Previously, I discussed the importance of characterization in sports series in Days as a way for the audience to identify with the characters struggles. One of the most important aspects of that, which in approached in a unique way in March Comes in Like a Lion, is the player’s relationship with their game. An activity can be portrayed as accurately or as stylistically as you like, but the nature of competitive games renders all manner of triumphs meaningless unless the audience can resonate with the players aspirations. There are as many different reasons to play a game as there are people, just as there are manners in which players respond to victory and defeat. While shogi is just one piece of a greater story, March takes a fascinating approach by portraying a diversity of reasons to play beyond enjoying the game itself. In fact, it shows us many ways that playing can cause, even tremendously gifted players, pain.
The development of Rei’s relationship with shogi is the centerpiece of March and provides a suitably complex and thorny path. From the beginning, Rei had no love for shogi, but it proved itself a valuable tool for communicating with others. As a child he had trouble speaking with other children and felt uncomfortable around them. His home was the only place he felt comfortable and playing shogi with his father and Masachika was intensely rewarding for him. The discussions they had about the game stimulated him and provided the emotional validation that he missed in school. If things had remained this way, Rei may have been able to consider his talent a blessing, if not for the game, than at least as an avenue to build relationships with others and connect with his father.
On its own, this relationship with a game could have made a fascinating tale following Rei’s developing connections with other players while seeking some greater passion for himself, but March takes a tragic turn. After the accidental death of his family, Rei is forced to lie and, in doing so, chain himself forever to shogi to avoid being thrown into an orphanage and the very environment he sought to escape by playing the game. What follows is Rei’s painful journey on the road to becoming a shogi pro, in which he becomes the cause of pain in others by defeating them in the game he cares so little for. First his adoptive siblings in Kyoko and Ayuma then Harunobu, recognizing that he not only forces them to taste the pain of loss, but smothers their aspirations to which shogi was their vehicle. He relies upon his success but has every reason to resent the game.
To Masachika, shogi was an obsession sufficient for him to adopt Rei simply as a means of training him into a champion. For Kyoko and Ayuma, excellence in shogi was a necessity simply to enjoy the warmth of their father’s love. A price that proves too great for either of them to bear. Rei’s presence was an implicit threat to both of them and their inability to defeat him was as good as being replaced in their father’s heart. Although March has yet to explore their actual feelings toward shogi itself, the difference in the children was the amount of pride they took in their skill. Ayuma simply gave up a regressed from the world, driven to the same state of social isolation by his defeat that Rei escaped from with his victory. Kyoko fought to the bitter end until Masachika forced her to quit. One man’s love for shogi made the game a curse for the three children under his care, breeding unhappiness and resentment between them.
Among the main cast of characters, Harunobu may be the only one who genuinely loves shogi for the game itself. Ironically, he is also the one who endures the most suffering to play. His kidney problems and prolonged sitting in rooms without air-conditioning notwithstanding, he has also opted into becoming the self-proclaimed rival of someone he hasn’t managed to defeat since they were children. Like many other aspiring pros, Rei is the benchmark for success which Harunobu can’t quite reach. Strangely, his insistence on also being Rei’s friend has been a boon to both of them and perhaps one of the only good things to truly come from shogi for Rei. Harunobu represents a kindred spirit in suffering over shogi and his continued dedication has earned Rei’s respect. Whereas many characters are ultimately broken by numerous defeats, Harunobu tries to grow from each of them and return stronger. This may be a privilege of his freedom to play the game for itself rather than as a necessity as so many others, but his dedication to the game is unquestionable.
Whether Rei can find a way to love shogi or, at least, come to terms with the game by finally reaching a place of happiness through it, he is inexorably tied to it. The game represents both the source of, as well as his only hope of escape from, his unending pain. On the road that he has chosen, he’ll doubtless have to face and defeat even more players, imparting the same pain upon them to reach his own happiness. This speaks to an even greater theme of March, Rei’s friendships with Harunobu and the Kawamoto sisters may help him through his struggles, but even these relationship impart their own pain. In pursuing a career in a game, you sacrifice an element of the recreation which may have drawn you to it. Winning can become more important than enjoyment and practice can become a necessity rather than an interest. In exchange for prestige, your passion may suffer. Or you may stand to lose something event greater.