[Script]3-gatsu no Lion is Beautifully Painful

I just finished rewatching the first episode of March Comes in Like a Lion and it would be hard to describe the experience as anything other than pure torture. Rewatching anime is something that comes naturally to me, or at least that’s been the case for the past few years. It helps me to confirm that my feelings on a show are lasting, not an example of how hype can blind me in the moment. It allows me to relive a series I’ve come to love, which is always a good use of my time. And it helps confirm my opinions, allowing me to understand a work more deeply, something which is often vital to my ability to write about a piece of media. As I’ve said before, I don’t truly consider a series a 10 unless I’ve watched it at least twice.

So, given the fact that I rated the second season of 3-gatsu a 10, it only seemed natural for me to attempt another watch. And certainly, seeing the premiere again did prove that my feelings were more than a mere fluke. The show is magnificent and having seen what happens in the long run, this opening segment was only better. But it was also unbearable to watch the characters in this early state, putting the show in a unique position for me.

Obviously, rewatching a show entails seeing the characters go through their various arcs again, reliving their hardships and suffering. Shinji’s mental state will continue to decline every time I watch Eva. Aoi will always struggle to accomplish her job and discover what it is she truly wants out of working in the anime industry. Alice will always have a hard time opening up to others and communicating at the start. That’s normal and it’s something I’ve naturally come to accept. I enjoy seeing the characters struggle like this because I know they’ll come out of it on the other end as happier people, or at least as people in a better place.

So what is it that makes 3-gatsu different? On first glance, there’s no reason to assume it would be. Yeah, seeing Rei deal with his depression isn’t easy but it shouldn’t be as painful as I found it. I know that the arc of the series will eventually leave him better off, with his life in a different place, much as with all the characters I just mentioned, so what makes it unique in this regard?

Well, I think it comes down to what makes the show stand out in general, the reason so many people have become enamored with it in the brief two years since it began airing. 3-gatsu is a show which is incredibly true-to-life, exploring every facet of its characters, even ones you’d never expect a normal drama to spend time on. Everyone has understandable motivations, rich internal lives. It’s not a show where Rei as the protagonist serves as a cipher for us, and like us, is only able to know what motivates his own actions. The storytelling is remarkably omniscient and because of that, it’s incredibly empathetic. Lachlan really got to the heart of what I mean by this in her recent video on it so check that out if you haven’t. Simply put, 3-gatsu is a drama, yes, but it extends beyond the usual reach of anime drama, coming across as so real that it’s almost impossible to avoid becoming deeply invested in if you’re the sort of person who’s primed to care at all.

Which is what makes it so hard to actually revisit. Because, perhaps more than any other anime I’ve ever watched, the characters in this show feel like people. Imagine that there are multiple layers between me and an anime. Well-written shows like Evangelion, Rakugo, or Sora no Woto will have fewer layers between me and the work than a lesser series would, allowing me to emotionally connect to the characters and events more deeply. Something I truly love like Penguindrum or Shirobako may have only 2 or 3 layers between me and the work. The better the show, the less the characters feel abstracted and the more they feel like people. 3-gatsu basically only has 1 layer, it’s that close to reality in its portrayal of the characters and their mindsets.

Which is part of why the show is so good. Characters coming across as realistic is pretty widely considered to be a positive attribute of a work and it’s consistently impressive to me that a series can make me care about so many different types of people. But it also means that seeing those people suffer is agonizing. Many, many episodes have the characters go through difficult situations, from mainstays like Hina, Shimada, and Nikaido to characters who are less prominent in the narrative but just as vital to making the work feel like its a real world, such as Yanagihara, Chiho, and Junkei. And I was able to get through that on my first time, enjoying it in a way, the same manner through which I enjoy seeing all sorts of characters go through hardships and come out on the other end, damaged but better for it.

But on the second watch, it just sucks, in the best way possible. It’s easy to forget how far the characters have come if you haven’t gone back to the start. As I’ve been saying, the series is realistic and in that, the progress is slow. But it’s also constant. And because of that, while characters rarely show massive change from episode-to-episode, there’s a remarkable shift when you go from 44 to 1.

Everything about it is difficult to sit through. By the end of season 2, Rei has begun to repair his relationship with his adopted family. He doesn’t see himself as a brood parasite anymore and is able to engage his mom in an honest, heartwarming conversation, one which shows progress remains to be made while still making it clear that this is an important moment for the both of them. Things might not be perfect with Kyouko or Ayumu yet but he’s taking steps towards fixing things, internally and in his relationships. So going back to episode 1, seeing him terrified of Kyouko’s very existence, it sucks. Seeing him compare the defeat of his father in shogi to patricide is unpleasant. I know he’ll improve from here but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to see him in that place anyways.

It almost feels like the episode was designed to be painful to rewatchers. When Rei visits the Kawamoto home, it’s a happier atmosphere than he’s used to. It’s better than his empty apartment, symbolic of his depressive state. There’s comfortability here, shown in the increased use of comedy, in the bright, warm colors and the soothing food. But there’s still this feeling of distance between him and them. By the end of the second season, Rei truly has become one of them and is considered as such by the entire family. As he supports Hina in her quest to get into Rei’s school, he’ll stay far past when he would’ve liked to at the start. They certainly let him stay the night in episode 1 but it doesn’t feel so natural. When you combine this and the estrangement from those who adopted him, it becomes clear that Rei has no real familial structure at this point. For some people, that would be fine. Many are alright on their own. Rei, however, clearly isn’t, and it hurts to see, especially in the knowledge that this has been his life for the last decade.

