Weekly Motion Cannon: March Comes In Like a Lion Episode 1

Don’t miss an episode! You can watch March comes in like a lion on Crunchyroll!


josh_biggerJosh Dunham (@Josh_Dunham)

“It’s not uncommon for adaptations to deviate from the source material, but it is how Okada does so that makes it noteworthy.”

If there’s one thing that studio SHAFT knows how to do it’s how to embellish an already solid work and make it better their own. Despite the desires of many, Akiyuki Shinbo will not truly be directing but Kenjirou Okada, a new name to add to the SHAFT lexicon (for more reading on this, please revert to Jimmy’s article, Shinbo is Dead: A New Generation of Shaft). But Okada is fairly new to the scene; his biggest projects having been the shorter Monogatari projects (Hana, Tsuki, and Neko Black) and various episode of Second Season. With him being so new, and March comes in like a lion being his first series with pre-established visuals we start to see the beginning of Kenjirou Okada-style SHAFT.

The opening salvo of March episode 1 draws comparison to Okada’s last series, Hanamonogatari, using water as a primary motif.

The first 20 seconds of the episode are anime exclusive. Monochromatic ripples speed across the screen, swirling to take the shape of eyes before returning into ripples, the glow of light on waves rips across the screen before cutting to the silhouette of Rei, stationary in the maelstrom. This opening scene was never in the manga, but Okada decides to include it as a metaphorical statement, setting the tone of the show and leading directly into the opening theme. By melding the two together we are privy to Rei’s emotional state before the actual plot even begins, this idea of being submerged, of drowning, is cemented in our minds.

From there Okada adapts the visuals of the manga in a pretty strait forward fashion, but with one exception: extra shots are used to control tone. Use of the water motif continues in the form of bubbles, a reminder of the feeling of drowning. This is extremely effective in the shougi match where relation between the Rei and his opponent isn’t immediately apparent. A quick cut of bubble from Rei’s drink and we are cued in that something is amiss. Another example would be the use of of Rei’s hair. An evolution of Okada’s water is wind, blowing Rei’s hair into dark tendrils of anger and resentment that obscure this vision as he reflects on the match. Together, water and wind, you have a storm, which ties back into the opening that Okada was wise to introduce sooner rather than later. This visual exploration of Rei’s emotions makes it easier to relate, adding an extra, near-tangible layer of senses to it. It’s not uncommon for adaptations to deviate from the source material, but it is how Okada does so that makes it noteworthy.

So while Kenjirou Okada may be the new kid on the block, he has proven that he understands his role as director. In just this episode, I’ve been convinced that not only will his style reach full bloom, but he will bring something new to the table that other SHAFT directors haven’t already – a tall order when your boss is Akiyuki Shinbo!

JimmyGnomebiggerJimmy Gnome (@jimmygnome9)

“Hopefully this series will help the studio to grow away from its roots and find a broader appeal this season.”

March comes in like a lion’s adaptation was the source of much controversy after speculation that it would be solo directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, something that has never happened in the history of his work at SHAFT. This mostly stems from comments made by the author, Chica Umino, who requested him to personally direct the anime version of her manga. About a month before the premiere it was confirmed that there would indeed be an assistant director and everyone’s hopes were crushed, yet now that the episode has aired I can’t help but feel this outcome is for the best anyways.

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Kenjiro Okada, the assistant director, is a relative newbie at SHAFT so it came as quite a surprise that he was being entrusted with what is possibly their most pivotal project since 2011’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica. His experience is limited to mostly episode direction on recent Monogatari series, although he dabbled outside of the studio on other projects like Tsuritama, Captain Earth, and From the New World. It’s difficult to get a good gauge of his particular style based on this small collection of work, but he seems to fit into the mold of other modern SHAFT directors like Tomoyuki Itamura and Yuki Yase who have been sticking to the same basic formula for adaptations since most of the big names got preoccupied working on more demanding projects. March Comes in like a Lion is not much of an exception in this regard, but what makes the difference in this case is its relative importance. Indeed, this is the adaptation of an incredibly popular, award winning manga that has been deemed culturally important enough to be aired in an NHK General TV timeslot. This is a series that will be seen largely by people who don’t regularly watch anime, and for SHAFT, a studio that has focused on the otaku market since their early days, it is a huge opportunity to expand their outreach.

