First Impressions – Sangatsu no Lion

You had one job.

sangatsu-1How in the world did it come to this?  How did we get from elation and anticipation to this – a kind of resigned, sick feeling deep in the gut?  This should have been a premiere I was anticipating almost on the level of Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, but all I felt was trepidation.  It’s almost surreal, like an April Fool’s joke – but it’s not a joke, or a bad dream.  It’s all too real – it’s really happening.  Sangatsu no Lion was made into an anime, and this is the anime it was made into.  And the question I just want to ask over and over again is “Why?”  But no matter how many times I ask it, I can’t find an answer that makes sense.

sangatsu-2This wasn’t an easy post to write, believe me, or a fun one.  I’ve put it off as long as I could and agonized over how to approach it, but the only thing that wants to come out of my brain is a post-mortem.  Is it really true that Umino Chika requested Shaft and Shinbou handle the adaptation?  If she did –  why did she?  Is Shinbou directly involved for a change?  Would it have mattered either way, when he’s the head butcher at the abattoir?

sangatsu-4I have no reason to suspect Umino-sensei of being a dishonest person, so the Occam’s Razor answer to the first question is most likely yes, she did.  I can make a case that this was forced on her and she’s playing the good soldier by pretending to have requested it, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that’s not the case.  I don’t know anyone who has serious complaints about the job J.C. Staff did with her prior work, Hachimitsu to Clover – in fact, it’s one of the most widely-respected adaptions of the 2000’s.  So what gives, then – surely Umino knows her own work better than anyone?

sangatsu-5For my money, all Sangatsu no Lion needed was an adaptation that steered the course – something in the vein of Gin no Saji, for example. With source material this good, that’s all you’d need for a rock-solid anime – you don’t need a brilliant director or a lot of reimagining.  Yet Umino (supposedly) requested the one guy and studio that seem constitutionally incapable of adapting anything faithfully.  She requested the one team that instill their own oppressive aesthetic and bargain-basement production techniques on everything they touch.  What did she expect to happen?  Is this what she expected to happen?  Is she happy with what she saw?

sangatsu-6I can’t really answer any of those questions, because I don’t know Umino Chika and I can’t read her mind.  What I know is this – the first episode of Sangatsu wasn’t terrible, but it was mediocre.  And for a manga this good to produce a mediocre first episode is terrible.  There were a few nice moments – the insert song was pretty (if unnecessary), and apart from the SHAFT-ian obsession with the green tea bottle, the first ten minutes were relatively faithful to the manga even if they looked like shit.  But as soon as the scene shifted to the Kawamoto house it all went to hell.  At this point I can only assume Shinbou is incapable of making a good artistic decision, because he hasn’t made one in years.  The way he handled the cats was obnoxious.  Kana Hanazawa is totally wrong for Hina-chan.  And all the trademark incessant camera tricks and quick cuts and still shots were everywhere.  It was almost impossible to process what I was seeing.  Stylistically none of this fits – it’s just plain wrong.

sangatsu-7While all the early buzz was that Shinbou was going to personally direct this time rather than simply stamp his name on the credits, recent rumors are that he’s barely involved in the day to day production of Sangatsu.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the evidence suggests it really doesn’t matter.  Shinbou isn’t a director at this point, he’s a brand – and Shaft is an institution built around stamping that brand on everything they touch.  It was naive, frankly, for anyone to think that things might be different this time – Natsu no Arashi and Soredemo Machi are wa Mawatteiru are long-since disappeared from the rear-view mirror, dinosaurs from the days before Shaft become the assembly line they are today.

sangatsu-8This one hurts on a very personal level.  I’ve walked across Takebashi and wandered the streets of Tsukishima, trying to sense the flavor of the world of Sangatsu no Lion.  This isn’t a perfect story, but it’s a powerful one – it comes from a place of real depth and isn’t afraid to explore the dark corners of the soul.  Enough of it may well survive here for viewers who don’t know the manga to enjoy the anime, and get a small taste of the full banquet Umino serves up in her bi-weekly pages.  But I’m too close to it I’m afraid, too aware of just how much is being lost in this translation.  I went into this genuinely hoping to be surprised, believing that Shinbou was smart enough to realize what he had here, and still capable of enough restraint to let it breathe and thrive.  He’s not, and he’s not – that’s just the way it is, and there’s not much point in pretending otherwise.  As anime body blows go, this one will take a good while to recover from.

