March Comes In Like A Lion - First Impressions [Episodes 1-3]

Following professional Shogi player Rei Kiriyama through the ups and downs of his young career, personal life and internal struggles, March Comes Like a Lion promises to be a story rich in character development and heart-plucking drama.

The Lowdown

17 year old Rei Kiriyama moves out from his foster family and leads the intense life of constant competitions and isolation from all social aspects of life. Trying to keep considerable distance from bonding with anyone, he finds himself being included into the kindhearted Kawamoto residence, which provides a homely connection he lacked from the recently departed foster home. Success comes and goes as it does, and the pro player comes to the crossroads that accompany the trials and tribulations of life.

Episode 1 Impressions:

Chapter One- Rei Kiriyama / Chapter Two- The Town Along the River” 
(Airing 8 Oct 2016)

Immediately, we are given dark and twisted imagery that sets off red flags left and right for the protagonist, Rei. Putting aside what we already see in the stellar opening, a nightmare looms with shots of water circling a drain, flowing through the darkness, and our main character sulking under a bridge to the voice of a woman saying horrible, unsettling things like “See? There’s no place for you here in this world.” It all sets up a quick gut-wrenching feeling that Rei is struggling fiercely with depression of some form. One of the more impressive things about this has to be how there isn’t a character who screams exposition at the audience about the character (or in the case of a lot of shows, the main character narrates for so long that they are depressed that it almost overkills the point), and the story simply continues without questioning the intelligence of the viewer. Call it pretty early to give points for, but if it keeps it up like that, it’ll go a long way of separating itself from other series with depression as a primary character defect.

Quietly, he wakes up and takes a train to a Shogi hall whilst some really jaw-dropping city life aesthetics are showcased. The animation is done with a very signature shading style that Shaft has been praised immensely for with their previous work. Perhaps even better is that while it is unmistakably the work of their artists, it still has a uniqueness to it that sets it apart. An unnamed man plays a competitive round of Shogi with Rei, posing questions and small talk to no avail. Without so much as a word in return to the man, Rei talks under his breath after the departure of what is revealed to be in passing his foster father. I found that the lack of dialogue might really come off as polarizing to someone expecting a “read-along drama” of sorts, but the move is much more artistic (no matter how uncommon it might come off as).

Rei reluctantly gets invited to have dinner with a girl he knows, Hinata Kawamoto, and her sisters Akari and Momo. Cheery as the mood is for him, Rei is crushed and soon falls asleep from exhaustion accompanying the reality of defeating his foster father in their match, ending the elder’s chances for league entrance. Hinata later enters a dark room to tuck in the passed out professional Shogi player to find he is unconsciously sobbing from his nightmares. Rather than rehash what might be a recurring nightmare for the protagonist, I loved the outside perspective of seeing his struggles with the subconscious in physical form. Like the dialogue, it’s not screaming for attention, but it does leave enough for effect.

Chapter two offers less as we learn of young Rei’s profession while he eats a Kawamoto prepared lunch with a broke teacher on the roof. The teacher rambles on about how Rei must make a lot of money before storming off realizing his student rakes in a bigger salary than him, all to minimum to no words spoken by the other party involved. In a much weaker second half to the episode, this rooftop scene really carries the load with the teacher acting out serving a pretty interesting spin to the school life for Rei. My gut tells me that if a faculty member to the school has a sort of sour reaction to the income of his student, then there is absolutely no possible way the stoic Kiriyama can find much to go off of with his peers (not to mention there’s a chance they might loathe him for it). The more we are seeing into the life of the young man, the more the nightmares become understandable. I love the “show, don’t tell” approach to things here and sincerely hope it can continue to count its paces as such.

Later after school, Rei assists the Kawamotos at their shop as a way to give thanks and departs to practice for a match the next day. In a rather sudden cliffhanger, his entry ticket to the event has been swapped by a snickering portly boy boasting about his crime as the credits roll. Even from an outsider taking in the events in chronological order, it isn’t challenging to agree that a cliffhanger of commercial proportions is a rather sour note to end things on in an otherwise flawlessly executed pilot. The episode could have easily concluded as was and the portly boy get introduced in the following episode (perhaps on the way to the Shogi hall or even there). I get that it's supposed to be business but for something with so much attention to detail it’s hard not to be a little disappointed with this abrupt conclusion. All in all, I found the introductory episode to this series to show all the right flashes of a modern classic brewing so long as it doesn’t deviate from the well-disciplined pacing and tone it is capable of pulling off.

