March comes in like a lion

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March comes in like a lion (3月のライオン, 3-gatsu no Lion, San-gatsu no Lion, lit. “March Lion”/”Lion of March”) is an award-winning shogi and relationships (mainly concerning family) manga by Umino Chica (羽海野チカ), who’s definitely best known for being the mangaka of Honey and Clover. As for this series, it’s very good, but I hope I don’t upset anyone by saying it’s not one of my favorites.

March comes in like a lion (henceforth “3-gatsu“) is really unique, really varied, and quite well done. It’s a melancholic series that is hopeful, but it’s very struggling hope with distant rewards. Sometimes I think of it as “3-gatsu no Lion: Everyone’s Life is Sad, Except Those Two“. Not tragic, mind you, but sad yes. I’ll explain that more in the review proper, but only the main characters really have particularly miserable pasts. Anyway, one big reason I can’t call this series a favorite of mine is that it’s thoroughly a shogi (a Japanese chess-like strategy board game) manga. I don’t dislike shogi, but I don’t like it either, and more importantly it’s quite the confusing game since the only way to tell the pieces apart is by the words written on them (in a language I’m not that good with!). Even if you can tell the pieces apart, and understand the rules, shogi is a game that takes a certain skill level to even appreciate (a lot of emphasis is placed on understanding the board as a whole; like you should be able to tell what sort of a game is going on and what pieces are in play just from looking at a board between turns). Umino-sensei does a lot to at least convey the players’ love of the game, the tension of matches, and to explain what makes plays interesting and such, but I dunno, maybe I’m just dull of mind but pretty much none of it stuck. And again, that is a LOT of this manga. While we don’t get games 100% first to last (that would be ridiculous, as many end after over a hundred moves), we still get a lot of games, and pages with move notations, and explanations of moves, and none of it stuck for me. Not to say I think that’s a flaw of the manga, but it sure did prevent me from liking this as much as I potentially could have. Among other things!

Starting off critically against a critically acclaimed manga? This should be good. Don’t worry, even with my criticisms, I still think this manga is very much worth the read.

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Kiriyama Rei seems to be a quiet, introverted, gloomy boy of 17 years in age who is very inside his own head.

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Most of chapter 1 shows his daily life. He wakes up in his small and mostly empty apartment surrounded by study materials, he goes out to a shogi hall, he plays, he remembers, and he does just about nothing else until he receives a message on his phone.

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The messages are from members of the Kawamoto family, the other major characters in the series. For some reason, they’re taking care of and paying attention to Kiriyama, whether he truly wants that or not. Regardless, he gets tied up with them if they really push for it, and in this first chapter he does as one of the member’s requests.

The Kawamoto sisters are Hinata (Hina, the middle child), Akari (the oldest), and Momo (the youngest). With their introduction comes another big component of 3-gatsu: rapid, zany, lighthearted humor standing in stark contrast to the previous dour and empty-feeling atmosphere. I’ll talk more about that later, for now it’s important to note that while the Kawamotos have a grandfather who’s alive and about, they do not have parents or seemingly any other relatives aside from an aunt who helps however she can. Their mother and grandmother are dead, a father isn’t mentioned, and that’s about that. They seem incredibly happy, but if you detect “that doesn’t seem easy or happy at all” — correct! Well not entirely, it’s definitely more happy than you’d expect, but this starts the trend of “everyone ‘s life is sad”. Like, the older sister taking care of everyone? Don’t be misled into thinking she’s significantly older. She’s only 21.

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Rei ends up staying the night and crying in his sleep after thinking about how he beat his father earlier in a shogi match. Shortly thereafter, it’s revealed that he is a very young shogi pro, and later we learn that he’s one of the incredibly few players in history to have become a pro while still in middle school. Two huge feats, considering there are only about 160 professional shogi players in all of Japan. And no, he’s not the super best best at shogi, though he’s really quite a good player.

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Many cover pages for chapters of 3-gatsu feature Rei, Hina, Momo, and later a fourth character, on a day out.

