It feels like it all went by in a flash, but it’s true nonetheless: We’re at the end. The final day of the 12 Days of Anime! For this last entry of 2018—and on Christmas Day nonetheless—I figure it’s appropriate to go out big. To wit, maybe by talking about some of the absolute best anime in recent memory?
Day 12 of the 12 Days of Anime 2018
One of the most straightforward means of describing one’s preferences for anime are concerned is something like cultivating a Top X Anime Of All Time list. It’s easy to see why; it’s like someone saying that out of the entire creative universe of this medium, these are what I deem to be THE definitive works. What gets chosen—and why—could then say plenty about the things they cherish and resonate with.
I would have to go about things differently, however. For one, trying to evaluate everything I’ve ever seen, and then attempting to rank it all against each other, just seems like a madman’s task. My bigger contention with trying to do some kind of Top Five, Top Ten, Top Twenty, or whatnot, however, is that even after wracking one’s brain for so long, the final list may still let in one or several contenders which may not have ultimately made that huge or profound of an impact on them.
Thus, if I were obligated to provide an ultimatum—the defining statement—on which anime are my brightest shining lights, what gets chosen has to clear an extremely hard-to-reach bar: Spontaneously provoking, within my very core, in the midst of watching this show or movie, the rarest of feelings.
“This is my favorite anime I have seen in years.”
Going over the last nearly two decades, there are only five anime that have well and truly inspired that gut reaction. In chronological order from when I (approximately) experienced them, the first four are the following.
2001: Cowboy Bebop
2007: Azumanga Daioh
2012: Wolf Children
2013: Hanasaku Iroha
The fifth time I felt that way happened either last year, during the Fall 2017 season, or just this past winter, and it was for March comes in like a lion.
March comes in like a lion premiered in late 2016, an anime about the highs and lows of a high school-aged shogi professional, named Rei. Throughout the show, he deals with a slew of fellow competitors and related personalities, but he also has a seemingly inexplicable, yet sweet, friendship with a trio of sisters (the home caretaker Akari, middle schooler Hinata, and little toddler Momo) who live nearby.
My fiancée had been hugely looking forward to it because the original manga’s author made another series, Honey and Clover, which she adored. Thus, we watched the first season of March comes in like a lion as it was coming out. I really liked it! One thing that immediately struck me was how it was one of the very few shows focused around a competitive game that nonetheless completely avoided any semblance of sports anime convention. I don’t think I’ve learned a damn thing about how to actually play shogi, but that’s perfectly fine; the shogi is not the point.
What’s important is Rei’s place in it, and in turn shogi’s place in Rei’s life. Things between the two of them are incredibly conflicted, to put it lightly. It becomes abundantly clear early on that Rei’s past has not been so rosy, and that shogi had some at least indirect, if not outright direct, role in that darkness. It’s clear that he’s got little “love of the game,” so to speak, and that’s understandably so, yet it’s also been his longtime means of survival: The one thing he’s done for so long, and has gotten good enough to make a living from by competing.
It’s a rough dichotomy to deal with. Rei is already an incredibly withdrawn, worn-down dude by nature—he barely says a word during the scene in the first episode where he travels to the shogi hall and plays the show’s first match—and the game of his profession seems to exacerbate his more negative emotions. It’s apparent how much being in that world weighs on him.
So the show then naturally transforms from serious-faced drama to total animated screwball slapstick (even the cats start excitedly yelling!!) once Rei’s life intersects with those of Akari, Hinata, and Momo. They like having him over their house to eat dinner and spend time (they’re also well aware he lives alone), he often brings them snacks and such when he visits, everyone eats and talks and generally has nice times.
The mood whiplash is indeed as jarring as it sounds, to the point of practically being palpable. And that’s precisely why it works so well. Going from a game of shogi to that house afterwards must be a big change in atmosphere for Rei, and the tonal switch helps to perhaps give the audience a taste of how that feels. Credit really has to be due to studio Shaft and their (in)famous director Akiyuki Shinbo for nailing that effect; I’m not sure anyone else could’ve been as deft at handling such a tenuous balancing act.