So why choose mostly no-names to handle this project if it is such a big deal?

The answer to this question is simple: to develop new staff.

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At the moment SHAFT is working on a large number of projects: Kizumonogatari movie 3, Zaregoto OVAs, Fate/Extra Last Encore, likely Zoku Owarimonogatari, and possibly more. Some of these are more demanding than others, but what’s certain is that the studio’s staff are spread awfully thin. This is another reason why some felt convinced that Shinbo would become more involved in March comes in like a lion‘s production, but in truth he would have likely ruined its chances of success. Akiyuki Shinbo as a storyboarder is about as avant-garde as they come, and it is for that exact reason that he would have been a poor fit for an anime that is being broadcasted on Japanese public television. Instead, younger staff who are less weighed down by the visual stylings of SHAFT were chosen to show more restraint and possibly create a new avenue for non-otaku productions in the studio’s future, which seems to have been a better choice.

While this first episode of March comes in like a lion is headed by Okada, he’s supported by more experienced storyboarder Shinsaku Sasaki. Together they do an excellent job of representing the careful dichotomy of Rei’s life as a professional shogi player and as a friend of the warm, jubilant Kawamoto family. The introductory scene is decidedly non-SHAFT, keeping a slow pace and unusually grounded visuals while still retaining a good sense for shot composition, emphasizing the cold distance of the shogi room, but when Rei enters the Kawamoto household there is a radical shift. Contrast is drawn using more abstract, familiar techniques, and the pacing is sped up to gag-comedy levels in order to emphasize the home’s liveliness. It never goes too far into SHAFT weirdness to be off-putting to casual viewers, a smart choice that shows a good understanding of the audience.

Though production is somewhat uneven in usual SHAFT fashion, the highlights are some of the best seen in any of their TV works since Madoka. There are some cuts in particular immediately following the OP that do a great job of establishing the moody atmosphere that hangs over Rei throughout the episode. These are presumably handled by some of the more experienced credits like Kumiko Kawashima, Takeshi Ito, and Hirotoshi Arai. It’s impressive to see these animators pick up the slack for the usual big-names that are currently occupied with Kizumonogatari.

As both a fan of Chica Umino’s manga and of SHAFT I’m thoroughly satisfied by the first episode of March comes in like a lion. While the lack of true Shinbo storyboards is disappointing, he would have been too radical for general audiences and I’m happy that younger staff members are getting the opportunity to apply their talents and develop new skills. Hopefully this series will help the studio to grow away from its roots and find a broader appeal this season.

fR2BruO4_biggerCJ Hitchcock (@cjhitchcock)

“It’s all very pretty to watch. But with that being said, I feel it is far too early to tell if this series is going to be anything special.”

I’m not really sure what to make of March comes in like a lion. SHAFT tends to make series that are better marathoned after the season comes to a close instead of watching it week-to-week. The story focuses on Rei, a 17 year-old middle school student who’s also a genius professional Shogi player. The story is incredibly vague at this point about Rei’s background. It might sound like hyperbole for everyone who hasn’t seen the first episode, but we, as the audience, know nothing about this character. Everything from the events that lead up to him becoming a professional shogi player to what he hopes to accomplish throughout this series are being kept secret for now. What we know is he’s living by himself in a new apartment, he occasionally shares meals with a family of sisters and he seems to have of sort of connection to a violent news story about a son killing his father by beating the father to death with a hammer.

One interesting aspect of this series is the dialogue for the most part is pretty useless. A lot of the dialogue scenes are throw away conversations. You’ll have characters like the oldest sister who’ll ask how Rei is doing and Rei responds with vague one word answers. This is done to shown how withdrawn and introverted Rei is as a character. He keeps his problems and emotions bottled up, not wanting to inconvenience those around him by unloading his baggage on them. Rei is the kind of person who let’s his actions speak for him.

