March Comes in like a Lion is kind of a hard series to pin down for a multitude of reasons. First just because there isn’t particularly a straight forward narrative.
The central character is Rei Kiriyama, a 17 year old professional Shogi player. If you don’t know what Shogi is, and I didn’t, the closest comparison is just calling it Japanese Chess, so it has a board of so many squares by so many squares and you use pieces such as knight, pawn, queen, to take down your enemy.
So Rei is somewhat of a child prodigy and makes his living working from tournament to tournament, and going to high school on a part-time basis… and while the shogi definitely is a core aspect of the show, and actually gets more important as it goes on, it’s not like the entire show is following Rei’s rise to the top. It’s way more fun than that it’s about his depression and guilt! Of course! And eventually, slowly, his attempts to recover from this, where of course where the title comes into play as it’s half of the idiom “March comes in like a lion, but goes out like a lamb” meaning literally the change from winter to spring but metaphorically about struggle.
This mainly comes from his interactions with friends he makes from Shogi but also a family of three sister who essentially take him in and look after him occasionally. It’s that relationship with the girls that’s sort of used as the main selling point of the show, as you can see it on all the covers and trailers. However, that’s again what I mean by it being a hard show to pin down because, while their relationship is really the heart of the show, and it’s a majority of the heart warming scenes, it really isn’t more than half.
Strangely enough I’d call it sort of a diary. So each chapter from the comics is directly adapted straight to the TV show, which come up on screen and you get two or three per episode. And because of this format it doesn’t feel so much like it’s a plotted narrative, so much that you’re just dropped into the world whenever. A chapter might just be about Rei having dinner with the girls, where no big emotional breakthroughs happen, or heavy topics discussed, it just feels like a nice family dinner. It feels strange to say that it’s an occasional lack of overall purpose, I mean you do bond with the characters and find out more small details of their life it just doesn’t move anything plot-wise, but it’s these lack-of-purpose moments that just sell the world and really get you invested in the people.
And speaking of which we get to the characters, which are just great. While every character can very easily be easily categorised from the outset as the quirky one, or the serious one, the butt of the joke, each person that’s really given at least some time on screen have moments to show a different side to them. And even better is that these aren’t just given through meaningless side plots or monologues to pad things out and distract from the main story at hand. Mainly it’s just from small gestures or little quirks that can occasionally catch you off-guard and make them all seem that much more realised and again just make the world feel that much more alive. Which I think is actually much more essential to this show than initially realised.
I said earlier about how it’s like a diary, and it’s very much Rei’s diary. So of course that leads into explaining his daily life and all the interactions he has with people, but most importantly it feels like it’s from his perspective. I talked at length in my A Silent Voice review about headspace, and how that used filmmaking to really tap into aspects of their characters. I would say this takes that one step further, by making something that is not achievable through anything but animation. I mean artistically not literally, as it’s already based on a book and is now being made into a live-action film. So what I mean is that it uses its medium to the fullest and produces the best possible version of this story. We’ve talked about it before on this channel with videogames mostly, and I suppose partly in the Silent Voice review too, it’s the question of why did this need to be what it is? Could that videogame be a film? Could that film be a play? Could that play be a book? It’s not like if the answer is yes it automatically makes that project lesser, it’s just that if the answer is no it means you’re creating something that’s unique to that medium, and utilising it in an interesting way.
March comes in like a Lion it’s not only trying to explain how Rei is feeling in that moment, but it’s also changing the mood to reflect that. So when it comes to a running theme of the series, the idea of depression feeling like being underwater, it’s not just Rei saying that, it’s not just dream sequences of him struggling for breath, it also changes the art style to reflect if it’s somber, if it’s lonely, if it’s fear. It’s this multifaceted nature of the animation that just makes this show so mesmerising to watch because it feels so real in how it’s never the same. So again while the same motifs repeat throughout there are enough differences to show how they’re reflections of Rei’s mind at the time. So you can occasionally spot growth, or recognise why that would cause him to feel this due to that event in his past, and I know how all this sounds like very basic stuff, but the style of it doesn’t mean that you’re watching and interpreting what each thing means, it becomes very instinctual. For a show with a depressed non-pro-active main character it could be more than easy to get tired of him very early on if you just can’t connect with his emotions, and this show goes above and beyond to do that.
Now I’ve gotten all my big “important” points out of the way I can just list all the stuff that I wanted to point out. I really liked the character designs for this, while at first they stood out as a bit uncanny, I found myself really coming around to it, and I think it made it stand out from a lot of other things which just really helped again with getting you into the world of the show. Also, I think the lips really helped with the neutral expressions that the show frequently uses, that might have come across a bit too poe-faced with other designs.
One thing this version definitely holds over the manga is that it has music and sound, which really play into those artistic style shifts I mentioned earlier, but also really lay the groundwork for the smaller scenes also. I think the more traditionally composed tracks are by far the superior of the set, as I feel like they really capture a homely warm emotion without being overly cheesy, however the more sombre and dramatic tracks also hold their own.
I do have issues with the series, I did find that the occasional high energy comedy scenes were a bit too much for me. I get that it’s trying to push the emotions so far into the darker side at moments that it then needs to compensate, however, I felt like this could have been just as easily achieved through other less in-your-face means that occasionally just came off a bit childish. Then again I live in misery myself so that could just be me. They also kept including these 3D animated segments where they teach you Shogi in song form, which is designed to be like a kids show because it’s representing a character teaching a child shogi. However, these segments got old pretty fast because they were very repetitive and were explaining lowest common denominator knowledge of the game, which didn’t really help you understand the shogi scenes any better.
I also did find that the quality did occasionally fluctuate throughout, with the odd episode not really grabbing me as much as others. However, it did always pull it off when it mattered and those episodes in question were few and far between.
I’m very happy this managed to get a second season, I’m really looking forward to it especially if it continues with the similar pacing and quality. It’s great to just have a show you can sink in for 20 minutes at a time and I think this really provides this. While some might find it a bit too slow for their tastes I really enjoyed it.