This is a beautiful anime. It tells a compelling story that goes in all kinds of directions, it makes good use of colors and scene design, it’s got a great cast of characters, its tone parallels a game of Shogi, it takes a very honest approach about the nature of depression, and it’s got talking animals and cute voice-overs for every onomatopoeia that pops up!
It has the power to lift my spirits. Sure, it played around with my feelings a lot, but it also makes me smile. So as March comes to an end, allow me to share how it came… like a lion.
This is a review for the first season of March Comes in like a Lion that originally aired for Fall 2016 and Winter 2017. It will continue where it left off for the Fall 2017 season, and you can bet I’ll be watching it then too!
March Comes in like a Lion (Sangatsu no Lion) tells the story of Rei Kiriyama, a Grade-6 Shogi master at the young age of 17. Although most of his rivals are adults, Rei shows no mercy to his opponents, and has no trouble overpowering them with his strategies. But his greatest weakness can’t be found on a Shogi battleground, at least, not in any tactical sense.
While he may be a Shogi prodigy, Rei Kiriyama is a recluse who suffers from depression.
Watching through this anime, Rei often feels like he is all alone, and no one else is there to guide him through life. He takes a strong liking to Shogi because he felt like that’s all that he had left. But even so, Rei has a rude awakening of his own, when rivals, mentors, family, and his closest friends — the Kawamotos — come to shatter his forlorn worldview!
Honestly, March Comes in like a Lion still plays out like a comedy, but not in the way you might expect it. In a classical sense, it still ends on a high note that is very uplifting. But before we can get to that, the series will play with your emotions like the tides that turn in a single game of Shogi.
I suppose this would be a great time to teach you how to play Shogi (I’ve played a few games myself), but you technically don’t have to know to appreciate what this series has to offer. But if you’d rather have fun with it, these cats and a song performed by the Kawamoto sisters will teach you what you need to know!
One rule that sticks out to me is that for every piece you capture, you may add that piece to the board any time during your turn as you see fit, with a few exceptions involving advances. With that rule in mind, every piece on the board counts, including the pawns. As you can imagine, the addition of any one piece to the board can change the advantage from player to player, thus “turning the tide” on multiple occasions.
I know this sounds like kind of a stretch, but this is exactly how I picture the mood of March Comes in like a Lion. Any given scene can feel somber and melancholy, only to be interrupted by a rude awakening of super cute and otherwise misappropriated humor, as if the very mood of the show is torrential!
What I’m witnessing in these scenes is exactly how Rei’s depression feels. Forget whatever romanticized version of depression and anxiety you have been taught from dramas or medical advertisements. While those moments do exist, depression and anxiety are a lot more complicated than you think! Rei’s depression isn’t just gloomy. It’s also angry, surprised, frustrated, and otherwise pathetic. Sometimes you do just have to laugh them off, because I wouldn’t wish those feelings on anyone, including myself!
Although Rei lives alone in this series, his real parents and sister died when he was still very young, and he was forced to live in a foster home with his adoptive sister Kyoko and their little brother (who doesn’t make much of an appearance in the anime), all under the gaze of their strict father. A day in Rei’s life feels like being shackled, imprisoned by forces out of his control. And given how his father and sister treat him, it’s hard to blame him!
Shogi became an integral part of his life, just as it had become for his elusive adopting father. Every time Rei sits and analyzes an opponent, he is calculating their demise as if he’s the one in control of the game, treating his rivals as subhuman. He figures that’s how everyone plays in order to win.
So when it comes to realizing that there are ways to play Shogi that don’t involve decimating your opponents, it’s understandable just how angry he gets, to the extent that he had cursed the entire world! And when you hear him scream out of anger, you feel it!
One thing I love about this series is its attention to visual detail. Each background scene sets a tone for Rei’s mood, from its colors to the relative size he is within the frame. A scene can feel busy like a room full of Shogi players, or pleasant like spending time with the Kawamotos.
In this scene for example, we see Rei Kiriyama standing alone on the bridge at night.