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48 comments

  1. …yeah, thought so.

    Everyone else seems to be raving about this premiere. I, without even having read the manga, was a bit perplexed. I expected a subdued, intimate tone for a relatively simple story. What I got was a jarring contrast of tortured expressionism in the first half and sugar-binged hyperactive comedy in the second (who the hell needs *talking cats*? Seriously? Why and how did “Chi’s Sweet Home” make its way into this?). It felt like the direction had something to prove at all time, a strong desire to simply override the source material and scream on top of it its own content and message, rather than interpret what was already there. And in the end, artsy as this may be, I didn’t find it pleasant or gripping in the least. The protagonist’s head space seems only a daunting place now; the household where he spends his evenings a raving madhouse. Nothing in between can be seen.

  2. The anime is almost a full point lower on MAL than the manga.

  3. I was mostly thinking of the critics. On the ANN Preview Guide everybody liked it. And even amongst the viewers, most people on AnimeSuki and basically everyone on Reddit is lavishing it with praise.

  4. I haven’t heard from a manga reader yet who liked it. My reaction was on the positive end of the spectrum, believe it or not. I mean, I know they exist – I just haven’t heard from them.

  5. G

    There are at least two of them in this comments section (me + Jubei)… not that I loved it, but like is doable.

  6. Fair enough.

  7. D

    This post reminds me of the uproar which surrounded tha Aku no Hana adaptation, with fans who didn’t know that an adaptation is not meant to be a carbon copy of the original, and than an author may want to see how his/her work can be reinterpreted in the hands of someone else.

    As for the episode itself, it wasn’t half bad. The sudden shifts from dark and tense scenes in Rei’s mind to loud comedy moments were jarring but there’s a lot to like in this, especially from a visual standpoint. The insert song caught me off guard, I didn’t expect hearing my native language (French) in this sort of show. Also the “Mikazuki” sweet Hinata gives to Rei at the end is clearly a VA joke, considering Rei shares a VA with IBO’s Mikazuki.

    Anyway it’s too bad that Enzo’s expectations were thwarted, but it won’t prevent me to enjoy this on my own.

  8. N

    I agree with this.

    Whether we know it or not, we all place some sort of expectation on anime, especially if we’ve experienced the source material. If those expectations are “betrayed,” sadness ensues.

    Also, 3rd paragraph, 3rd sentence: “I don’t know anyone who has seriously complaints…” Is that a typo?

  9. I had the exact same sentiments for Kagerou Daze( Mekaku City Actors) which Shaft absolutely brutalized. So much regret and sadness for such a great property. While not as extreme for Sangatsu, I had always envisioned Nagai directing, so while what we ended up getting wasn’t terrible, it was certainly a far cry from what I had hoped for. I suspect I will grieve even more for Zaregoto as Shaft looks to Monogatariafy it when it is so much more, and so different.

  10. J

    Yes, let’s politely ignore the fact that the vast majority of adaptations do strive for faithful recreation and forget that this is what sets fans’ expectations.

    As for the episode, for my first ever experience of Shaft/Shinobu post-Nisio Isin it was good enough. However, it seems that the brief (for the second half of the episode at least) was to turn the inherent quirkiness of an Umino manga up to eleven. That seems lazy to me and will get old fast, so I hope this was just a one-off to clear the palette for more thoughtful imagery like the first half.

  11. a

    Well, I guess I can agree to disagree because it looked great for me???

  12. a

    I actually dont get your criticism regarding the household scenes??? It seemed fine (It honestly brought me back to how H&C had so many quirky moments)

  13. I can’t say all the directorial choices worked well, but at least its no Berserk 2016…

  14. Y

    Are spoken-aloud sound effects a thing these days? Drifters also had them.

  15. J

    I honestly loved this first episode, and I’m a huge fan of the manga.

    But on the other side, Honey&Clover is probably my favorite manga ever and I utterly and thoroughly DESPISE the animated adaptation.

  16. Y

    Damn, your bias is clearer than ever with this one. The episode was perfectly fine and it was really faithful to the manga so im not sure what you’re complaining about.

