3-gatsu no Lion, also known as March Comes in Like a Lion, is a show which fluctuates in quality. While it’s usually very good, it often falls back to its fundamentals, delivering an episode which is more mediocre than anything. That said, it delivers frequently enough and with enough strength that it’s managed to become one of my favorite shows this year even with some hiccups.
Earlier in the year, we got the excellent Shimada arc, an arc which truly and permanently cemented the series as “great” in my eyes. The Shimada arc was interesting because while it did add depth to Rei, making it more and more clear that he does have a fondness for shogi, it centered primarily on a separate character. The arc reached its highest points when it was focusing on Shimada himself, especially the parts surrounding his hometown and how he wanted to bring it validation by getting far enough to play there. His ultimate inability to do so was crushing and it showed the power that this series possesses beyond a focus on Rei’s depression.
The start of the 2nd season was quite a bit weaker compared to those arcs. Initially, this had me a bit worried; with a half-year gap, I was left wondering if the show was really as good as I had remembered. Fortunately, that was just a result of somewhat weaker material that the anime had to adapt in order to get to the current point, a point which easily rivals and probably exceeds the peaks of the 1st season.
I am of course talking about the Hina arc. The whole arc has been amazing so far, but one episode stands out as my favorite episode in all of anime this year: episode 26, or, episode 4 of the 2nd season.
A bit of backstory is necessary before I dive into the episode itself, both in regards to the show’s content and in regards to the show’s production.
In the previous episode, the show returned to Rei’s past, focusing on the way he pursued isolation and invisibility in order to avoid bullying. This was all encapsulated by the ladybug bush motif, as he frequently hid behind ladybug bushes during lunch in order to avoid standing out. This is obviously a very sad thing and Rei’s feelings on it are clearly mixed. He thinks it was probably the best he could’ve done to escape the bullying but that doesn’t make it any less sad. His home life was hardly that much better, so it’s easy to see why he made himself invisible rather than standing out and getting bullied, but it’s hard not to wish better for him and to some degree, he clearly wishes he had chosen a different path. This is the setup that we need for this episode.
In regards to the production, well, it was excellent. A combination of lucky scheduling and a clear knowledge that this episode was important led to a credits list better than anything a SHAFT TV show has seen in years, full of excellent animators and good storyboards. Getting all these people together for this episode, in particular, was the right decision. Now let’s get into why that is.
The episode begins with Hina walking, but it never shows her face in full. The shots here make it clear that she’s upset, from the way they look down on her to the way the darkness of night is portrayed. The show only first shows her face when the other characters can see it as well, putting the viewer on equal standing with the cast. At this point, we stop getting clear shots of the home itself. The Kawamoto home in 3-gatsu is generally used to represent the warmth and healing power of family, something which disappears when Hina comes in, visibly upset.
After the OP we return to the Kawamoto home, but once again the warmth is gone. Shots are constrained, showing as little of the house’s warm light as possible. With this, we transition into the story itself. While it is Hina’s story, it’s narrated by Rei. This once again puts us on an equal level with the characters. Hina knows what happened, so if she were to narrate it would come across as her telling a tale to the audience. When Rei narrates, it comes off as him learning at the same time that we do, as the information on Hina’s life is new to the both of us. This is actually pretty important because while Rei has known Hina for quite a while, he hasn’t actually known that much about her personal life outside the home.
The initial shots of Chiho being bullied are fairly generic and not particularly interesting, though good storyboarding helps them pull through. Particularly noteworthy here is the image of the fluorescent cherry blossom tree which cuts to the monotone school. This shot is fairly clear, but it’s effective. The ideal of a new school year quickly cuts to the reality, a time of entrance exams, bullying, and general anxiety towards everything.
Good storyboarding comes through once again as Chiho and Hina are shown isolated from other students by the bully group. As I said, this isn’t the most original portrayal of bullying but strong cinematography more than makes up for that, really selling Chiho’s solitude and Hina’s willingness to dive into that solitude for Chiho’s sake. Like Rei, we don’t know that much about Hina’s life at this point but we do know that she’s a deeply kind young woman, so it’s not hard to believe that she’d do this for a friend.
It’s also important to note that, while the victim here, Chiho has absorbed a harmful ideology herself. She believes that doing anything to prevent bullying will only make it escalate. While that’s true to some degree, doing nothing allows it to escalate as well, which we see in the scenes that immediately follow. However, while it’s clear that the bullying is being done and who the bullies are, we don’t ever see their faces while the acts occur. This further cements the idea that people are just looking the other way, allowing these girls to do as they please.
As Hina confronts her teachers and peers, the school is bathed in red light. Hina is angry that everyone is ignoring the bullying that forced Chiho to start skipping school, something which is reflected in the environment. The idea that bullying is enabled by passiveness is not a new one, but it is a very true concept and the staff puts great effort into making it come across as both realistic and impactful.
The next cut is absolutely outstanding. This episode really nails the way people actually run when they’re trying to get somewhere in a hurry. Hina’s movements are frantic, imprecise, and ugly, but that’s how normal people run. The shaky cam effect only makes this that much stronger. As she leaves the school building itself, the art shifts to the point that it looks as if it was drawn with crayon. This emphasizes the warmth in Chiho and Hina’s connection, as well as the friendship they’ve shared since childhood. For the first time in this episode, we see warm and kind colors, but unlike the usual Kawamoto home, they bring a sad nostalgia rather than a familial warmth.
