March Comes in Like a Lion is certainly a long shot away from being even remotely considered a shounen anime, yet that didn’t stop the show from having one of the most gripping fight scenes I’ve seen in quite a while. What makes the battle an even greater accomplishment is how well the story props up a character that we’ve barely spent any time with and manages to make him into not only a riveting hero, but a goddamn legend. While his competitor doesn’t receive the same treatment to make both sides equally compelling, it almost doesn’t matter because the championship match has so much more meaning and stakes behind it than just a title.
Shimada vs Saku is first played off as a simple event, in partial truth because it sort of is. Their match is actually introduced in a comedic matter as Rei and the Shimada brother discuss the laughable design of the event’s promotional posters. Using pictures that are about as attention-grabbing as school yearbook photos, Shimada and Saku both have issues with how the championship is being promoted—because to both of them, there are much greater things at stake here. Shimada is fighting with the hopes of his small, childhood town on his shoulders. Saku, on the other hand, carries a far greater burden. The basic character details of Saku are: He is an active Class A player. He’s on the verge of earning the title “Eternal Kishou”, awarded only to those who win 10 Kishou championship matches. Most importantly, Saku is old.
Really old. Old to the point where he’s seen all of his friends fall into retirement and lose their will to live on. At Saku’s traditional “pre-game party”, we see the geezer drinking beers with a large crowd of friends gathered around him. He asks where his old pal Gan is hiding, and this question leads him into the hallway to find an elderly man smoking alone. Gan tells Saku he didn’t want to put a damper on the festivities, but the sad news is that he’s being forced into early retirement. He says something that reminds Saku of something each of his friends at some point has told him: “…when I think about how you’re still fighting…”.
A fairly common problem among old men is that they tend to easily become depressed in retirement. This comes in part from a connection between identity and career that tends to be more strongly developed in men than women. A quote from clinical psychologist Marnin Heisel in an article from The Globe and Mail says that “for a lot of guys, when they retire, they lose that social network and social connection … and the meaningful contribution they get out of what they do”. Men tend to find a lot of meaning in their work, and so when they lose their work, they in turn lose a great amount of meaning in their lives. In March Comes in…, we see that all of Saku’s friends displace the meaning that was once in their lives onto him, burdening all their hopes on the one member of the group that’s still thriving.
So now we know that the stakes of this match come from all the hopes riding on each contenders’ shoulders—except, the reality is that the scenario is not as cheery as that description may make it sound. Entering the fight, we get play-by-play commentary courtesy of Rei and Nikkaidou. They, as well as some inner-monologues from the fighters, use some typical Shounen exposition markers to emphasize the intensity of the battle. Stuff like: “I’ve never seen anything like this” and “There’s no way. He can’t be this good!”. Rei also describes the match with some flowery details to add another layer to the fight, so that the viewer can keep up with the sense of tension despite probably not fully-comprehending the literal moves of the game (I actually play shogi and I still couldn’t keep up).
Aside from the announcers, the rest of the peanut gallery is hanging on the highs and lows of the match, holding out hope for Saku to claim victory. The thing about this is, the whole scenario of Saku’s friends cheering him on doesn’t ride on the typical Shounen ideals of “all our hopes ride on you!” and “power of friendship!”. Instead, we’re given a darker perspective, symbolically represented by the imagery of countless white sashes encircling Saku in a dreary black and white dreamscape. The sashes represent the hopes each of his friends have cast upon him, and he acknowledges they are heavy. As the match progresses, the sashes inch closer and closer to strangling him, symbolizing the chokehold of everyone’s expectations.
Day turns to evening turns to night, and the match continues with this dark, twisted version of hope continuing to wear on the old champion. Saku is constantly reminded of his chat with Gan at the party, the picture of this miserable, lost man who refers to himself as a burnt field. The title of the 4 consecutive chapters serves as a metaphor for life, at the end when your fire has burned all it could and now remaining only as a smoldering field—allowing your flames to do nothing but wither away. Generational flame metaphors usually go the route of “passing on the torch”, but in the case it’s old men trying to keep the flames burning on and making the next generation wait longer.
At the turning point of the match, Saku first feels lost, and begins witnessing all the sashes he’s carried start flying away. The thoughts of all his peers’ frustrations call out one last time as they start to disappear…and then Saku decides he’s not ready to let them go. Portrayed through stunning animation, Saku says “no” and reaches out to grab the hope that had been burdening him for so long. It’s a grimly lit scene, watching the old man pull with all his might, and a close-up of the unsightly look of determination in Saku’s expression. This uplifting moment is impeccably contrasted by everything we see and hear: mute colors, black backgrounds, depressing-dramatic music, and an interruption of a cut to the crowd that evokes only fear and despair in what is the epic turnaround of the battle. Highly detailed animation plays through from the moment Saku starts losing his sashes to the final move of the match.
The moon is out, and Rei describes the match to a close with his usual brand of poetic language. Saku has won. Such an ominous victory, indeed. After we cool down from these highest of tensions, Saku enters the room to greet all his friends as now the Eternal Kishou, and together they take a large group photo to commemorate the event. Even the three elderly folk that came to cheer on Shimada are happily jumping on the Saku bandwagon, saying “Yanagihara-sensei is a hero to our generation…he is working hard so we can’t be put out to pasture, either!”. Here, finally, is the cheerful takeaway from this episode to balance the incredibly dreadful lessons we’ve learned today as well. In the end, when Saku is talking only to his friend the shogi director (or whatever his title is), he complains playfully about all of them foisting their dreams upon him, finally uttering what he’s been thinking about all this time. And by saying it aloud, some of the weight seems to be taken off him. Saku claims that another match like that will certainly be the end of them, to which his friend retorts with “that’s what you said last year”. And together they laugh, as Saku’s inferno continues to burn on.
I loved this episode for its very unique take on the feeling of others hope resting on your shoulders—also, I just love showcases of badass old people. Dealing with the topic of retirement can be very dreadful and poignant, and I felt the Burnt Field arc really took that feeling to a new level. Personally, I’ve never imagined retiring, and so I do sometimes worry about becoming too old to be useful to anyone. Sad facts of life, I suppose…but March Comes in Like a Lion shows us that there might still be hope out there!
Dark, heavy, crippling hope…
Thanks for reading.