    Its funny seeing how youre impression of Shaft changed over the years. I remember you praising them back when the Negima OVA released and saying that it was a good fit for them so Im curious how you’ll react if UQ Holder ends up with them too 😛

  17. Honestly don’t care enough about UQ Holder to be especially bothered either way. Negima was utterly brutalized everywhere it went in anime, and Shaft’s treatment was the least worst by a good margin. Their aesthetic is a decent fit with Akamatsu. With Umino, it’s a crime against humanity.

  18. e

    Ah, when a beloved story adaptation misses the mark. That familiar feeling.
    That said honestly the first half of the episode worked well for me with the expanded water imagery. A tad too well actually. It brought back memories of a black summer and a whole gurgling of emotions – talking of which that’s exactly why the ‘fixation with the green tea bottle’ was ok with me. The bubbles symbolism. As long as they don’t abuse it 10x each episode -.
    The French insert song didn’t bother me either – and H&C also featured insert songs, basically in every episode if I rememer correctly… if anything I think the song here so far are better. The insert wasn’t really intrusive. OP and ED are really listenable. By contrast I could never warm up to H&C’s singer’s high borderline screechy pitch – .
    The talking cats and the extra dose of manic in the second half on the other hand I could have done without. Apart from the sequence at the dagashi shop it felt more like an obnoxious caricature of Umino’s trademark quirky moments than a lively hertwarming balance to Rei’s inner melancholy. So it’s a 50/50 for me. Next episode will be decisive.

  19. e

    P.S.: wagashi.

  20. G

    It’s not bad. More watchable than I thought it would be…I thought it might be full of Bakemonogatari-like posing or something.

    The animation itself is average, but the manga was never really well drawn…I think it’s alright. The gist of the writing gets through without being too muddled.

    The only thing that bothered me a little bit was…the mouth animations? Seemed kind of cheap. Also, did the train he took have ads for 3-gatsu?

    I’ll keep watching – and I think the majority of anime fans will too. There’s too much heart in the source material for it not to bleed through some weak animation and directing choices.

  21. Z

    The talking cats . . . well, they “talk” in the manga too. It’s just in very small text as a throw away joke.

    I had the honor of being familiar with the manga, and watching it with someone who was not. Their comments were “Wait, is this supposed to be some sort of murder mystery thing? Did that woman in the beginning who was mocking him in his dream throw him in the river? Are they saying that some guy who beat his father at shogi then killed him with a hammer?” So in at least one case the anime did nothing to tell the story. (Although it was helpful in teaching me to never watch anything with subtitles with that person again) And that weird cut at the end makes Nikaidou seem quite menacing.

    So, I wasn’t overly impressed by this first episode of the adaption, but I’m hoping it settles down.

  22. I think as a joke the talking cats can work, but in the anime the scenes are already incredibly crowded, and the cats talking on top of everyone else just makes it all the more confusing. In manga form this kind of joke isn’t as overwhelming because of course you can take your time reading everything. Frankly, if the household scenes were supposed to transmit a sense of familiarity and warmth they utterly failed for me, because they gave me more the sense of a manic asylum I’d just want to run the hell away from. Too much noise and confusion, too much stuff happening at once, beyond the simple idea of the kind of “busy and noisy” that actually makes you feel at home.

  23. If the household scenes were supposed to transmit a sense of familiarity and warmth they utterly failed for me, because they gave me more the sense of a manic asylum I’d just want to run the hell away from. Too much noise and confusion, too much stuff happening at once, beyond the simple idea of the kind of “busy and noisy” that actually makes you feel at home.

    Absolutely spot-on. And it exemplifies the reason why Shaft was the worst possible choice for this adaptation – subtlety is utterly lost on them.

  24. Well, I suppose it’s possible that it’s intentional, as a subtle form of criticism of the kind of cliché concept of what constitutes “warmth” that usually features in anime and manga. After all if you’re an introvert, and a depressed one at that, it’s well possible that your typical noisy “extended family” kind of situation that anime loves so much as the standard representation of a warm home wouldn’t really feel comforting at all and would only be yet another burden to withstand when the only thing that would allow you to recharge your batteries would be some quality time in silence alone or with a person you’re intimately connected with.

