March Comes in Like a Lion: Of Sincere Character Writing and (Mostly) Warm Visuals

March Comes in Like a Lion (also known as Sangatsu no Lion) is a coming of age anime adapted from the manga with the same name, written by Umino Chika (also the mangaka of Honey and Clover). It is produced by Shaft, directed by a trio (according to MAL): Akiyuki Shinbou, Kenjirou Okada and Naoyuki Asano and music composition by Yukari Hashimoto (also did the music composition of last year’s Poco’s Udon World).

Rei Kiriyama is an emotionally reserved seventeen year old who lives alone in a one room apartment. He is also a professional shogi player, making him a prodigy at his trade. But this isn’t an anime about shogi but rather one with shogi. The first half of the anime kind of does an elaborate character study on Rei and his past; and his interactions between him and his shogi opponents the Kawamoto sisters- whose house is basically a second home to him. In the second half, the show gets more narrative and drama heavy, but the anime still manages to make it about Rei and his development as a character.

REI AND THE CAST

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March Comes in Like a Lion is, predictably so, quite hyperbolic in its character writing through visual narration. This isn’t a bad thing at all, since for a good majority of the first half- the show executed them with a personality and sincerity. This show is very visual with its writing primarily because there aren’t many plot elements to play with, and since the protagonist is introverted- the script isn’t heavy with two sided dialogue. In fact, for most of the first episode- Rei hardly talked at all, and the show fetishized the episode with bubbles, blue and black, harsh lighting contrasting a warm pastel color palette.

But that is not to say that the show is as silent of an anime a Serial Experiments Lain- where the whole cast hardly ever talked and Lain didn’t have much of an inner monologue. Rei isn’t an empty character- as expected from an introverted character, he monologues heavily; but rarely does he come off as overly pretentious partly because of sincere voicing from the voice actor and partly because of again, visual direction. Umino Chika humanizing character writing comes in full bloom in this show- Rei doesn’t narrate everything he does, he doesn’t get too self-centered and does involve in light-hearted comedic routines every so often. Like many other like-minded introverts, I find Rei’s character really relatable. I think the show did a well job in translating this character in anime form and I am glad that it Rei’s character development had the pacing it needed.

Sure, Rei isn’t an original character with unique character aspects, but his portrayal is so sincerely, thoroughly and uniquely done that it doesn’t really make sense to gripe about somebody not being original.

His character writing is also wrapped up satisfactorily by setting up a contrast in Rei’s mindset at the end of the season to his mindset at the beginning of the season- he is now trying to be optimistic and appreciating the fact that he has people involved in his life rather than being reserved with some arrogance.

Not only Rei, I think the other members of the cast have sufficient character focus and they never seem to be just background characters that occasionally share a line or too. The Kawamoto sisters, Nikaidou, Shimada and Kyouko all have fair shares of character exposition to make them tangible and dynamic portrayals.

PACING

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Sangatsu no Lion never felt slow to me- sure, each episode (seemingly) faithfully adapts two chapters from the manga- and that seems excruciatingly stretched out if we were talking about something more plot reliant or drama reliant like battle shounen or romantic comedy. But March Comes in Like a Lion is more of a slice-of-life character study with an overarching dramatic development. I think it is a merit that the anime was patient, it helps to set up an atmosphere- and I always appreciate anime with good atmosphere.

I  don’t think the anime was slow in the second cour of the anime- the script was hefty enough to keep the narrative moving and Shimada’s character arc’s pacing was held together well enough. But I wouldn’t disagree as much if one looks from a drama standpoint- the matches between Shimada and Souya did go slowly in the last quarter of the season. Then again, the last quarter of the season focused more on the character study of Shimada than anything else.

TONAL SHIFTS

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I think Sangatsu no Lion is a master at tonal shifts from dark, blue depressing color splashes in Rei’s mind to Momo’s charming and warm face. The only other anime I can think off the top of my head is Gintama.

I have to give props to the visuals to make these tonal shifts look coherent (at least to a degree) and smooth. The coherence is mostly due to the continuity in the basic visual design- the bright yet harsh colors just reduce their contrast- and you get a warm, vibrant palette. This may not be as simple as I make it out to be- but that’s the best speculative comment I can make in terms of the lighting and color palette. And as most anime do, the character designs get less detailed and the expressions get more comedic. The instrumentation and voice acting also play key roles here.

THE VISUAL DESIGN AND DIRECTION

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This is perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the show. The visuals seem to play a key role in exploring characters and their monologue.

Sangatsu’s art style is unique with the thick and bold yet smooth line work- which somehow doesn’t look gritty at all but gives scenes warmth most of the time. But this becomes advantageous when expressing Rei’s depressing and dark thoughts- when the art transforms (well not entirely the art, the color scheme plays a huge role too) into shaky lines. Like I mentioned before, the art style also helps to make the tonal shifts look coherent; which makes the art really dynamic and flexible to moods without changing a whole lot. The character designs are diverse and, thanks to Umino Chika’s distinctive art style, memorable.

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The show’s color scheme and the bright lighting really suits Umino Chika’s art- the water color shading adds to the warmth in the character designs and the background art. The backgrounds look beautiful and, clearly, a lot of work go into them as it is pretty clear that the show has a lot of reference shots: which surprised me because most of the Shaft shows (directed by Akiyuki Shinbou) have simple, sharp, geometric backgrounds instead of warm water color shaded detailed paintings.

In terms of visual direction, I wouldn’t argue that the show always seemed to be reliant on its visuals and always seemed to show rather than tell. The anime leaned towards close-ups on character faces, silent moments and showing blue bubbles (especially in the first half) for portraying Rei’s mood. Metaphorical visualisation is one of Shaft’s selling points and their execution was on point in the first cour- they set up Rei’s character thoroughly. But in the second part, the visual metaphors, especially during the shogi matches, failed to produce dramatic tension- which was kind of a let down. But Shimada’s character exposition reminded me again of its knack for nailing down character expository visuals. I am glad that the show doesn’t get too stuck up with its arty visuals and comes down to simple designs for a mid-episode comedy routine- which is done pretty decently enough.

The animation also fits the visual flow, it isn’t overly detailed- but rarely does it feels janky or the characters go off-model. So, I am impressed by the consistent production quality of the show. I also liked the opening and ending animation sequences- they really carried the whole personality of the show and the first opening and the second opening set up the contrast in Rei’s mindset: from being a struggling, self-centred teenager to a still struggling, but more observant and optimistic teenager.

CONCLUSION

March Comes in Like a Lion has been a wonderful anime and it ranks second in my favorite anime from Winter 2017. I loved its sincere character writing, warm yet arty visual design and light-hearted-ness and the humanizing aspects of this show: the tonal shifts really helped to make this show a balanced and realistic narrative.

I highly recommend this show. Rating 9/10.

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