It just doesn’t stop. When Rei goes to school for the day, he’s forced to sit alone, not really engaged with anyone around him. Hayashida does his best to keep Rei from talking to literally no one but it’s sad that the only person he can eat lunch with is his teacher. He doesn’t have the Science-Shogi Club yet. Hina won’t be attending for a long time.

In general, Rei’s total lack of a support structure at the start is just painful. I know people who don’t have particularly strong social systems around them and it’s an awful place to be. It makes it easy to see your depression as an inherent failing on your part. Your mental state starts to become a feedback loop of despair as the lack of people around you feeds into blaming yourself for being inherently unlikeable. And that’s how Rei sees himself. After all, he’s a brood parasite, a nuisance, what value is he to anybody? This mindset is all too common and unfortunately, you can’t simply talk someone out of it. I can’t just tell my depressed friends that I care about them and hope they’ll believe me. Showing people that you love them is good of course and it’s important that the Kawamotos, Hayashida, Nikaido, and many others demonstrate that to Rei in this first episode. But of course it’s not enough for Rei to immediately snap out of his depression, nothing in the world could make that happen, it’s taken 44 episodes for him to get to the place he’s at now, I know that, why would I be surprised? Why would it hurt so badly? It shouldn’t hurt this badly.

Just looking at Rei play shogi was physically uncomfortable. The way he brought down the pieces, the utter lack of joy in his movements, in his facial expression. It really dawned on me watching it that, at the start, Rei truly does not enjoy playing the game. He may have as a kid, maybe, but even then it came across more as his way to interact with those around him. By the time he was adopted, it simply became what he had to do, the career he was bound to partake in if he was to repay his debts. Now, it’s the career he has to continue so he can eat. Not that living is something he’s particularly fond of at this stage in the story but he’s at least not suicidal, so this endless cycle of playing a game he doesn’t love will repeat ad nauseam.

But I don’t want to talk all day about how good a job 3-gatsu does at approaching Rei’s depression. Yeah, he has no place, no goal, there are already videos on that which you can and should go watch. I merely want to convey how brutal the show’s portrayal of these things are. Umino Chica, and the staff at SHAFT, truly understood what direction the show was going in because this feeling could not possibly be a mistake. It would be unfathomable to accidentally write something so poignant that rewatching a single episode makes me break down in tears a whole five times due to the sheer volume of heartbreaking situations our lead is put through.

As I said, 3-gatsu is a show which feels as if there’s only one layer between me and its characters. Because my reaction to this episode was one I feel all too often every day. When you spend all your time in online anime circles, especially in queer anime circles, a lot of your friends are going to be depressed. And when they tweet about it, talk about it on Discord, make it clear exactly how they’re feeling, I just have to sit there and watch, uncomfortable but unable to substantially do anything about it, sympathetic but unable to act. I don’t want to act as if I have it worse than these friends, I certainly don’t given that I’m not in their place, but it’s remarkably painful to see people you care about suffer without being able to help. Seeing Rei as depressed as he is in episode 1 triggered those exact same feelings, which combined with the brilliant visual and musical direction to utterly destroy me. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that this show is truly one-of-a-kind in this regards because as much as I may cry at Penguindrum or Shirobako, it doesn’t hurt nearly this bad or come across as remotely this real.

I’d love to rewatch the rest of the show at some point, of course. As painful as it was to watch this episode again it also gave me a lot to think about and only caused me to love the show more deeply. Seeing the characters grow again will be rough but rewarding and given that there’s no sign of a third season on the horizon, I’m sure I’ll want to revisit all these friends of mine once again in the near future. And once the payoff comes, it’ll be so worth it. I know the point Rei reaches and I can’t wait to return there because seeing someone I care about so much achieve some manner of happiness, of family, of self-respect, is one of the greatest feelings in the world. It was hard to come back here but I’m sure it’ll pay off.

I truly can’t think of another show I’ve watched that was similar to 3-gatsu in this respect. I don’t know that I’d call it the single-best written show of all time or anything. 3-gatsu certainly doesn’t rival something like Legend of the Galactic Heroes when it comes to political intrigue and it’s hard to definitively state what sort of writing I prefer. But the show truly excels at being an emotional work. No other series I’ve seen does a better job at fully exploring every member of the cast, at showing slow but consistent growth in its characters as people, in demonstrating how everyone has their own motivations, even when those motivations put them in opposition to each other. No other series has so consistently managed to shift my opinion on even the most minor of bit players. And no other series has ever been this painful to watch, nor this rewarding. Which is really why this show is such a masterpiece. Is it my favorite anime of all time? I can’t say that right now, not having finished rewatching it. But it’s up there. Because it’s hard to put so few layers between me and a piece of fiction and yet 3-gatsu has managed to do so anyway.

3 thoughts on “[Script]3-gatsu no Lion is Beautifully Painful

  1. After reading this I may not be able to watch this anime. My history with depression is long, painful, and sometimes desperate. It never really ends. If you are fortunate it fades to background noise but you always know it is there, waiting for a moment of weakness.

    “Happy” is a possible conclusion, not necessarily a realistic conclusion. Sometimes a story with a happy ending is sadder for a person than one with despair. For example, Kimi ni Todoke left curled up and weeping in a psychological fetal position.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a beautiful post and it really captured how I felt going back and rewatching season one of March Comes in Like a Lion. Seeing Rei back at the beginning was heart breaking but at the same time it really made me realise that despite progress feeling reasonably slow, the journey in this anime is always pushing forward. It is similar in that regard to Natsume Yuujinchou where you don’t really notice Natsume changing but then you go back to the start and you realise how far he has travelled as a character.
    Natural character progression that is almost unnoticed is such an incredible strength and something that feels more rich and genuine. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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