Given his relative size to the rest of the scene, it feels as though he is pathetic, insignificant compared to the rest of the world. The contrast of light and dark tones give off a sense of mystery, as if his own disposition is uncertain. But Rei isn’t without direction, even in this moment. This scene comes from after he left the Kawamotos’ for the night and goes back home, realizing that he isn’t the only one suffering. And while it can sound comforting to know that there are others who can share their pain with you, to a depressed person, this can feel even more invalidating! And no matter what his mood is, Rei will still feel alone.
Now if you think that sounds very tragic and nihilistic, you would be right. And that’s why this series interrupts its mood, many times over, to show that Rei Kiriyama’s sense of loneliness is all a fiction that he designed. And as March approaches, he realizes that he is not alone after all.
Rei had been so focused on all that he had lost, and holds dearly to his confidence in Shogi. But what he doesn’t stop to realize is that there are people out there who love him for who he is. And sometimes, the people who care about him the most aren’t exactly our obvious choices, nor for obvious reasons.
I agree that the Kawamotos are a great addition to this series, as scenes of their humble home bring joy that counterbalances Rei’s angst. But the sisters Akari, Hinata, and Momo don’t just take him in out of obligation for a neighbor. The three of them know what it’s like to have lost their parents as well. On those grounds alone, the sisters and their grandfather see him as one of them, and would be more than willing to include him into their family unit. Rei doesn’t realize it right away, but his presence fulfills a void in their family as much as they may fulfill one of his own.
A not-so-obvious source of love for Rei, to me, actually comes from his adoptive sister Kyoko. Although she is mysterious and has physically abused Rei in the past, I couldn’t help but think that she is suffering as well. She simply copes with it differently from Rei.
While Rei does feel a strong sense of hostility toward Kyoko, I feel as though there is some very close understanding between them. He recognizes that she is also in pain, and can’t help but spread that pain to others, especially him. She too is adopted, and when Rei left, their father had left her to take responsibility for them both. Rei may think Kyoko had hurt him, but in another way, he had also hurt her! In that regard, Rei and Kyoko seem to have a very complicated, dysfunctional relationship, that would be toxic had they stuck with each other. Yet even then, that’s not how their interactions go.
They may have an antagonizing relationship, but I think that there is enough understanding between them that they do care for each other. They may not like the circumstances, but they learned to make do as brother and sister, and it is only a matter of time when we see Kyoko’s full complexities unfold. Perhaps then, Rei will understand how his father cares about him as well.
Rei also shares his life in the world with those he has met through Shogi. Whether it’s his rival peer Nikaido or his mentor Shimada, where Rei realizes his flaws is in his arrogance for Shogi itself. Naturally players like them would want to see him become a stronger player, but that’s not going to happen if he continues to sulk about his stubborn way of winning all the time. To that effect, Rei comes to learn that Shogi can be fun, not just competitive. It is through these feelings that Rei has grown with his rivals, to the extent that even he would get upset when they lose too!
For someone who started out as rather selfish, he does grow to be more compassionate toward others. That feeling toward others may have started with the Kawamotos, but he extended that to Shogi, and ultimately his school as well.
As March comes, Rei is acquainted with plenty of new crossroads in his life, whether it is finding joy in Shogi, going back to school, or feeling the kindness of the Kawamotos and yes, to a certain degree, his sister as well. But where all of these instances would have given him more anxiety before, he looks up with greater anticipation to face these new challenges with more confidence.
And when I say that the tide of a game of Shogi can turn at even a single turn, that doesn’t mean that the game itself has no direction or feel meaningless. The flow of the game ultimately comes down to how well the players effectively works out their strategies against each other. He is still trying to figure out his own strategy for how he will face these changes in his life from March onward.
Rei Kiriyama is one of the most relatable characters I have come across recently in anime. The experiences he has with depression and feeling so alone are experiences that I have had, and regretfully, his distrust in his own family are experiences that I have also had. I may not have lived on my own yet, but there are times when I felt it necessary to run away and take a proverbial break from them. But even so, I have also come to recognize that I’m not alone in my thoughts, and that there are people who share this journey called “life” with me.
So if you are interested in an anime about Shogi, or are looking for something uplifting and humorous for your own anxieties, watch March Comes in like a Lion. Looking forward to the series’ continuation to answer some of the questions that I still have about it.