Not just Rei, but the series as a whole works that way. Most of the information comes from the visuals instead of clear exposition. If anything the show feels like a mystery because we, as the audience, spend a majority of our time trying to figure out what’s going on with the few context clues we’re given. For example, during a shoji match at the beginning, Rei has a flashback to winning a shoji tournament when he was a small child. As he’s holding the trophy, an older man with a concealed face walks away from Rei taking two other children with him under his arms. One of the two children, a young girl, stares at Rei angrily as they walk away. Now this could mean anything. This could of been Rei’s father abandoning Rei after his win taking his siblings away from him, or the little girl could of been a love interest or best friend for Rei and his victory caused some sort of divide in their relationship. We’ll find out more as the series progresses, but for now, we’ll just have to take the few pieces of the story we’re given and put them together for ourselves.

With that being said, the vague nature of this narrative can be a bit off putting for those looking for a cut and dry story. I’m not one of those people, but I can’t say I’m necessarily enchanted by it either. I’m willing to give this a recommendation for the simple fact of it being a drama based in reality. I’m always interested in seeing how anime directors depict the real world around them. The way this show animates the wind is stunning. Instead of drawing physical brush strokes to represent wind, they animate objects in their world to react to the wind. Wind will take a calm river and create ripples and waves. Character’s clothing and hair flow in the direction of the wind. It’s all very pretty to watch. But with that being said, I feel it is far too early to tell if this series is going to be anything special. It’s a bit too vague and a slightly too pretentious for it to match up with other shows this season.

suri_biggerPat ‘Suri’ Price (@Suribot)

“…it’s definitely something I want to see more of.”

In film, it’s not a tall order for a scene to be made to feel slow. The actor is instructed (or decides on their own) on what pace to move, how quickly they perform actions, and how long the shots are held on mundane tasks can create a sense of “space” for the movie to occupy. Quick, jerky cuts are a shortcut to making an action scene feel tight and compressed, with everything rushing through their motions to manufacture a sense of urgency. You are manipulating people and objects that exist, instructing the people or constructing the objects (props, sets, what have you) to match your pace. In the same way, animation must construct such a pace on its own. Rather than hang the camera on a shot longer, additional frames must be drawn for the cut. A character slowly rousing themselves from bed to drag themselves out the door at a snail’s pace will occupy more space than that same character leaping up and sprinting out the door with toast in their mouth. Even if the two scenes ultimate take the same amount of time and frames the pace at which they move is dictated by the speed of the action and that is completely in the hands of the animator. They cannot tell the actor to move faster or slower, because with their pencil they create the actor, frame by frame. And so, every second of anime becomes a more painstakingly deliberate creation than a similarly paced slow shot in a film would be.

Obviously, this is not completely true across the board. Someone moving very slowly through a colossal amphitheater in a movie (if digitally created) would require animation work of its own on top of the filming of the talent. I bring this up, because the first 10 minutes of March comes in like a lion moves at the pace of a sloth without a watch. Every motion is delicate and deliberate, but not strained. It feels naturally listless at times, slow, but not glacial. You can feel the tension in some moments, where a gentle question is met with deafening silence as the slow pace forces you to confront every word, every action, and take it in. Every motion of the hands, gently placing down shogi tiles with a soft clack, was painstakingly animated to be slow and natural in a way that signifies discomfort, but not pain. Everything is just slow enough that you notice how slow it is, but not so sluggish that you find yourself begging for something to happen.

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Further accentuating the leisurely pace are the moments of disruption in Rei’s life. The family, the teacher, all introducing an accelerated element of chaos. People read lines faster, the animation speeds up, all serving to put bullet points on both the action and inaction. Almost no one in the show matches Rei’s speed, with nearly the entire cast moving at a normal or accelerated speed. It also makes the one person who does match Rei’s pace stand out in retrospect. It’s interesting and I’m not sure I would describe it as relaxing, but it’s definitely something I want to see more of. The show is moving like it’s on a bike rather than on the roller coaster I tend to expect.

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