All of which is the basis for a thoroughly solid first season, but at that point, I didn’t get that feeling that I was witnessing one of the greatest things ever. That began to really take hold, rather, during the second season.
Now, one of clichés that I find most exhausting in the tradition of recommending things to others is the contention that you need to stick a show out for this long to get to the point when things start actually getting good. Life is too short for me to find it reasonable to wait until Volume 21 of Negima! before I can TRULY and FAIRLY appreciate it! I’m of the mind that works of fiction that are actually good tend to be consistently good from close to the start.
So despite that self-awareness, I nonetheless am here to report that March comes in like a lion is the kind of slow grower where the second season—starting from the series’ 23rd episode—is when it truly starts coming into its own. The first season turns out to basically be a whole bunch of table-setting for the real feast, when the show uses that foundation as the jumping-off point to truly open up and take things to the next level.
I’d like to think that the difference between this and that, however, is that March comes in like a lion was an already really good show—already a wholly worthwhile watch—even when it wasn’t firing on all cylinders, which then turned into something outright transcendent as it progressed closer towards the 44th episode closing out the second season. It has been years since coming across a show that’s made me tear up as constantly as this one through such a wide variety of heightened emotions.
At this point in the show, Rei has grown as a person to a point where he’s no longer exclusively compelled by a checkered relationship with shogi, and is far more willing to accept the three sisters as a part of his life. That means March comes in like a lion gets to become about a lot more than just his own struggles; Rei is now compelled to full-on be a part of the lives of others’. It then goes places that would have been preposterous at the very beginning.
The through-line of the season that affected me most was, without question, the close, special friendship between Rei and Hinata. There were inklings of a unique connection between the two of them in the beginning, but later on is when that truly gets brought to the forefront.
This time, she’s the one bearing the weight of incredible struggle, as her kindheartedness and sense of conviction make her the target of bullying at school after one of her friends gets harassed so badly that she is forced to transfer away. The show does not sugarcoat the matter; Hinata is hellbent on not bowing to the pressure, nor regretting the things she did for the sake of her friend, but it’s a remarkably bleak and terrible situation nonetheless, without an easy ending in sight.
That leaves Rei without much that he feels like he could do to substantively help her out. And he wracks his brain extremely hard trying to find something—anything—that might make things better for his friend. Maybe he could even shogi his way to a solution!!! That sort of powerlessness, in the face of something eating away at a friend or loved one, is something I can absolutely empathize with.
The only things Rei really has to offer, at the end of the day, are the chances and ability to be kind to her. He’s a busy guy who still has to maintain a shogi career, so it’s not like he could be around constantly, but he makes the effort for her whenever he can. And though it might not seem like much, especially not in the face of “the real problem” at hand, the truth is that it unquestionably makes a positive difference for Hinata. Knowing that someone is there for her means a lot. The 32nd episode in particular basically destroyed me, completely and utterly, with stuff like that.
And that’s just a single facet of what March comes in like a lion does in its second season. I’ve not even gotten to any more of the incredible shit that goes on. Like Rei joining a “Science Shogi Club” at school and actually enjoying it. Or the one elder stateman-like dude at the shogi hall getting an entire chapter in the limelight. Or what happens when Rei meets the enigmatic silver-haired shogi champion, Souya. There’s just too much good to spread around!
This is officially the best show I’ve seen in years. I cannot wait for the third season.
Update January 2, 2019 3:25 pm EST—Corrected the enigmatic silver-haired shogi champion’s name from Shouyo to Souya, as pointed out by my fiancée. I clearly cannot keep all these silver-haired anime gentlemen straight...
And that brings this whole journey to the end. Twelve days, twelve blog posts about my experiences with anime for the year. It makes me proud to say I was able to keep that up the entire way through. Whenever it was in this undertaking that you joined me, thank you a whole bunch for reading.
Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and let’s hope that 2019 bring in lots of joy through its anime!