I was led to believe this was a story about a young shogi player fighting thru the ranks. Well, it sort of was but it took so many turns along the way involving other characters that it almost wasn’t.
Modest spoilers ahead.
Let’s start with a bitter and depressed young boy with serious talent in shogi, Rei Kiriyama.
His entire family was killed by a drunk truck driver. Nobody wanted to take him in except for a shogi player friend of his father’s, Masachika Kyouda. Soon he grows into a prodigy and his foster father neglects his biological children’s emotional needs to nurture his skills.
He is ostracized by his classmates for being strange. Nobody would sit next to him on the bus. He feared that he would never see anyone sitting next to him for his entire life.
This is not a stable nor healthy situation. His foster brother and sister despise him for being the cuckoo’s egg and he is flooded with guilt. The boy becomes a professional in middle school, one of only 5 middle school players to go pro in history. The most recent before him is now the reigning Meiji or top player of shogi. He leaves home to live on his own because of all the stress he is causing the biological children. We meet him just before he turns 18.
Being a professional anything as such an early age should automatically classify one as “cool” in some way, let alone being the best of his age category. He does not take advantage. He prefers to be obscure.
Rei has many of the traits of high functioning autism. He is isolated and teased and grows up alone at school. Only in the shogi hall does he develop friends. A boy named Harunobu Nikaidou has declared himself to be Rei’s best friend and rival. They met during a children’s tournament under sweltering conditions. Nikaidou persisted to the end of the game despite having serious medical issues which will follow him all his life. He slowly works his way into Rei’s life and makes it true.
Rei is rescued from a bad situation by Akari Kawamoto, eldest of 3 sisters living with their grandfather. Hinata is in middle school and Momo is in kindergarten. He was an underaged drunk abandoned by his drinking buddies and left collapsed on the sidewalk outside a bar.
Akari discovers him, almost literally in the gutter, takes him home and treats him like a new sibling. Her mother and grandmother are dead and her father ran away with another woman. Her grandfather Someji Kawamoto runs a traditional Japanese sweets shop, The Crescent Moon, where the sisters help out. Akira also works part-time as a cocktail hostess for her aunt. Rei gets a standing invitation to visit any time he wants. The guilt and anger run deep and he is almost unable to accept their honest goodness.
And Akari… Her charms are indisputable. A little older than he but with a lovely face, a curvaceous figure, a helluva cook and a nurturing personality. Hinata is a bit too young for any romantic interest – for now. But you know he’ll love all three Kawamoto sisters. They are the loving sisters he never had – except the one who died in the accident.
Enter his older sister, Kyouko Kouda. She is now a beautiful young woman of some sophistication, “as beautiful as a demon”. A bitter young woman who is having an affair with an older married man, an A-ranked shogi player with a comatose wife, Masamune Gotou. He sees that its wrong and tries to intervene only to get beaten up. The older man is tough and brutal. He’s even cruel to Kyouko, who he calls his “female stalker”. He also hates their father.
The foster sister is deliberately teasing our hero with her body while hurting him with her words. Casually flinging her clothes off to put on one of his t-shirts to sleep in. Climbing onto him seductively while telling him how he destroyed her happy family. Trying to sabotage his next shogi match with tales of the hardships it will cause his opponents.
Yet she knows things could have been much better between them. There is real affection she is resistant to show and share. She alternates between affection and harsh sarcasm and rhetoric.
Rei is returning to school after an absence of a year to focus on shogi so he is a year
behind everyone else. His life in school had been harsh. He hadn’t really been bullied a lot but rather ignored and isolated. His return was sparked by a desire not to have memories of having run away. Takashi Hayashida is his home room teacher, a very supportive person and kind of a mentor on life.
There is always shogi in the background. There are always matches to be won and occasionally lost. Rei gains a shogi mentor, Kai Shimada after they play each other in the Lion King Tournament. Shimada also holds a shogi work-group that includes Nikaidou. But wait… Shimada has health problems. He’s only in his 30s but looks much older. His stomach is in perpetually bad shape, sometimes leaving him in agony.
The we take a left turn into the problem of bullying at school. One girl, Chiho, is driven
out by it and now has to attend a special school for the emotionally injured. The only person to befriend her was Hinata, who becomes the new target. Rei tries to support her but feels there was nothing he could do. It gets ugly.
Then there is the master, the Meijin of all shogi, Touji Souya. He is the same age as Shimada, but doesn’t look like he has aged at all over the last decade. He gained the title at the astonishing age of 22 and appears close to unbeatable. He is the last middle-schooler to have turned pro
before Rei. The shogi league thought it would make for good publicity so they set up a commemorative game between Rei and the Meijin. Souya is very blonde while Rei has black hair but aside from that they look a lot alike. He has his own physical problem they keep quiet.
