Disclaimer: Quick blog post. Expect a lot of spelling and grammatical errors.
3-gatsu no Lion (or Sangatsu as I'm going to refer it to as throughout the post) is a manga that I love and have been following for a while well before the anime was officially announced. Honey and Clover is one of my all-time favourites, and Chica Umino's thoughtful presentations of subtle human drama is a talent that has rightfully been recognized by fans worldwide. With such a critically acclaimed series it's only natural that her next work will be handled with the love and care it rightfully deserves... right?
Yes. Yes, it did actually. To put it bluntly, I adored the first episode. This came as a surprise to me when I've voiced previously on how terrifying it felt upon learning that Shaft was selected to helm the adaptation when a slew of other studios would've been the ideal choice. Why wasn't Ken'ichi Kasai and J.C. Staff selected for his phenomenal job with Honey and Clover, or Morio Asaka of Madhouse, or even Tatsuyuki Nagai? Why weren't the slice-of-life/drama heavyweights ignored and instead the wild child of the industry chosen? According to sources, Umino stated she didn't want anyone else but Shinbo to direct the adaption of Sangatsu as she herself is an admirer of his works. Concerning his amount of input in the anime, we don't really know. Kenjiro Okada's mysteriously been listed as the "series director" recently, but it's safe to have some skepticism as Shinbo's name is as marketable to Aniplex as fujoshi are to the vaseline-encrusted lips of the men in Yuri on Ice. Slap his name on anything and it's bound to sell by the boatloads while Aniplex laughs their way to the bank. Personal feelings aside, I put my faith in Umino's judgment and hoped for the best.
Thankfully, that's exactly what happened.
Shaft, as we all know loves to amp up their visual intensity regardless of the source material, take Mekakucity Actors and a generic harem like Nisekoi for instance. I told myself if I ever see a single head tilt throughout the episode I would flip a table. No tables were harmed (yet). Oh don't get me wrong, it's still undeniably Shaft with their usual suspect list of visual quirks but they're not being obnoxious with it to the point where I'm rolling my eyes in annoyance. At least the most Shaft-esque parts were reserved for the internal bits, where elements of surrealism are actually appropriate for those moments.
Maybe it's just me refusing to take off my rose-tinted glasses, but this time, I tried to view it from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the manga. From the first six minutes, we're given a clear picture of who Rei is without any dialogue. His empty room, his plain attire, the lonely commute to the shogi hall, and the default expression of sadness he wears. It's those small communications of seemingly mundane activities where we can immediately discern this 17-year old lives in isolation. Yes I agree that the loner archetype is overplayed in anime, and Sangatsu's first episode did little to set it apart from the crowd of mediocre characters who possess similar traits, but at least Shaft opted to tell the story visually than outright saying it. Apart from those gestures, the painterly backgrounds was definitely a highlight. The rich saturated colours with a texture layer are reminiscent of the night skies that 19th-century artist Vincent van Gogh was so fond of painting. It really injects some personality into the series, consciously choosing to go for a stylistic approach than photorealism.
Image above: Rei's slouched posture as you can tell is shy and uncomfortable around others, preferring to stand by himself than sitting beside others.
I understand the main criticisms centre around the tonal whiplash between the introspective Rei and the bubbly Kawamoto sisters, but I think it reinforces just how decrepit his life is in comparison to everyone else's. Besides, it's not like the rest of the cast are all happy-go-lucky with no worries, but the way these characters go about their daily lives to their fullest serves as a realization to him. Rei one could argue can come off as being selfish, choosing to be independent and stuck in this rut when he could easily surround himself with the Kawamotos (who also have their fair share of internal struggles), but that's the difficulty with overcoming loneliness: it creates a rift between others and only been deepens with the forceful independence he imposed on himself. Umino is not one who dwells on sadness too long, and while her manga certainly does have its soul-crushing moments, Sangatsu gently nudges Rei outside of his comfort zone without dragging the story or feeling that events are progressing too quickly.
As of right now, my only real concern is how Shaft can continue to maintain the quality it released on its premier. They've demonstrated numerous times of getting carried away with their visual spin to the point of alienating the source material. Of course, artistic representation is important, but concerning adaptations it's about finding the equilibrium between your style and the mangaka's. The manga to put it lightly... is dense. Plenty of dialogue peppered throughout the page, not to mention Umino's paneling can downright be confusing at times.
To those who are left undecided whether or not to continue, clearly I'm biased in telling you to keep watching to the end. If you expected a sports-heavy anime on the lines of something like Hikaru no Go or even Chihayafuru, obviously you're gonna have a bad time. Sangatsu as many could tell by the first episode is a slow-burn series. It rewards the patient and discourages instant gratification, preferring to unfold its secrets in tidbits. The sport of shogi is more of a platform for Rei to rediscover the life he has been missing out on from the years he spent as a full-time professional, and don't worry, his life isn't nearly as boring as his name or appearance deceptively shows. Do not fret, there are plenty of dark mysteries that have yet to surface in Sangatsu.
Also, if you're one of the people who keeps commenting Rei looks like Arima from Your Lie in April, remember that Sangatsu premiered 4 years before. Just saying.