    …but I’m probably reading too much into it XD.

  25. R

    Damn, in the back of my mind, when I was watching this episode I was thinking, what in this will Guardian Enzo find offensive in this? I really was. Having not read the source material and not having the hypersensitivity to find annoyances when it comes to all things Shaft, I utterly failed. I thought compared to everything Shaft has released in the passed 5 years, this is by far the most restrained from their usual style. That even you, who had a long history of complete ‘hatred’ for anything from that studio, wouldn’t find this too offensive to watch. That you might even ‘like’ this anime and drift away from your biases. Having spend roughly 100 hours reading your site, I couldn’t predict this. I should have seen it coming. I should have long lost that shimmer of hope I had that one day you’d find some small morsel of enjoyment watching any anime by studio Shaft. But that hope is forever gone. I’m left alone in this world (If not for everyone who enjoyed this adaptation).

  26. I have plenty of history giving Shaft praise when they deserve it. They dragged me kicking and screaming to where I am now – 5 years ago I never would have believed I’d be here.

  27. Shaft has put some good series….

    Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru
    Puella Magi Madoka Magica
    Arakawa Under the Bridge
    Dance in the Vampire Bund
    Monogatari series
    Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko
    Gourmet Girl Graffiti

  28. R

    Meh, it’s basically going to boil down to if people have read the manga or not. If they’re like Enzo and heavily invested in it, yeah. Whether or not Shaft did a good job “objectively” is kind of moot. For example, this episodes is a bit jarring with all its cuts and flip-flops between tone, but it’s not horrible. Enzo said so himself, it’s relatively mediocre, but not blatantly offensive to the senses. Objectively speaking, the first episode of Mekakucity City Actors was alright, if also sort of jarring, but frankly it felt like a punch to the gut to me.

    And that’s simply because it was an adaptation of something where the tone and characters were abjectly relatively different from Shaft’s “signature” style. The episode, separate of the source material, is fine. So people who don’t know the source material or aren’t as attached to it probably have no problem watching it without complaints. They’ll probably enjoy it just fine.

    Here’s the thing though, you mentioned how this was among the most restrained of Shaft’s adaptations recently, and I agree. But the problem is that Shaft has to restrain its sensibilities at all. To be blunt, Shaft is just too heavy handed. I’ve never seen them do an adaptation that they just let be when it’s obvious that the original tone of that source material is VERY different from their signature style. So yes, it IS restrained compared to Shaft’s others works, but you can’t use Shaft as a measuring stick against itself. Even restrained, Shaft’s idiosyncracies show through and it’s just not that great of a fit.

    Like I said, people who don’t know anything about the material source or don’t mind will have no problem. Everyone here who keeps up with Enzo at all knows how much he’s invested in this series.

    I have my problems with Shaft’s other series sometimes, but I can watch them with no problem because they’re either A) Monogatari stuff which is a novel to begin with so there’s no visual clash or sorts or B) Just not super invested in the source material or know it well. But it’s pretty rare that I find Shaft adaptations truly GREAT because Shaft just has such an all-consuming style that it inevitably clashes with a LOT of the original material’s style. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the series (it’s was fine for Nisekoi since that series was pretty nondescript style-wise but it really grated me for Kagerou Project because that series had such a distinct and manic style to begin with that didn’t mesh with Shaft)

  29. F

    I really wanted to like this, but I couldn’t. All the constant cuts made many scenes barely comprehensible, the humor in part B was not funny at all and to top it off, the other Shaft-isms make it look like crap in many scenes. These guys don’t even do proper perspective and during many scenes, each cut had a completely different art style.

    It’s possible to see potential in here somewhere, but really, I’m just going to read the manga. One episode of random headtilts, “symbolic” cuts during dialogue and hyperactive barely animated comedy was already too much.

  30. P

    Shinbo isn’t credited for this episode. Haven’t read the manga yet, so the anime is fine for me.

  31. M

    You were way to kind. This was an abysmal adaptation.

  32. He was indeed too kind. “Resigned, sick feeling in the gut” doesn’t cut it, more like ulcers and a strong, fast slap across the face. This is the fastest I’ve dropped a show, and it pains me that it’s the only show I looked forward to this season. THE ONLY ONE.

