the aesthetic and music every conflict with the narrative. They know the kanji graphics and and the vocal-inner thoughts of animals work best in more lighthearted moments and thus, they keep those traits as far away from the more dramatic moments as possible.
As much as I love the show’s expert balance between being lifelike and stylistic, it really is the characters that make this show a true joy for me. Right from the start, Rei is a terrific protagonist. Everything about Rei from his stress of being a young professional shogi player to his troubled past to his general social awkwardness is conveyed so clearly and thoughtfully throughout this show. You can’t help but sympathize whenever he is feeling down and root for him when he becomes determined to achieve something. And what I really admire about how Rei is portrayed is that while there is a lot of stuff going on in his life, he doesn’t really whine about it. Rather, he prefers to keep his problems to himself, only openly talking about them when directly prompted to. That kind of mindset is dangerous in of itself but it is a lot more believable than the usual anime protagonist moping and whining all the time. There is really only one time Rei truly snaps and without spoiling it, there is a good reason for it. And for that moment to be a rare outburst makes it all the more poignant.
There are a number of supportive characters in 3-gatsu. Among my favorites are Rei’s teacher, Hayashida, and Shimada, an eighth dan whose shogi study group Rei joins in the second cour. I originally expected Hayashida to be a comic relief character and from time to time, he does provide some pretty great comedy. But at the same time, Hayashida takes time out of his own day, helping Rei balance his double life as a student and a shogi player, and encouraging him to move forward when he feels he’s faced with a wall. Meanwhile, the introduction of Shimada in the second cour made for a nice addition to the cast. He is absolutely the kind of mentor Rei needs, someone who has his own share of pressure as a shogi player who can thus empathize with and help Rei with his own issues. There is also Rei’s self-proclaimed rival and best friend Nikadou. I originally thought he was a little annoying at first but as he and Rei become more genuine friends as time goes on, I grew to really love the silly arguments and antics they get into together.
And of course, there is the Kawamoto sisters who, along with Rei, form the real heart of the show. When I really think about it, the trio don’t necessarily need to be involved in Rei’s life. They don’t have any direct connection to Rei’s past, his family troubles, or even his shogi career. And yet, they are so instrumental to his arc for one simple reason: they treat Rei as though he is family to them. They effectively fill a gap in Rei’s life, something left behind when his real family died in a car crash and when he grew estranged from his adoptive one. And even with that aside, they are just so likable as people. I love how mature and motherly Akari is towards her sisters and Rei and how Hinata tries to cheer Rei up whenever she can and how Momo is just plain adorable. I love this trio so much that I was actually a little disappointed that they get sidelined in the second cour. Admittedly, that is largely because Rei gets pre-occupied with shogi tournaments. To be fair, it was so satisfying when the sisters do get their spotlight back.
The first season of 3-gatsu no Lion is simply put, wonderful. The story, characters, and direction are excellent (the music, art, and acting is also really great). However, I think what really gets to me the most is how evocative and emotional this show gets. Countless times, I felt both super happy and super sad, sometimes within the same episode, and I found myself more in love with the show as a result. How fitting that the localized title is March Comes in a like a Lion which is notably half of a famous weather proverb. Not only does this anime come in like lion, it also goes out like a lamb.