In One Line: Professional Shogi player Rei Kiriyama defeats his foster father, struggles with the guilt for it, and spends the evening with the generous Kawamoto family.

Episode 2 Impressions:

“Chapter 3- Akari/ Chapter 4- Beyond the Bridge” 
(Aired 15 Oct 2016)

This week’s showing is something of a baffling one- completely throwing me off the trail for identifying the direction the show seems to be taking. I mentioned before I was wary of the introduction of the high energy rival character in Harunobu Nikaidou at the conclusion of the first episode. In tandem with the downright craziness that is another one of Rei’s competition, Issa Matsumoto, the first half of this episode is completely hamstrung in a tonal shift that leaves a pretty sour taste. Despite a pretty interesting play by play of his match, the off the walls behaviors and style the series takes when a character like these two are present doesn’t particularly settle well. It is one thing to know it is a part of the series if the wild behaviors make the characters in question more endearing, but for something primarily being pitched as a serious drama, the “comedy” went a bit too much up the dial there (albeit Shaft did their thing with making the art choices match the hectic situations).

While some might wager it is reaching, there is a lot of symbolism in Rei’s early struggles alone in the city before he met the Kawamoto family and him getting safely helped by Akari when he was too weak to return home on his own. That scene and the brief shot of Rei frowning at hearing after winning another match that his opponent was banking on winning to have his sick grandfather was him on television were probably the more redeeming parts before the episode cut into the next chapter.

In contrast, the second half of the episode was simply a thing of beauty. The imagery starts to come back and mesh well with the storytelling as the tone lowers back down to a sane level. What interested me with the direction in March most certainly is just how well executed something as basic as walking to a grocery store can be. Rei refers to his stroll through town as “soothing” perfectly- the music is relaxing, people move organically, and the little details mixed in with the choice of shading strike all marks. My favorite shots in the series so far have come from the bridges, so there was a lot to be found in this half episode. Coupled with the introspective take on how he handled his parents passing in an accident, this is exactly the right place I want to see the series build off of.

In One Line: Rei wins another match, taken out to a restaurant with his senpai and then celebrates Obon with the girls.

Episode 3 Impressions:

"Chapter 5- Harunobu / Chapter 6-Beyond the Night Sky" 
(Aired 22 October 2016)

Easily the most consistent of the bunch so far, this week offered an incredibly entertaining first half in Rei’s match with his rival and in the second a discovery that all that glitters is most certainly not gold. The tonal issues from the previous episode weren’t present, as the comedy bits were small enough to only help the the story without becoming a serious distraction like before. I’m not ready to write off that fear as something that might hinder an impressive overall product, but the control evident here is a pretty good sign for the immediate future. The show has one of its darkest moments mere moments after a lighthearted one and simmers it down to a light boil whilst appreciating one of the many beautiful background shots.

Previously, I had expressed that the SHAFT style of animation flare was as great to see as always, even if it was a little bit much to see at the time. During a flashback match Rei has and bits of his current one, there are shots that really provide subtle visual aid (something that is a cornerstone to most discussions in the Monogatari series) and flex the creativity of the direction. While relying on it too much might risk getting stale, I believe keeping it to something like that would benefit the series immensely.

I had my thoughts before that there was something special in this series, and by the time the ED rolled around this week, I was a little bit more confident that it would prevail. There is a lot more elbow room for things to happen yet, and if they can turn in a dozen more episodes as good as this one, it’ll reach heights well above the rest.

In One Line: Rei plays Harunobu with a recollection of their long-time rivalry and is greeted with a much different vibe from the Kawamotos.

Vital Stats:

March Comes Like a Lion is produced by Aniplex and NHK. In addition, the series is made by Studio SHAFT and is directed by Shinbou Akiyuki (The Monogatari series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica) and has art direction fromAsano Naoyuki (Osomatsu-san, Saint Oniisan)