Volume 1 is entirely about building up necessary information and keying the reader in on character relationships. We learn a whole lot and I’m not going to talk about every little thing. Particularly important things we learn are:

  1. The reason Kiriyama is so connected with the Kawamotos is that Akari has a habit of taking care of others, usually animals, and one day she found Rei out on the street after having been forced to drink by other shogi professionals who just left him there.
  2. Kiriyama is adopted, and his blood family members have died.
  3. His foster family, father aside, seems to not like him at all and even his relationship with his father is weird since it seems to depend on Kiriyama’s prowess at shogi. Frankly, there’s a huge amount you can talk about with this, since it and the tragedy of his family are central and core to Kiriyama’s character and personality.

We also meet a lot of important side characters. For example, after learning that for SOME REASON Kiriyama actually still goes to high school despite already having a job, we meet a teacher of his, Hayashida Takashi, who’s really concerned with him (having known about him when he enrolled due to being a fan of shogi). Hayashida is basically Kiriyama’s only relationship at school, and I like him a lot. Another example would be Nikaido Harunobu, Kiriyama’s self-proclaimed best friend and rival.

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He’s rich and fat.

But remember, his life is sad too. They’re all sad. I won’t tell you how of course.

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I’ll be honest, it took a long time for me to get genuinely interested in 3-gatsu. It’s a very, very slow manga and how it was “usually” wasn’t really grabbing me. Rei’s introspection wasn’t doing much for me, when we got shogi matches it was almost nonsense to me, and frankly I didn’t really care for the zany style of humor that was present. Now, 2/3 of those problems I had are no longer problems for me. Eventually you know the characters so well that humor involving them really works, and the same can be said of Rei’s introspective moments. Still, until volume 5 (which, considering how long these chapters can be, is quite a ways in)  I was only sort of interested in Rei’s relationship with his adoptive sister, Kyoko.

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Not that this is anything close to a major aspect of the series, in fact it has been dropped and out of focus for most of the series, but it seemed strange and was directly connected to Rei’s issues with being social, so I wanted to see what the deal was. Everything else? I honestly didn’t really care that much. I thought Rei’s situation was uniquely tragic, and I didn’t dislike anything, but I wasn’t exactly paging through this eagerly. I liked this “Shimada” character who showed up fairly early on and demonstrated how immature Rei has been through beating him at a game of shogi, but I was not enraptured or anything by any aspect of this series until volume 5.

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By the time volume 5 rolls around we’ve started getting more insight into other characters so that they’re not all just incredibly silly characters that happen to orbit Rei, who is moody. Most importantly, a character who I never expected to have a “sad” side gets one: Hinata.

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Volume 5 introduces a bullying arc to the manga that lasts a while and is never actually “resolved”. Eventually the situation for Hina improves, but technically speaking the arc essentially ruins another child’s life and the ringleader of the bullying… Well, you’ll probably not be satisfied with their fate. Since 3-gatsu is realistic I hope you don’t take me saying “bullying sucks and there’s nothing good about it” to be a spoiler. Nevertheless, the arc is just really, really gripping. You learn a lot about many characters along the way, Rei grows a HUGE amount as a person, relationships change, and as I said since the situation isn’t truly “resolved” the ramifications of the arc never actually go away. This is the first true and proper introduction of drama into the series and it’s incredibly, super good. It shows off bad sides to previously completely good characters, better sides to characters I didn’t think too much about (Hina is AMAZING during this arc), it offers a levelheaded response to the issue of bullying, and again despite the “happy” ending bad things happened and nothing will change that. It’s not the end of troubles in the series, either, and people still have room to grow. It’s very excellent. It was at this point in the series that I knew I liked 3-gatsu. Just not…all of it, exactly.

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Regularly, Hina takes the role of “protagonist”. Other characters take lead perspective as well, but most often it’s Hina. And side note, though it’s not the case here I think, “Hinata” is usually also written with the kanji for “sun”.

Basically, I came away from the 12 volumes currently out of 3-gatsu thinking it was really good, but wishing I understood shogi better. Since it’s the protagonist’s profession and obsession, shogi is the focal point of practically everything in this series, including the Kawamotos in a sense since Rei essentially becomes a new member of the family far before the series concludes (it’s 2017 as of this writing, and the manga is not yet over nor does it exactly feel close to ending). To be honest, I actually appreciate the way shogi works with the rest of this series but…

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Hmm…yes… What?

