I hold high regards for manga author Chica Umino. While in college, I was introduced to her creation Honey and Clover, and to this day it's the one manga and anime series I recommend any future graduate to watch in full before it comes time for life's next step. The way she captured these art students as they're about to be tossed into the adult world was presented in such a relatable and scary way, with a sprinkling of some light-heartedness to ease one of life's heftiest transitions.
It's why it's troubling when I see Umino's most recent work, the SHAFT-animated March Comes in Like a Lion. She knows how to create relatable characters and put them into scary situations, so why does the story feel like a really bad Lifetime movie?
Already out of the ballpark, March Comes in Like a Lion makes it known to the viewer that they're in for a depressing tale. The series follows a 17-year-old professional shōgi player named Rei (Kengo Kawanishi), who lost his parents and sister in a traffic accident. After becoming an apprentice for his father's friend, he finds himself leaving school for a year to be more independent. Often, he finds himself isolated from the world around him, until the Kawamoto sisters Akari (Ai Kayano), Hinata (Kana Hanazawa), and Momo (Misaki Kuno) enter his life and bring forth a glimmer of life into his broken soul.
At first, the series starts off strongly, with a good understanding of why Rei is the way he acts. Because of the cards fate has dealt him, he finds himself wandering around the city of Rokugatsu-cho pondering and reflecting on his state of being. It's very apparent that he suffers from some form of depression, as he fears that his battle is something that only he can shoulder. Even when chatting with the Kawamotos or forced to be in the same room as his so-called "friendly rival" Harunobu (Nobuhiko Okamoto), Rei is filled with much internal darkness.
But man, does March Comes in Like a Lion just love shoving this down the viewers' throats. I understand that depression is a tough battle that can't just be solved with the snap of a finger. However, Rei's attitude around people and the way he monologues about his feelings would make even the most gothic of millennials roll their eyes with disgust. It's like he's just asking to have some sense slapped into him, but because everyone around him is so kind to him, the odds of such a request happening is seemingly slim to none.
It's when the Kawamoto sisters are on the screen when the anime lifts itself out of the gutter and into Umino's more relatable character development. Even after losing their mother, Akari, Hinata, and even the youngest Momo find a way to lift their heads and look to bettering their lives. Akari is working hard to support her sisters, Hinata struggles to confess her feelings to the boy she likes, and Momo...just acts adorable like a toddler should. While their hardships aren't as heavy as what Rei went through, the shōgi player should be learning a thing or two about soldiering on through the tough parts of life to better himself.
And yet, Rei just can't get out of this funk that has strangled his livelihood. He can't see past his own problems, to the point where there's no appreciation for the folks that live amongst him. For Rei to be acting this way is both selfish and annoyingly irritating, to the point where I had to fight every urge to fast forward through his scenes to get to the better characters. The key to a good story is to focus on a relatable character. Unfortunately, instead of shining most of the spotlight on a person like Hinata, they instead give it to a mopey character who'd be better as a somewhat recurring one than the star.
It hurts to say all this, considering that SHAFT is the one producing it. The same folks who brought us the Monogatari series and Mekakucity Actors have crafted probably one of the most gorgeous anime to come out this season. The characters, especially the Kawamoto sisters, look like beautiful works of colored-pencil art, with the world surrounding them a fine mixture of light and darkness. Even Rei's internal monologues are presented with some of the most unique visuals, coming out of the same vein as the more fever-dreamed elements of the Madoka Magica series. For such a talented means of presenting a show, they wasted it on one with such poor writing.
The voice cast does a great job delivering their lines, even with the material they're being presented. Kawanishi gets Rei's attitude right, with a sad outlook on a life that should be promising both in the realm of professional shōgi and high school. Despite playing the older sister, Kayano's Akari is played wonderfully as the show's mother figure. As Hinata, Hanazawa takes on the role with a relatable sense of transitioning between childhood and angsty teen. Meanwhile, Kuno's Momo is the cutesy sigh of relief March Comes in Like a Lion needs on many occasion, bringing forth a dose of innocent hilarity in the way she speaks.
Composer Yukari Hashimoto (Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun, Mr. Osomatsu) balances the darker moments with Rei and the warmth of the Hashimoto sisters with a score that helps to emphasize the beauty, the grim, and even the cutesy moments that life has to offer. Performing both the opener "Answer" and closer "Fighter," Bump of Chicken deliver two strong songs that showcase why they one of the best Japanese rock bands out there. Filled with hope and perseverance, both tracks will give any listener the power to life their head and seize whatever life deals their way.
Sadly, as much as I love Umino, SHAFT, and Bump of Chicken, I cannot in good conscience recommend March Comes in Like a Lion. Despite its beautiful animation, strong voice acting, and fantastic soundtrack, its weak story and protagonist make it all the more difficult to look beyond its faults. Out of all the shows I've been watching this season, I never expected to find myself dropping a series with such high promise like March Comes in Like a Lion.
But there I go, deleting it from my queue and forever walking away from the messy, albeit beautiful, train wreck that I bore witness to.
March Comes in Like a Lion can be viewed on Crunchyroll and Daisuki. Episodes 1-7 were observed for this review. March Comes in Like a Lion has been licensed by Aniplex of America. Promotional consideration provided by Crunchyroll.