Review of March Comes in Like a Lion (2016)

Moving picture, 17 hours

Seen in 2020.

Kiriyama Rei went pro playing shōgi, a board game similar to chess, in middle school. Though a dedicated and successful player, he’s depressed, unable to organize his own life and desperate to get a high-school diploma. He doesn’t actually like the game, having used it mainly as an escape from bullying and to claim his shōgi-loving adoptive father’s respect. For his sanity, the boy relies on the kindness of three sisters, orphans like himself. One day he realizes that they rely on him for nothing.

A deep and rounded, truly novelistic drama. Like Honey and Clover (2005), March Comes in Like a Lion is based on a seinen comic by Umino Chica. It’s the same baseline art style, with the same characteristically large corners of the mouth in closeup, the same sensitivity to multiple motives and perspectives, and even the same little joke about hit points being cut in half, but the ontology is more solid. The first half of season 2, episode 10 is a good example of how the style varies to support the characters: It’s a sudden and complete detour into the life of a player whom Kiriyama has just defeated, told in a beautifully expressionistic mode.

It’s excellent writing on mundane topics, presented with the analytical mindset and range of His and Her Circumstances (1998), but a budget too. Though I have not read the comic, the adaptation seems overly faithful. The use of voices for certain pets’ thoughts is particularly excessive; that sort of thing works better as non-bubble text in a comic than as audible dialogue.

I have little interest in shōgi, having tried it only once, but I can tell that the show is sufficiently well made to reward those who do, and it’s certainly worth watching for those who don’t. The basic rules are eventually explained. AI never comes up. Season 1, episode 10 is the first one that gets into a mode of the game as sport, the match as silent drama. The more broadly dramatic and humorous sides of the show are perfectly balanced against this, able to deal effectively with ostracision, depression and bullying, alternating with good comic relief. As examples of the latter, season 1, episode 16 has both a reference to Heidi: A Girl of the Alps (1974) (Klara standing) and a tense conversation delightfully derailed by concern for a bird. Season 2, episode 14 starts with an excellent comic scene about senior members of the Japan Shogi Association arguing over the design and print quality of a pair of posters. This takes nothing away from the drama. Even the occasional food porn fits right in; it’s all done with loving care. Compare BoJack Horseman (2014), a US cartoon with similar ambitions, where funny-animal characters and unrealistic adventures obscure the drama.

The peculiar English title is mandated by the original creators. The literal meaning of 「3月のライオン」(Sangatsu no Raion) is “The Lion of March”, where March refers to the month of the year as well as an eponymous, fictional Tokyo neighbourhood, based on real locations in Tsukuda and Tsukishima, where much of the story takes place. According to Japanese Wikipedia, Umino picked up the phrase from the poster of a 1992 movie she hadn’t actually seen. She thought the English proverb “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” seemed like good story material. Her editor has commented that annual rank-deciding competitions end in March, giving that month a predatory aspect in the professional shōgi community.

References here: No. 7 Cherry Lane (2019).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series