Summary: Rei Kiriyama is a Shogi prodigy at the age of 17 – though after the loss of his whole family, he is left feeling lost and alone. As he struggles to find meaning in life and in Shogi, he finds comfort and purpose in the calming arms of the Kawamoto sisters and his fellow tabletop warriors.
I don’t know the first thing about Shogi. From what I understand it’s like Japanese chess, with similar pieces that move in similar ways. You could just as easily pick up a book or learn about the tabletop sport online – but you won’t need to for Sangatsu no Lion to pull you in completely.
The show follows Rei Kiriyama, a Shogi prodigy, a professional at the age of seventeen. On the surface he’s a quiet, contemplative young man and a genius at the board though perennially absent from school. In truth, however, he’s deeply troubled, scraping through each day after the loss of his family left him entirely alone.
This is where the show finds us on its first episode. Throughout the series we watch as Rei grows as a person, and really, there was no greater joy than seeing him do just that. As he struggles to find meaning in this tabletop sport he’s dedicated his whole life to, he unravels, slowly, and in the best of ways, opening up bit by bit to the warm and wonderful cast that surrounds him.
At the center of this show is its characters. Each and every single character is realized with care and compassion, given troubles and motivations that are as weighty as the crash of a tidal wave. Stalwart Nikaidou pulls out all the stops to make a worthy rival out of best friend Rei. Steady Shimada is a force of nature across the board as he fights desperately to thank the elders of his hometown whom he owes his whole career to, struggling alongside Rei and Nikaidou and many others who aspire to ascend to the blistering heights occupied by quiet Souya 1-Dan, Godlike at the top of the Shogi world. And with each and every step Rei takes, the Kawamoto sisters are at his side, a surrogate family who finds love and companionship in the lonely Shogi prodigy as they struggle with their own feelings of grief.
Studio SHAFT’s animation style is at its absolute best in Sangatsu. SHAFT’s signature, manic art style is a hit or miss, working well in narrative-driven shows like the legendary Monogatari Series and falling flat and nonsensical in more plain, straightforward slice-of-life anime like Nisekoi. In Sangatsu, though, their spit-fire, rapid-cut, jarring art direction does well to tease out the emotions bubbling just beneath the surface of these beautiful characters. A key motif here is water; in everyday scenes, random, loud close-up cutaways to Rei drinking from a green tea bottle allude to his inner turmoil, while a certain story arc sees him drowning in depression, literally submerged under a film of water that cuts just above his bed. A pivotal Shogi match against Master Shimada sees Rei buffeted by a maelstrom, crashing waves of water and kanji characters overwhelming him as his opponents’ own desire to win crushes his own half-hearted motivations. There are many emotions at play in Sangatsu no Lion, and SHAFT’s animation style lets them all reach us in spectacular fashion.
There are a couple of moments throughout the twenty-two episode runtime where Sangatsu no Lion rolls a little off course. SHAFT does as SHAFT does, lingering long on rather irrelevant moments (though perhaps the source material is to blame for that). These moments are never to the detriment of the show, however, offering brief breathers in a show that smothers viewers in thick, sobbing emotion.
I’m the kind of person who has a hard time binging shows. I like pacing myself. I watch an episode a day, but I couldn’t do that with Sangatsu no Lion. I was drawn in every episode, pulled by the heartstrings by Rei and his loved ones until I was cheering them on from behind my screen, desperate as they were to arrive at their goals and find happiness.
(+) Beautiful animation accompanies a stellar cast
(+) The emotional journey of Rei and his friends is made incredibly palpable
(-) There are times when the show runs on a tangent – though never to the detriment of the main story