Sangatsu no Lion isn’t really about shogi
When an anime’s plot centers heavily around a game, it’s only natural that the audience becomes familiar with some of the game’s subtler points. That said, in Sangatsu no Lion’s two-cour run offers but a cursory glimpse at the rules of shogi. Despite this, it manages to remain engaging and fresh, in no small part due to its expansive and colorful supporting cast.
Here’s the thing: Sangatsu no Lion isn’t really about shogi. Instead, it’s a contemplative exploration of what it means to be a professional. The main character, Rei, often struggles to reconcile his desire to progress with the fact that his victory can undo years of his rivals’ hard work.
There’s an interesting dynamic at work here. Rei and his opponents are driven by a love of the game and require high-quality practice partners. This means that matches often turn into a battle of wits, with each player trying to remain unpredictable and a step ahead of someone they’ve played many times. Winning a shogi match requires more than just skill. Rei is forced to focus singularly on the game. Even when he isn’t playing, he’s researching past plays or solving shogi problems. With all of his free time taken up by school and his job, he struggles to maintain relationships or even keep himself healthy.
He’s a well-developed character, but he’d have failed without the support from his friends. At the beginning of the series, Rei is very much a loner. He makes friends not through any concerted effort, but simply by being too timid to reject their advances. These friends end up providing him with a glimpse of normalcy and ultimately, make him a more balanced and healthy person.
Since the audience views the world through the eyes of a depressed individual, Sangatsu no Lion is often slow and meandering, yet never seemed boring. Each episode moves the plot forward at least a little, and while at first Rei has no clear goals other than progression, later episodes introduce additional motivations that manage to keep the show feeling fresh. Interestingly, Rei takes a back seat as the season draws to a close. Instead, the final episodes focus more on a character who defeats him in a tournament. This illustrates something the audience is repeatedly shown from the very first episode: for all their differences in playstyle, Sangatsu no Lion’s professional shogi players are effectively interchangeable as they are all driven by the desire to be the best and all undergo the same trials.
It may not be the most exciting show around, but Sangatsu no Lion keeps its audience hooked by showing Rei slowly become not only a better player but a better person. It’s an introspective anime that, much like shogi itself, plays out one step at a time and requires total concentration. With the show’s second season just beginning, there’s never been a better time to catch up.