Sakutarōu Yanagihara is the oldest active A-ranked player. Looking older than his 66, he doesn’t look like he has the physical stamina to play. Yet he held the title for the Kishou tournament for 9 straight years. One more win and he will gain the title of “Eternal Kishou”. But he has his own burden to bear. Aside from his own failing body, he is literally alone in the shogi field. Everyone his age has retired.
His friends outside the shogi world are scared. They fear becoming irrelevant. They fear having nothing to contribute. They fear becoming parasitic. Some are forced into retirement against their will. For a country that supposedly values age and maturity, this does not look like a good place to grow old. Yanagihara carries their hopes and fears as an additional burden. If only he could win, maybe he can be a beacon for them, evidence that older people are still relevant.
“‘Life is nothing but goodbyes.’ I know I’m going to lose them one by one. From shogi and from life. But I remember. There were a lot of people I liked, and people I disliked. There’s no mistake. Who I am now is made up of all those fragments.”
But then his opponent is Shimada, himself filled with determination to get his first
tournament win for the sake of his hometown where he grew up as an agricultural laborer in an extremely remote and poor village. The town rallied together over his shogi talent as a child and got him into a twice-weekly shogi school. He would repay them by bringing a title home, whatever it takes.
3-Gatsu no Lion, aka Sangatsu no Raion. The city where it takes place is Tokyo and the local area is referred to in the anime as “March town”. You can see the word Sangatsu in several signs along the way. The people who grow up there are the Children of March Town. (Chapter 89 : “The Children of Sangatsu Town”, manga by Chika Umino.) Here is an interesting article on the real life setting for the anime, comparing the locations as seen with the locations in real life.
I said earlier I thought it was about a boy fighting his way up the ranks of shogi players. That’s but a small part of the whole. There are several major arcs that have Rei as a peripheral character. We are given complex visions of the lives of the people who are important to him.
This is one of those rare anime where age plays an important role. Rei’s foster parents
have grown old. The grandfather supporting the sisters is old. Yanagihara literally carries the banner for the old and discarded and an entire arc is devoted just to him. The head of the shogi association is old. Shimada’s supporters back home are an entire community of old people.
Huge swaths are dedicated to the sisters, entirely apart from Rei. He is rescued by Akari. She is an outstanding cook and at times the anime turns into food porn. She and Hinata help in the family business, a traditional Japanese confectionery. They make offerings at their household shrine to the mother and grandmother who have passed away. We see Hinata’s brave fight against bullying and her crush on Takahashi, a very tall middle school boy with his own dreams of professional baseball.
If you took out all the scenes where Rei is a marginal character or not present at all, you’d have one season’s worth of shows left. And it is interesting stuff; an unusually large number of important characters and some serious development of secondary characters.
I see a lot of sexual tension here. The boy grows from 17 to 18 here and ought to be a cauldron of boiling hormones. Rei’s foster sister Kyouko’s behavior is an incestuous tease. She wants love of some kind from someone – but she has developed a harsh and prickly exterior as a defensive mechanism. While he knows her words are poison, he can’t stop wanting to hear them.
Rei also cannot help but see the voluptuous and lovely Akari as extremely desirable and she isn’t out of reach if he plays a long game. (Her exact age is 19, 21 or 23 depending on who you believe.) The much younger and innocent Hinata (15?) has him spellbound in a way that blurs the line between brotherly and romantic.
The anime left me frustrated about this.It only covered half the manga. Too many loose ends not tied up.
I admit that the first time I tried to watch this, I quit. After 5 episodes the unrelenting glumness of it all had me. Second time around I persevered. With all the great reviews it was getting, I must have missed something, so I stuck it out ’till episode 8. That’s when Kyouko sweeps into his apartment and his bed. She changes everything. It isn’t just a sad story
about a boy who loses everything, copes, and grows up. It became interesting and dynamic.
One thing every important character has is a burden to bear. Whether it is a peptic ulcer, a medical condition that saps vitality, old age, deafness, bullying or social isolation, each one bears their burden and refuses to let it stop them from their goals. Perseverance in the face of obstacles is the lesson here.
My final analysis is that there was really very little about Rei’s growth as a shogi player. He played a lot of games but most were given short shrift. The commentary about a cheery rook here and a gold general there was lost on me. (I might have had a slight understanding of the position if it had been chess but shogi? Nope.) Forty episodes later he gets his first promotion in rank.
The show was about his development as a person. From a dour and miserable boy on his own to an optimist, just beginning to feel that at long last there are people willing to sit beside him on the road of life. It is a magnificent anime even if it did get maudlin sometimes.
Too damn bad they didn’t do two more seasons. Tie up those loose strings. But who knows what the future may hold? Popular anime have a way of coming back after a time.