The following scene gives Hina and the bullies lots of close-ups. While it’s clear that Hina is angry, based on our previous knowledge of her, we have no reason to believe she would respond violently. The close-ups only make this moment more surprising, since we as viewers aren’t primed for the sudden movement. This also makes it clear that, unlike Chiho, Hina won’t just accept bullying; she’s willing to fight back if necessary. This makes her a target as well, of course, something which upsets her, though she was prepared for it.
We return to the present at the Kawamoto home, but once again its warm light is hidden as much as possible. Even now, with Hina being the target of bullying herself, she has endless feelings of compassion for Chiho. Hina is clearly more worried about Chiho than herself and she regrets that she wasn’t able to save her.
Our first clear shot of the whole living room ends with Hina running away. Once again, the symbolism is clear: the home’s warmth isn’t healing right now and is, in fact, making things worse, forcing Hina to run out of the house into the dark of night. Unlike in the first season, Rei immediately follows her, without prompting from anyone else.
Once again, we get an excellent scene of running animation. The dark tones of night make their emotions clear and the running is even more frantic than it was in the past. Great attention is put into making the running as realistic as possible. Look at the way they slow down slightly as they move up and down or the way that Rei grabs the handrail when he turns to run down the stairs. The running is ugly and full of stumbles that ultimately result in Hina falling down. The staff could have used generic run cycles here, but they made the smart choice not to, making the pain of the situation that much stronger.
We see a wide shot of Hina and Rei with the city in the background. While it’s full of light along the shore, it doesn’t actually light up our two characters. The two are alone and able to help one another but neither has been healed yet. The shot of Hina’s classmates once again refuses to show their full faces, further emphasizing how their refusal to look at the bullying contributed to this nasty situation.
The way Hina’s written here is fantastic. She’s clearly afraid of being bullied herself, but that doesn’t erase the fact that she’s happy to have done what she did. Even if it didn’t work out, even if she’s going to suffer herself, it was worth it to stand up and do the most she could for Chiho in the time that she had. Hina comes across as strong in a realistic way. Anyone would be scared in her position, but her ability to defend Chiho anyway is what makes her an amazing character. The animation of her crying and screaming is once again excellent acting which elevates the scene above what it would’ve been in an ordinary anime.
It’s when Hina says that she doesn’t regret her actions that the lights which have been in the background the whole time finally bring light to the scene, as Hina’s declaration is able to give Rei strength. The imagery of Hina helping up young Rei shows how her courage is helping him to realize what he’s been doing wrong ever since childhood and it parallels his helping her in the present.
Now that we actually know Hina’s perspective and aren’t just learning about her life, we’re able to switch into her perspective. Rei is quite aware that she needs somewhere to relax away from both home and school, something he needed so often as a child. A library is a great place, as it’s full of warm light and reminds Hina of her childhood. There’s sadness mixed with that of course, as she’s upset to see how things have changed for the worse since elementary school, but it’s ultimately a healing experience.
Rei brings Hina to a ladybug bush, further connecting their experiences with isolation and loneliness. The story of how ladybugs were once seen as connecting to heaven is beautiful, giving Hina the space she needs for a cathartic emotional reaction.
We shift back to Rei and immediately are greeted with another amazing cut. His pure agony is clearly demonstrated by the animation in this scene, with rough lines that lead to an ugly look, making his sympathy for Hina all the more real. His feelings of wanting to kill the people who hurt her feel genuine; we might not be prone to admit it, but at times we all feel that brief desire to hurt others. It’s not the same thing as a serious desire, just a fleeting feeling that we easily dismiss, but in situations like this, it would be a hard feeling to avoid. Rei’s ability to just put that past him and look for real solutions shows how much he’s grown since the series began.
This time when we return home, the usual warmth has come back. The show uses its framing to set up the idea that Someji is going to confront Hina and lambast her for her actions. He’s shown in a menacing pose, and she’s clearly uncomfortable and stiff, with her head looking downwards. The show immediately reverses that though, having him praise her for her actions. What Hina needs right now is not a lecture but validation and her family is able to give her that.
The final scene is absolutely wonderful. The animation here is less flashy than in the rest of the episode but it’s outstanding character acting that I usually don’t expect to see outside of KyoAni anime. The warmth of the home has fully returned, with food and family serving a healing function. Rei shows none of the awkwardness he would have at the beginning of the series; he’s a true member of the family now.
This is an absurdly good episode of anime. 3-gatsu might not be my favorite show of the year — though it is up there — but this is easily my favorite episode of anime this year. If you submitted it to a short film festival, I feel like it could win. The excellent production came together with some of the show’s best writing, resulting in an episode which is amazing standalone and even better in context. The entire arc it’s a part of has been amazing so far, but this episode alone got me to bump the 2nd season up from a 7 to a 9. SHAFT probably won’t be able to make another episode this good for years, but I’m happy they managed to make this in the first place.
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