FEATURE: Why It Works: "March comes in like a lion" Explains Shogi

Today we'll investigate one oddly educational scene from one of this season's most poignant shows!

March comes in like a lion is easily one of my favorite shows of the season. Combining a powerful, holistic evocation of protagonist Rei’s depression with charming scenes starring the family of sisters that keeps him together, it’s a strange mix of some of my favorite things in anime. It’s been an unsteady show at times, but its character work and aesthetic highs make it a show I’m always happy to return to.

 

I’m not going to be talking about any of that stuff today.


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March comes in like a lion has many laudable qualities, but today, I’d like to dig into exactly one, seemingly minor sequence from its seventh episode, where Rei is asked by middle sister Hina how to play shogi. Rei is a professional shogi player whose matches receive television airtime and even commentary, but teaching someone else to play is a challenge he’s never before experienced. But Rei wants to help, and so he dutifully starts running down the key variables of the complicated board game… until he’s shut down by his friend Harunobu, who has rightly realized Rei sucks at this.

 

Though it was far from the focus of the episode overall, the difference in teaching styles between Rei and Harunobu struck me as an oddly concise exploration of these characters, along with a small explanation of how we teach, how we learn, and what exactly stories are good for. So let’s spend a little time breaking that down, and hopefully arrive at some reasonable points along the way.


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Rei is a complicated person, but for the purposes of this discussion, three of his main features are most relevant: he is very good at shogi, he is not good at talking to others, and he is not good at understanding the feelings of others. It’s often said that natural geniuses make bad teachers, because they can’t really understand the issues that make less gifted students trip up - this is true, but it’s not Rei’s problem. As we’ve seen in prior episodes, Rei actually had to work hard to become great at shogi, and his mastery of the game has more to do with his lack of other options in life than a massive natural affinity for or love of the sport.

 

But because Rei is not good at talking to others or understanding their feelings, he can only frame the rules of shogi from his own current perspective. Rei opens by clinically describing shogi’s formal attributes - the size of the board, the nature of the pieces, etcetera. His own lack of emotional attachment to shogi informs his perspective, but his style of teaching offers very little for his audience to hold onto. As the show’s handy thought bubbles imply, “the goal is to capture the opponent’s king” is the first thing he says that actually has any sort of meaningful resonance for his audience.

 

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From there, Rei’s explanation of the game actually gets worse, if that’s somehow possible. He moves on to explaining the higher-level terms for organizing play, like how you define which player is which and how the rows and files are titled, which is utterly useless information for a new player. In fact, it’s worse than useless - by introducing meaningless data into his initial explanation, he actually makes it harder for his audience to understand what’s important, because they have no way of knowing this information is irrelevant.

 

All of this information only makes shogi seem more imposing than it already is, but it makes sense that this is how Rei would frame the topic. As we’ve seen before, Rei spends most of his time either cooped up in his room solving shogi problems, studying shogi strategy, or actually competing in matches. To Rei, the first thing he’d think of explaining would be the “language of shogi” that he communicates through - the shorthand of movement markings that allow him to have discussions with other players. This is how shogi exists in Rei’s mind, but to a new student attempting to pick up a seemingly interesting game, it’s basically like trying to explain The Lord of the Rings by first teaching your audience elvish grammar.

 

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In contrast with Rei’s impersonal, unfocused, and data-heavy approach, Harunobu opens his explanation by doing the key thing Rei never did: putting the audience first. You can’t make other people be interested in things in the same way or for the same reasons you are, and as Harunobu notes, attempting to force this issue is self-defeating. If you’re actually trying to sell people on the games (or shows, or books) you love, you have to give them concrete reasons to care about them.

 

Harunobu opens his explanation by first addressing the audience directly, and then introducing a picture book. Framing shogi pieces as armies of kitties might seem silly, but it actually serves two very important purposes. First, it frames shogi in the context of something his audience is already invested in: cute kitties. When you’re trying to introduce someone to a new property (or even general concept), piggybacking off of their existing interests is one of the best ways to do it. Shogi may not be about kitties, but “army of kitties” as an opening concept is ultimately no less valid than Rei’s explanation. Fiction in general is full of works that place potentially unsavory concepts in likable packages, from stuff like Girls und Panzer to any narrative with a clear thematic message.

 

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Secondly, framing shogi as a match between kitty armies gives the game in general a sense of narrative. Humans tend to parse the world in terms of narratives, even to a fault. We often try to make sense of our own lives by assigning events narrative importance - “if this bad thing happened, something good will surely happen too,” or “if that person succeeded, they surely worked hard to get there.” Our love of narrative is powerful enough that it can often betray us. We’re far more likely to accept a narrative that makes sense of the world as it is than to accept that things in the world are structurally chaotic or unfair, and thus must be controlled through our own laws and actions. But when it comes to introducing someone to something they might like, relying on our love of narrative is a great tool.

 

Harunobu’s words ultimately parallel Rei’s - the concepts Rei was just about to introduce are the ones Harunobu gets right to with his kitty metaphor. But by framing the rules of shogi in terms of “personalities” and “land” to capture, he invests sterile board pieces with both personality and narrative. You might not care about exchanging pieces to gain incremental advantage through movement on tiles, but it’s easy for anyone to see the dramatic intrigue in one group of (adorable) soldiers squaring off against another.

 

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This whole scene takes place over maybe three minutes, but it manages to compress both a clear reflection of Rei’s personality and an articulation of the power of teaching and narrative into that tiny window. Character-focused narratives are often constructed of such lessons, though just like Harunobu, framing them as stories makes them more into journeys than lectures. Breaking down what a given writer is trying to teach you can help you gain even more from your fiction - and building up your own ideas or favorites into narratives to offer your friends is one of the best ways to bring more people to the things you love.

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Nick Creamer has been writing about cartoons for too many years now, and is always ready to cry about Madoka. You can find more of his work at his blog Wrong Every Time, or follow him on Twitter.


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