Yes you do get a very fun explanation of the rules of shogi fairly early on, yes the volume releases of the series come with HUGE essays by a shogi player explaining concepts and strategies and player behavior, yes visual metaphors and thoughts help a lot to understand the emotion behind a game, but I’m just always lost and have to take the characters’ word for how games are going, and just wait to see who concedes and who wins (typically, players concede defeat rather than waiting to be put into checkmate, since a proper professional shogi player should be able to see far enough ahead in a game to determine whether or not this is their loss). I do enjoy how excited players get in this series, and how ridiculous they can be, and I like that characters who don’t know jack about shogi are just like “yeah, I don’t get this at all”. I like that there are no 100% evil players that must be defeated, and how you tend to learn more about a character a fair while after they’ve been introduced so that you get a new perspective. I really like how the game is often what reveals Kiriyama’s immaturity and helps him grow as a person. Seriously speaking, this manga does not work without the shogi, but I still don’t actually enjoy the vast majority of the games and study sessions.

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So basically, 3-gatsu no Lion is brimming with excellent things, and most if not all of those things are connected by shogi, which I have no actual interest in. There’s some amazing stuff in this series. The cast is huge and their problems are all over the place and seem totally legitimate (health issues, getting old, feeling responsible, saying the wrong things, getting full of yourself without realizing it, dreams, money, bullying fallout…). Kiriyama grows so, so much and yet as of the latest chapter he’s still a charming little weirdo because change doesn’t come easily. It goes in odd directions. There’s a romance angle that is just completely unusual (it hits like a brick, makes sense, still flips your expectations again, and everyone in the cast is like “oh, that’s so like you Kiriyama”). This manga made me cry TWICE (I was in public for one of the two, too!). And yet, this shogi thing drags it away from holding a golden place in my heart.

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I hope that I was able to convey my thoughts on this manga clearly, and explained well enough why people might read it. My issue with the shogi may not be everybody’s issue. There’s a lot put into the manga to explain happenings, such that it’s clear the shogi matches aren’t just nonsense shounen-manga like things. Characters get haggard from playing since it’s mentally taxing and time-consuming. Players travel around a lot. Players are weird. Strategy is gone over, all of that…so if you like shogi or strategy board games, maybe this manga will be all of what you’re about. If you’re like me, then you can still greatly enjoy this series; I just think it’s a shame I am definitely enjoying this less than I could. Highly recommended in any case.

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And so, there is my 3-gatsu review that I took so long to articulate (I’m TWO WHOLE DAYS late!). Good manga, but personal bias could get in your way from feeling just how good it is. If you wish, you may purchase March comes in like a lion from CDJapan, bookwalker (guide), honto (guide), or ebookjapan. Please do!

Now then. I leave for Japan and hope this isn’t the last thing I review once my new job starts! Thanks for reading. Buh bye.

4 thoughts on “March comes in like a lion

  1. I know what you mean about that. I didn’t understand shogi at all. Not even an ounce of those supposedly smart or sharp move or whatever. But I enjoy their dramatic expression 😅
    I cried for few times when I read this, and honestly the reason I read 3-gatsu no lion because my little brother coaxed me with ‘you will crying reading this one’.

  2. Purple Library Guy says:

    I don’t understand the shogi either, but for some reason that doesn’t bother me. I find that I enjoy the shogi stuff on an . . . abstract level? It helps that, how to put it . . . I don’t understand shogi in specific, but I’m nerdy in general and I like the IDEA of shogi, so I kind of dig all the stuff about the shogi world and the basic idea that Rei makes a living being a professional nerd. With that affinity I find that, even with the games themselves, I can relax into the well-crafted illusion that I have some idea what’s going on, even though I really don’t. It resonates for me in a way that a sports manga, say, generally wouldn’t.

    I loved the part where the bad dad shows up and Rei totally demolishes him.

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