I’ve always maintained that tone and atmosphere can trump plot given the right author’s touch. This was more or less the case for Chica Umino‘s first manga series, Honey and Clover, which successfully finds the middle ground between subjective narration and a show-don’t-tell approach to character development. It’s an odd but effective style that results in characters that range from translucent to opaque depending on the time of day.
Her follow-up series, March Comes in like a Lion, hereby referred to as Sangatsu no Lion or 3gatsu, is similar. Its plot is a departure from Umino’s previous manga: it follows the life of a teenage Shogi pro who also happens to be an orphan (or the other way around as the story quickly implies). Unexpectedly, the plot is roughly the same as every other slice-of-life or coming-of-age anime, featuring lonely protagonists interacting with an upbeat cast to discover a less lonely world.
Yet 3gatsu differs stylistically: like H&C, it throws in ambiguous, metaphoric, sometimes maudlin pieces of subjective narration to punctuate key moments. Since both stories are fundamentally based on the mundane occurrences of everyday life, the difference between a key plot point and a trip to the zoo is often only made through those essential lines of narration that provide a brief window into the characters’ hearts. No one comes out and says “I’m happy” or “I feel terrible.” Instead we get more poetic phrasings of metaphors that summarize broader ideas–stuff like “the bridge in my town felt long when I first moved here, but it grew shorter as I made friends,” or “Christmas reminds me of the smell of antiseptic from staying with my Mom as she worked as a nurse.” It’s not a special literary device by any means but Umino makes particularly good use of it.
A plot synopsis would lead you to believe that 3gatsu is about Rei’s life as a young Shogi player but the orphan angle is played very hard and very early. As it turns out, the three sisters who unofficially adopt-slash-care-for Rei were also orphaned, and the Obon festival in the first volume draws attention to the rather large hole in their hearts. A shadow looms over the cast. Much like Honey and Clover‘s bittersweet longing for that which can never be, 3gatsu is characterized by a similar sense of distance or emptiness. Rei resembles an exaggerated version of Takemoto before his soul-searching journey, albeit wounded in a much more fundamental way. Even more interesting is the fact that the story seems ambiguous as to how optimistic and idealistic it wants to be. Rei clashes with the question of why he–or anyone for that matter–would want to dedicate their lives to the grueling, competitive world of pro Shogi, but there are no hints that suggest a shounen-esque ending versus a more bittersweet, Fate/stay night Heavens Feel route conclusion.
Sangatsu no Lion is good, at any rate. It probably won’t reach me in the same way that H&C does since I’m naturally weak to love stories, but it’s obvious from the start that it’s dripping with Chica Umino’s melancholic, subjective style. The story is beautifully told from that point of view and I have confidence that she’s capable of reaching further with the themes than the first two volumes suggest. The only factor to lament is the lack of translations.