3-gatsu no Lion (March Comes in Like a Lion) depicts the daily life of a young shogi prodigy, Rei Kiriyama, but is much deeper than what can be seen at a glance.
Rei is a shy individual who suffers from bouts of depression and anxiety centred around his career, family history, and the hardships of living in a world where he feels alone. Due to his circumstances, he poured all his efforts into becoming a pro shogi player from a young age. As a result, he has few close friends and underdeveloped social skills which leads to a life of isolation. While exploring Rei's inner conflict, 3-gatsu no Lion shows us the weight of human contact (for better or for worse) and how it impacts the tipping scale of negative & position emotion.
You may think, "This sounds really depressing!"
While heart-wrenching at times, the show doesn't leave you with that feeling for long. Even through Rei's darkest days, there are moments of brightness (often found with the kind & generous Kawamoto sisters). The show switches tone freely but gently due to Rei's continued narration bridging the gaps. Despite the darkness, you get the sense that there is always hope and beauty that can be found in the little moments. 3-gatsu no Lion understands that life is not always easy, but nothing lasts forever.
From the very start, Shaft uses a myriad of art & animation styles to convey different emotional tones. Each art style is chosen to match the scene. Aggressive, monotone charcoal styles are used to depict Rei and other characters' spiralling negativity or losses. Bright, cheery, glowing crayon styles are used when Rei is spending time with the Kawamoto sisters.
The musical score is often pensive, lending further atmosphere to the reflective nature of the show. However, this sometimes suddenly changes to an upbeat candour when Rei's more boisterous acquaintances appear like whirlwinds on-screen (I'm looking at you, young Nikaidou). Overall, the music always suits the mood.
3-gatsu no Lion also uses strong metaphorical imagery to mirror the mental state of the characters. Water is likely the most commonly-recurring of these themes. The show takes place in Sumida River, Chuo Ward of Tokyo, which was once known as the City of Water. Rei finds solace in crossing bridges and watching the rivers flow throughout the area, but he feels like he is drowning in a dark sea when he is alone. He mentally compares the intense struggle of competition to trying to swim across a stormy sea to an island. Upon reaching the island, a more violent sea spans the gap to the next safe plateau.
One thing I found difficult about the show was keeping track of some of the actual shogi play discussed or shown. Not being familiar with the game (despite it being briefly explained on-screen in song by medieval cartoon cats) and not being able to read the pieces made it hard to follow. However, this is not a huge detractor since the shogi play itself is merely a backdrop. It is clearly not expected that the audience are master shogi players by any stretch in order to understand the scenes.
In the end, all metaphors and shogi aside, the real heart of the show comes from the wonderfully deep cast of characters, the expressive emotional tone, and the philosophy of trying to carve out a name for oneself and find out what really matters in life. On all these fronts, 3-gatsu no Lion excels.