Driven by its emotionally focused storytelling and breathtaking art style, 3-gatsu no Lion is without a doubt one of the visually loneliest shows I have ever seen. In its narrative exploration of Kiriyama Rei and his nebulous mentality, the show’s use of visual metaphors and melancholic imagery have led people to describe its presentation as depressingly beautiful, and rightfully so. Using certain perspectives and motifs, 3-gatsu is able to conjure a tonally flexible atmosphere while remaining emotionally immersive as it provides stunning insight into its protagonist.
Before delving into each individual component of the show’s visual style, it’s important to first understand what that style is attempting to encapsulate. The story wastes no time in establishing that Kiriyama Rei is despondent and lives a generally unhealthy lifestyle. His tragic past has rendered him emotionally disconnected and prone to frequent bouts of depression. Rei is a character who feels out of place wherever he goes. He’s consumed by guilt over situations he couldn’t control yet is simultaneously incapable of forgiving himself.
In seclusion, he drearily rises each morning from his bed in his lonesome apartment and goes about his day with little enthusiasm. When he does elect to attend school, he eats alone in the stairwell. Devoid of greater purpose and partially divorced from his own feelings, Rei throws himself into the only thing that he feels gives his life some abstract meaning – shougi. Outside of studying for upcoming matches, occasionally going to school, and visiting the Kawamoto sisters, he lives very humbly. He sleeps a lot, eats store-bought meals, and rarely endeavors to do anything more than what is required or asked of him. What all of this culminates in – the emotional angst, social reclusion, and lack of motivation, is a profound sense of isolation and loneliness. Though Rei himself is too muddled to fully recognize his situation.
Perhaps the most pertinent of 3-gatsu’s visual components that speaks to this loneliness is its ubiquitous water imagery. It’s one of the earliest and most nuanced elements of the show’s presentation, appearing both in the opening sequence and all throughout the first episode. The water serves as a very explicit visual metaphor for Rei’s own inner turmoil and anxiety. The intense pressure of being submerged – of drowning and suffocating, are sensations called into relevance by these various, fleeting shots of water. Close-up shots of water and bubbles give the viewer the impression of being submerged, especially when superimposed over the characters and setting.
When Rei becomes significantly depressed and holes himself up in his room, the telltale glimmers of light floating across the scene give the surreal impression that the room itself is underwater as the light shimmers on an imaginary surface above. This imagery is excellent at conveying the weighty, smothering anxiety that Rei feels. There is also a less frequently occurring metaphor in the form of wind. Similarly, the hard gusts of wind and prolonged blustering shots add emotional turbulence to the scene. The loud sound mixing as well as the dramatic affect the wind has on the setting and characters imbues the scenes in which it appears with an unmistakable intensity.
By far the most pervasive and consistently striking element of loneliness in 3-gatsu is the way in which Rei is framed within the setting. There are a multitude of shots all throughout the show of Rei walking to the shougi hall, hanging out in parks, and returning home at night which each emphasize his isolation. He appears alone in each frame, juxtaposed to numerous establishing shots and blank stretches of sky. The various cutaways to street corners and buildings not only set the location of the scene and provide 3-gatsu with stunning environmental imagery but stress Rei’s own solitude.
Given the time of day these scenes typically take place, there are rarely any other people in these shots which gives the impression that Rei is alone in the world. Likewise, juxtapositions of the sky surround Rei’s figure with a vast emptiness. In many of these scenes, Rei’s eyes are obscured by the reflection of his glasses which both creates emotional distance and uncertainty. The distance between the viewer and Rei is evocative of Rei’s own confused mentality and in our inability to see his eyes, we gain a similar sense of unease. We can’t clearly see what he is thinking however the visual tone of each scene makes this quite apparent all the same.
There are tons of these kinds of shots and just as they underscore the loneliness of the character, they slow the show down considerably and give 3-gatsu the thoughtful atmosphere that it’s known for. There’s a clear, tonal reverence for these scenes and all the time spent walking alone with Rei and cutting away to solitary, abstract visuals really hammers home the emotional importance of what’s at hand.
On the topic of emotional importance, 3-gatsu does an incredible job of conveying to the viewer exactly what a lot of the developments that take place mean to Rei specifically. It’s one thing to empathize with a character through good characterization or writing but it’s another thing entirely to bring the viewer into that character’s head space specifically and see the world as they see it. This approach visually manifests primarily through color. A lot of the show takes place in the evening or at night and so colder colors both fit the environment and give the show a very somber look. In contrast, warm colors often speak to more genuine scenes of affection and kindness or in some severe cases, anger and frustration. The show is often exceedingly bright and comforting when Rei is interacting with other endearing shougi players as well as with the Kawamoto sisters.
The more dramatic the scene, the more dynamic the visuals become. When Rei is feeling especially vulnerable, grey tones and starker blacks and whites become more prevalent. When Rei is happy or he feels he’s made a connection with somebody, the setting can brighten up considerably. This dramatization is also intermittently applied to 3-gatsu’s visual metaphors such as its water imagery. What is usually a subtle yet oppressive motif becomes a beautiful yet foreboding image. In one instance – a vast and borderless crimson sea and in another, a black whirlpool of despair.
The last visual component of the show I’ll touch upon isn’t actually one that explicitly concerns loneliness but rather one which accentuates it through juxtaposition. 3-gatsu features two overarching tones – its emotionally-oriented drama and its lighthearted comedy. The visual dichotomy of how these two tones manifest is yet another reason why the show is so good at establishing such a somber and provocative atmosphere. The comedic scenes are far more cartoonish in their illustration and animation which immediately provides them with their own tonal space. Their energy and particularly vibrant colors offset the show’s more standard aesthetic, adding greater visual definition to each of the show’s two tones.
This tonal juxtaposition is spoken to quite directly near the midpoint of the show when Rei remarks that spending time with Akari, Hinata, and Momo in their house is akin to warming himself underneath a kotatsu. For Rei, they are a breath of fresh air. When visiting with the sisters, he is breaching the surface of the water however, as it stands, he must inevitably sink back below. He feels warm and comfortable when he’s with them but when he leaves, the contrast is all that much sharper. Returning to his regular lifestyle accents just how different he feels between the two settings in a similar way to how the more lighthearted, comedic aspects of 3-gatsu make its drama more pronounced.
If the Kawamoto household is the symbol of familial love and warmth then Rei’s apartment room offers a contradicting image. It’s where he feels most profoundly alone and where he retreats to when he feels depressed. Its barren appearance is a far cry from the colorful and busy interior of the house. The most important thing in the room, Rei’s shougi board and notes, often lay at its center, surrounded on either side by empty space and occasionally discarded bottles. It’s very representative of how important shougi is to Rei but also of how contextually dismaying his relationship with the game is.
The sheer pervasiveness of all of these techniques and visual components is what makes 3-gatsu’s presentation both so remarkably lonely and wonderfully effective. Its artistic insistence on underscoring this tone allows for its many affectionate scenes to shine all the brighter and for its character drama to mean all that much more. Additionally, all of this is to only speak of a single facet of the show itself. The story, along with the dialogue and the fantastic soundtrack, all further enhance what 3-gatsu’s visual design is illustrating. It’s somber and introspective yet equally heartfelt and exceptionally beautiful.