It’s rare for any series that you immediately begin to feel empathy for a character even before the opening credits, even before a proper introduction, but that’s exactly what happened to me with Rei Kiriyama, the central character of 3-gatsu no Lion.
As the credits begin, he falls into some great watery expanse. Did he throw himself in, of his own volition, an author of his own fate? Was he thrown in by someone else? No matter, because this is where he exists now, in this seemingly endless ether, this watery nothingness. He doesn’t seem to be drowning, not exactly; more like… drifting, aimlessly, at the same time slowly sinking downward. This opening is also interspersed with a shot of Rei in a fetal position, once again strongly suggesting the main character’s vulnerability and depressive state; and visions of gulls soaring through a clear blue sky, perhaps suggesting a more upbeat future for the main characters, and for the overarching story of the anime in general.
This anime really nails its tone right away. Rei awakes in the middle of the floor of a sparse, unfurnished empty room, the spatial emptiness seemingly being shorthand for an emotional emptiness within. This room, wherever it is, clearly isn’t a home to him, not really. Initially, much of the show’s aesthetic conveys sparseness not just visually, but also in terms of dialogue. We see Rei wordlessly going through the motions, what we assume is his daily routine. He leaves his apartment, makes his way through what seems to be the environs of only a slightly crowded small town, towards his final destination, a ‘Shogi Hall’. The first five to ten minutes or so of this first episode are almost wordless, none of it from the main character himself, yet so clear and expressive in what it’s intending to convey. The first words we hear are from some unidentified female tormenter in the midst of a nightmare, mockingly telling Rei he ‘doesn’t belong anywhere’, a notion so disturbing that it wakes him up from his slumber, following him into his wakeful state; it’s clear that this is a real person in Rei’s life, possibly from his past, and this anxiety is from a real-life situation.
Water as a recurring motif
This anime really, and I mean REALLY, LOVES WATER. I already broke down the opening credits, but even after that, the motif of water is everywhere. In some interspersed symbolic imagery, we see clear calm water being disturbed, in the air bubbles of a water bottle, in concentric waves disturbing a deep calm black pool; we see that right outside Rei’s apartment is a vast river stretching towards the horizon, which, we learn later, is part of why he chose this apartment, and this town. This motif will continue throughout the rest of the series.
Rei Kiriyama, Pro Shogi Player
Once again, through minimal dialogue, we get a clear picture of the world of the main character, and his emotional state in reaction to it.
As he enters the hall, there is a saying emblazoned on the wall:
“The calm mind is the way”
His shogi opponent, a kindly grey-haired old gentleman asks him if he’s been eating well; we immediately glean that this concern is paternal in nature; this man, if not Rei’s actual father, is a father figure of some kind. Through brief flashbacks, we begin to get an idea of what may be behind his distant emotional state. Rei has been on the track to be a professional shogi player for a very long time, since he was a child as a matter of fact. Is it possible to have a clearly defined life path, and yet to be aimless at the same time? Rei defeats his opponent easily, never reacting to, or answering any of his questions. Rei’s clearly good at this game, even when emotionally distant. The plot thickens.
The first time we’re privy to the existence of Akari, Hina and Momo, they pull a fast one, and use a tactic that I, and surely many other people who’ve left their parents’ abodes, will recognize immediately; it’s quite amusing actually. Here’s how it goes: you get a call/message on your cell, prompting you to visit since they’re making [insert highly appealing dish here]; then just in case that lure doesn’t work, they message you a second time, asking if you could buy some [insert crucial ingredient here] while on the way, thereby making you feel obligated to go visit them, and making it almost impossible for you to refuse; basically what began as an invitation turns into a request. Smooth.
When Rei arrives at the sisters, it’s almost as if he walks into another anime; suddenly the colors all brighten (at nighttime, no less), the dialogue increases and becomes more friendly and sincere, the music becomes more playful, the entire atmosphere begins to exude warmth; heck, even the animals (the family’s delightful cats) begin talking. The tone shift is pretty extreme, and not in a bad or jarring way; it’s clearly to show that these people, this atmosphere, is very good for Rei, and may be part of what keeps him going, despite his initial hesitation to enter their lives. It’s clear that he’s found a home away from home. It’s impossible not to immediately fall in love with these sisters and their extended family, granddad, cats and all.
They all eat as a family, the sisters feeding and spoiling Rei in various ways, after which Rei (understandably) falls asleep in their house. The middle sister, Hina, comes to give him a blanket and notices that he’s crying in his sleep again, a callback to the beginning of the episode, no doubt plagued once again by disquieting dreams. And there it is again… more water.
The episode continues into the following day, where we find out more about the sisters’ family and how they make their living running a sweets shop; we also meet Rei’s teacher, Takashi Hayashida, Rei’s only close confidant at the school he attends, and at the very end of the episode, Nikaidō, who may or may not be a Shogi rival.
I love both the opening and ending credits of this show and its use of the imagery of water. To anyone who’s experienced it, depression can be as formless as water; you can struggle against it with all your might, while it still seems to rise to consume you; or you may have been adrift for so long, that you’ve ceased to be aware of your state altogether. It’s interesting how water is so often presented as some sort of hindrance; in the ending credits, Rei fights against a rising tide of water, but manages to persevere and take off into the sky, suggesting that there may be a happy future for Rei after all. Here’s hoping.