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Three years after finishing his very successful swordsman film series Rurouni Kenshin, Keishi Otomo turns to the seemingly very different subject of traditional board games for inspiration with March Comes in Like a Lion. An adaptation of Chika Umino’s best-selling manga from 2007, Otomo has managed to squeeze plenty of taut drama out of the seemingly very static shogi, Japan’s equivalent to chess.
Starring rising star Ryunosuke Kamiki as a teenage prodigy still trying to make sense of his place in the shogi world and society in general, the pic provides a very engaging primer about both the manga’s characters and also the game in general.
Feted for his turn as an ambitious young comic-book writer in the award-winning Bakuman from 2015, Kamiki delivers yet another nuanced turn as a geek in March Comes In Like A Lion. He plays Rei, a high schooler who begins the film with a disconnected existence very much like his name, which translates to “Zero” in Japanese. Living by himself in a small, messy apartment in Tokyo, Rei spends his time either practicing and playing games at the local shogi society or reading books about the game in school.
Unlike his peers — a crew of bizarre-looking types with a warped passion for the game — Rei remains nearly devoid of feelings for what he does. Through flashbacks, Otomo and his co-screenwriters Yuko Iwashita and Ryohei Watanabe explain the roots for this indifference. Rei, as it turned out, started playing shogi to fit in with his foster family after his own perished in a car crash; his physical and emotional disconnection from the world is a result of the conflicts with his “adopted” siblings, aspiring shogi players forced by their father to abandon the game to allow Rei to shine.
Rei softens, however, as he begins to forge new relationships in Tokyo with a family of three similarly orphaned sisters, along with his wacky friends from the club, while also reflecting on old ones, especially with the sassy, manipulative adopted sister Kyoko (Kasumi Ashimura, Flying Colors) whose bullying caused him to leave his foster family in the first place.
After settling Rei’s entangled human relationships and mental blockages in the film’s first half, Otomo then begins to tackle the more difficult part of March’s premise — that is, to produce gripping drama out of two men slowly placing playing pieces on a wooden board. With the help of DP Hideo Yamamoto and editor Ryo Hayano, the director elects to focus more on the players than the play itself — the exquisite cuts between two-shots and close-ups transform the seated individuals as warriors embarking on intense sparring of the mind.
Production companies: Asmik Ace, Robot Communications
Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Kasumi Arimura, Shota Sometani, Hideaki Ito, Ryo Kase
Director: Keishi Otomo
Screenwriters: Yuko Iwashita, Ryohei Watanabe, Keishi Otomo, based on the comic book Sangatsu no Lion by Chika Umino
Producers: Masayuki Tanishima, Fumie Takeuchi, Keiichiro Moriya
Executive producers: Masao Teshima, Taichi Ueda
Director of photography: Hideo Yamamoto
Art director: Koji Kozumi
Costume designer: Kazuhiro Sawataishi
Editor: Ryo Hayano
Music: Yugo Kanno
Casting: Miho Iida
Sales: Toho Inc.
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