  33. I haven’t read the original manga so I came away from this horribly confused… This felt more like it should be episode 4 or 5, rather than the first episode. In most series by episode 4 the characters have already been introduced so it can focus on the plot. There’s a very good reason for including character introductions in episode 1. Watching this I had no idea who a lot of the characters were & why I should care about them.

  34. Please never complain about manga readers criticizing an anime adaptation again, thanks.

  35. Well, it’s not like just because you think ONE manga adaptation was badly done that means you have to agree ALL manga adaptations are badly done. This one seems to have significantly changed the tone and spirit of the original work. Most complaints usually boil down to “oh no they left out one bit of dialogue that didn’t really serve much purpose in order to have more natural pacing WORST ADAPTATION EVER!”.
    Adaptations don’t have to be 1:1, that’s a pedantic way to judge them. But it’s reasonable to expect them to preserve the spirit of the original.

  36. What I hate is when the anime tries to conclude their series while the manga is still ongoing so they “create” anime original endings like they did with Claymore that kill any chance for a new season.

  37. I can understand why they do that. And in theory, if well done, it could lead to a more satisfying end than a dangling story that will never conclude anyway because they didn’t get their show renewed. But doing it well would require actually good writers who actually GET what the story is truly about. And those are usually too busy writing their own original works to do it. So we get endings put together by hacks. I can’t remember a single example of a good ending of this kind. The closest that comes to it is Soul Eater, where at least it sort of wrapped things up, and it’s still pretty hated by the fandom. FMA’s first version was an egregious example of “totally missing the point” too.

  38. It’s more that I have seen Enzo dismiss exactly the same complaints he has here, i.e. tone being way off from the original work etcetera, while never having read the manga that the anime is adapting, it comes off as tremendously hypocritical.

  39. If you accept the premise that you must either accept or reject all manga adaptations equally, regardless of quality, maybe so. Otherwise…

  40. Did you read what I said? You have dismissed criticism about the tone of other adaptations being significantly “off” from the original manga without actually reading the manga, without understanding why people object to the changes being made. You say: “But I’m too close to it I’m afraid, too aware of just how much is being lost in this translation.” and yet when others express similar sentiment about other titles you spit on those sentiments and mock those who express them.

  41. Man, I was really hoping your fears would be proven wrong. That this would blow your expectations out of the water. I know you were too. I know this sounds more like a bereavement but I’m sorry it turned out this way.

    For the record, I haven’t read the manga, but I also felt very underwhelmed by the episode. I’m having trouble pointing to a specific reason why; I do think it was competent in plenty of ways, but I dunno, it feels like there’s a magic spark that brings a show to life & it was missing here. Like it was passionless. The character designs didn’t seem to work right for animation, the frowny faces looked off-putting rather than sad. The colours looked off, the way the characters intersect with the backgrounds looked off (two of my regular issues with shaft shows). Mostly, I just don’t feel like I know what any given moment was trying to convey. Like panels were adapted one-by-one without any consideration of tone, but I’ll probably have to read the manga to see the differences for myself now. If the anime is going to be a wash, I guess there’s no reason not to try the manga now.

  42. By all means do read the manga – it’s pretty great. If nothing else it’d be interesting to hear the perspective of someone who saw the anime first and then read the manga.

  43. “the frowny faces looked off-putting rather than sad”

    This was a stupid detail that was very distracting to me. Every time someone was making a face that was supposed to look thoughtful or serious they had those thicker ends of the mouth that made it look like they were slightly disgusted at something they were looking at instead.

  44. I had thought that was something to do with the author’s art style, but in the first chapter of the manga it isn’t that noticeable.

  45. It is somewhat there, but the anime definitely made it even more evident. I think it was the combination of the original art style + Shaft’s typical “squiggly lines” way of drawing things that did it.

  46. h

    I loved the first episode and then I checked out the manga to see the difference,it’s basically the same as the manga so I dont know why the hating,the adaptation is perfectly fine so far imo

  47. Z

    Heh, even though I LOVE the manga and feel like this anime is “simply not up to par” I have been sticking with it anyway. Enzo, you definitely made the right decision for you to drop this. This second cour looks like it might be even more “Shaft-ized” than the first if the most recent episode is any indicator. You would be very sad watching it.

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