Sangatsu no Lion's first five minutes contain a scene I might characterise as one of the best in animation. A boy listlessly wakens, drinking out of necessity, dressing out of obligation, and leaving his sterile apartment out of confusion, an existence so fragile it could perish with the wind. He doesn't say anything. He doesn't tell people about his problems. He just moves on with his life.
At first I did not understand why this scene had such an impact on me. I thought it could have been the beautiful music, or perhaps the captivating artwork so characteristic of Shaft. That wasn't it. What overwhelmed me was how illustrative it was of human life.
People often describe their favourite pieces of fiction with vague terms such as "brilliant" or "life-changing". Sangatsu no Lion is not life-changing, least not in the sense of it developing for me a different personality, or in creating new passions. What it did, rather, is give me the tools to better understand myself and, more importantly, why I am here. And that is the greatest answer of all.
To say that Sangatsu no Lion is powerful would be an understatement. There are numerous moments, much like the opening scene, that do much with little. Most things are left implicit and unsaid. A simple, everyday conversation between family, about what their plans could be for the next day, or a brief conversation about one's quiet hometown can contain more weight and characterisation than a series might in its entire duration. Sangatsu no Lion is as well masterfully-produced, a technical triumph, Shaft's greatest accomplishment.
Sangatsu no Lion is at its surface an anime about shogi, but at its core a coming-of-age story of overcoming depression. Rei, the series' protagonist, is a deeply and inherently flawed being. He is timid - incapable of speaking his mind or getting his feelings across - and unhappy with his role in life. Many characters do not understand why he is this way, and indeed, for someone so gifted at shogi-- enough as to turn it into a career from a young age-- and blessed by such having such a kind family care for him, it is easy to be envious and to question why someone in his position could ever feel unsatisfied. He is still in his teens, after all, so it could merely be an irrational fit of teenage angst. And so they think, and so they patronise him.
There is more to Rei than the people around him give credit for. He never had a real family, nor even a youth, hence why he goes to school in an aimless search of one. He has nothing he can relate to but shogi. Even shogi brings him pain, as his thirst for victory ends only with him driving the loser to disappointment and despair. He needs to feed on other people's happiness to give meaning to his own existence, as without shogi, he will have nothing.
This isn't meant to instil feelings of pity in the viewer. Rei's problems, while significant and real, aren't much different from what everyone else in his world is dealing with. His eventual mentor, Shimada, struggles with a fear of disappointing others and with a chronic sickness that disrupts his ability to play shogi. Even Hinata, the carefree, younger-sister figure to Rei is dealing with issues of love and an anxiety of growing up. Rei's journey is not just about recognising and facing his own problems, but also in understanding that pain is a normal part of life, and something that everyone deals with. All one can do is to take it with stride.
Rei's eventual breakdown is one of the story's most notable moments. I have read complaints of the scene being too dramatic, or that it took too long for Rei to get there. I feel that was the point. Simply being told "no, you are wrong" does not do anything to help fix a person's issues. Rei has already been told his entire life that he is wrong. It is through being kicked down, made a fool of, and, yes, breaking down completely that humans are able to grow the most. We are resilient creatures, and respond to failure with success. Rei is not meant to be entirely likeable to the viewer. He's just a dude and he has his limits, much like anyone else. He is meant to be human rather than an embodiment of all things cool and attractive, and I suppose it is this distinction that is bothersome to certain viewers.
The scene where Shimada chats with Rei about Yamagata, his hometown, represents a lot of what makes the anime so special. The conversation is only 90 seconds long, and yet it encapsulates Rei's growth as a person. It culminates in his one simple quip back to Shimada, that even something dull is still "something". Rei has by this point become capable of standing his ground and arguing back, and of framing the world more positively. It is easy to not notice these things because Rei's evolution is not sudden or obvious. That is precisely what makes it great, and is why it feels so real. It is only in the small details do we notice change.
Many aspects of Shaft's production are experimental in nature, and that definitely shows through in this case. While some of their other works, such as the Monogatari series, got a bit too focused on style rather than content (to the extent of being pompous or even pretentious, I would argue), the direction and artwork of Sangatsu no Lion is artful and stylish while still managing to keep genuine. The tenth episode's shogi match is one of the more prominent examples of this, where a thunderous orchestral piece plays as the two furiously and silently challenge one another. It doesn't require dialogue, as the visual and audio cues do more than enough to demonstrate who is winning and losing, and how much stress they are undergoing. There is even a scene that more closely resembles theatre, with jazzy beats playing while Smith slowly (very, very slowly) eats breakfast. Some may feel this is unnecessary, but I am of the opinion that it provided a wealth of character to someone who we really had not seen or understood much of by that point in the story.
It's a bit remarkable just how reminiscent the anime is of life in Tokyo. I feel that those who have never been here are missing quite a bit, as its depiction does well to make the world the characters live in feel real and relateable. It was actually a bit surreal in my case, as Rei goes to train stations, bridges and other areas that I have personally been to, and visits Sendagi at one point in the series: the quiet little neighbourhood in which I live. He even wears the exact same black coat that I bought at a local Uniqlo some months ago. So, understandably, I think, the anime has been a fairly personal experience for me. It's nothing short of stunning how much effort Shaft has put into making the setting feel like a real place where real people live. It is not a portrayal of Tokyo - it is Tokyo.
The music in Sangatsu no Lion is without doubt some of the best that has been in anime. Most of the more heavy-hitting tracks are used sparingly, often only in one specific scene for a specific purpose, and accomplish said purpose with power and with triumph. In some scenes, such as the Yamagata talk, the first time "Sayonara Bystander" began playing, or the end of the twelfth episode when Rei promises to Momo to win, the music was effective enough to make my eyes water a bit. That isn't a reaction I normally have towards music.
One could argue that there is a bit too much comedy in the anime. And, certainly, if you are looking only for serious storytelling from start to finish, you may end up feeling somewhat alienated by the end. I might have preferred a bit less comedy, too, as the light-hearted scenes, while enjoyable (especially with how adorable Hinata is), are not quite as exciting as all the other pieces. But I can still appreciate its existence, as it would be disingenuous to remove it altogether and to pretend as if there are no happy moments in the characters' lives. Seeing Rei grow to accept the Kawamoto sisters is quite heartwarming, too. They care about him, even if he may not always care about himself, and by the end, they help him to find more meaning in life than shogi.
It's true that Sangatsu no Lion does not have much conclusion. Most of the problems the characters are dealing with are still an ongoing struggle by the end, and Rei is far from becoming a master of shogi as most anime protagonists typically would. Part of this can be attributed to logistical issues, such as a limited production budget and the fact that the manga is still ongoing. I don't think this creates an inherent flaw with the anime, however, as Sangatsu no Lion isn't really in need of an ending. There's no plot with a specific starting point and ending point-- it is rather a moment in time, a piece of Rei's life and those of the people around him. His depression persists, and he remains an imperfect and flawed person, even if he now has friends and family by his side. He's still searching. He's still running. Perhaps that will change by the end of the second season or the manga. Maybe it won't. And that would be completely fine. I don't believe there is anyone, even on their deathbed, who has ever been complete as a person. We start imperfect, and we end imperfect, gradually, yet surely, evolving, unchanging.
With most reviews, I feel compelled to discuss the anime in a mechanical way. "The animation was nice", "the characters were developed well", "the plot was inconsistent". It is because most anime feel crafted, like a specimen of sorts to be examined. How is this piece? How is that piece? Sangatsu no Lion never felt that way for me. It's bigger. It feels more real. And so I can't help but write something more personal, too.
Is Sangatsu no Lion better than Honey & Clover? Maybe. Is it the best anime of the past decade? Perhaps. More than that? Could be. It is difficult right now to answer with complete certainty these questions I have been posing myself. Time is the best judgement, I feel. But I can say, without question or hesitation, that Sangatsu no Lion is the only anime since Touch that has had such a profound and visceral impact on me. And Touch was the best anime I had ever seen.
Sangatsu no Lion is a statement that unhappiness is OK. Being depressed, unsatisfied or stressed does not make you weak - it makes you human. And so I find it appropriate to close with a quote from Hinata:
"So what do you say at a time like this?"
"You say to do your best."