Through Distorted Mirrors; Functional Direction in 3gastu

trigger warning: depression! 

One of the hardest things about having depression is trying to make other people understand what it’s like. Casting away social stigma for a moment, it’s tough to say “I feel like I want to die, because I feel lonely, regretful, and empty all at the same time.” without someone asking “Well, why do you feel that way?” You shrug your shoulders, and you can’t really give a reply, because you don’t really know either. You want to tell them, “If you could just put your head inside my head, well, maybe you’d see it too.” but who would understand that kind of nonsense anyways?

That’s real life, and real life is tricky. Projecting that mindset onto an animated character is less complicated, but it is incredibly difficult to direct viscerally. You not only have to get into the mind of someone who is mentally ill – a kind of filter that isn’t easily accessible to begin with – but you must manage to reach out, grasp the audience, and drag them into the same hellish thoughts the character is thinking. You have to make them think, “This character hates themselves, can’t see anything good around them, and lives a grey life.” without saying any of those words. It’s a fine line to walk, between stale functionality and melodramatic goo that lacks tact and reality. Factor in the problem that everyone connects and empathizes differently, and you’ve got a very layered “show not tell” situation.

The world of art and sound however, offers us a myriad of ways to do this. We’ve seen it work too, from shows like NHK! Ni Youkoso to Serial Experiments Lain. The former uses surrealism and heavy monologues to achieve its point; the latter relies on abstract direction and unreliable narration to immerse the viewer in the main character’s head space. Both are almost opposite in their style, but the result is the same: we see the world through the character’s eyes, feel what they feel, and acknowledge that as flawed as their perspective may be, is a fundamental part of who they are.

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But there are times where it comes off as a wreck. The most recent example that comes to mind for me is Erased, which desperately tries to capture its main character’s disillusionment and regret in his life but to little avail. I wouldn’t say that 3gatsu no Lion’s approach is as unfortunate, but it is fascinatingly polar to what I feel the show’s focus is about. It is functional, but lacks the emotional vulnerability that is essential to making a depressed person’s narrative compelling. A show I feel 3gatsu no Lion is very similar to so far visually and thematically  – Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso – seems to light the way as to how 3gatsu could change its approach in direction to make the main character’s perspective feel more natural in line with the narrative.

Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso , like 3gatsu no Lion, tells the tale of a depressed prodigy trying to release himself from his own pain and guilty. Arima Kousei is tortured with anxiety and his past – much like Rei Kiriyama, and the show makes sure to emphasize Arima’s emotions and mindset through symbolic visuals. Sakura petals, for instance, play a constant part in Arima’s life, either signaling loss, or warmth’s bloom.

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“The notes fly away like petals.” Here, the visuals overlay with Arima’s monologue, establishing tone and mood while also putting the viewer in Arima’s mindset.

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Flowers are blooming, but they clearly lie outside the head space of our protagonist, who is isolated in this shot.

Arima’s reasons for the way he acts is one thing, but the way it is explained to us is another. We see memories the way he does; feel his anguish and sympathize with his isolation. Here, the visual direction works in conjunction with his dialogue, allowing us to get a very good look at Arima’s depression. Sound direction plays to the visuals’ strength, muting any environmental noise and giving us melancholic background music while Arima’s somber voice plays. Overall, while Arima is an extremely flawed individual, we’re given a great insight as to who he is and the way his mind works.

3gatsu goes about this very differently. In terms of sound design, the show is solid: Rei’s voice is distinct and also somber, playing over any other background sound. It’s clear that he doesn’t enjoy to speak much based on how he interacts with friends and acquaintances. I would argue that in fact, when Rei doesn’t speak, the show is pretty smooth – the first 11 minutes of 3gatsu‘s first episode are its strongest, making us focus on the somewhat muddled imagery that defines Rei’s mindset.

Except the minute Rei opens his mouth to narrate the show, things fall into pieces. Like Arima, Rei is consumed with regret and loneliness. Since he has difficulty connecting with others, he channels his emotions into quiet monologues about what he feels and sees. The issue with this however, is that it is a complete disconnect from the show’s visual story. The result is a jarring experience that throws the audience out with how they feel and how Rei feels. It’s confusing and distracting to the point where I can’t seem to enjoy the show’s heart.

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The visuals already show us that Rei loves the quiet and calmness of water, but his monologue reaffirms it in the most mundane way possible. His emotionless words, tacked onto bland visuals, leaves us feeling bored and unable to connect with his perspective.

One of the most striking examples of this is in the first episode, where we are introduced to Rei’s Go mentor, Masachika Koda, and how he plays with Rei from time to time. Hours after Rei plays with Koda, he visits the Kawamoto’s house for dinner, and enters a flashback when a news report about a son beating his father to death appears on the news. Distorted visuals with Rei’s emotionless reaction give a very unclear picture as to what the point of this flashback is and what it actually entails. Did Rei beat Koda to death? Does he feel guilty for his father’s death? Is Koda his father? Is Koda dead? What did we just see then?

A lot of this ties into what symbols are used in 3gatsu‘s visual direction. In our first episode, the main items are hair and water. Neither of these seem to have any connection to Rei’s past or triggers for his depressive state. The beginning of episode 1 plays a lot with bubbles in a water bottle, but it never seems to actually connect with the idea of ‘Rei drowning’ as much as it should. What I get instead are just flashes of water bubbling. When Rei is triggered by a news report, the ‘hair’ flows around him, once again, probably trying to create a visual of Rei being ‘tied down’ by his despair, but never giving that actual feeling. Combine both of these weird visuals with Rei’s monologues, which are as monotonous as they are confusing, and the result is a forced visual story that is on a completely different track than its auditory narration. Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso on the other hand, may be very dramatic with its visuals, but they never feel forced; on the contrary, they often pair well with Arima’s dramatic monologues.

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That’s not to say that sometimes, 3gatsu aligns itself with its visual narrative, and all feels right in the world. But these moments are scattered across a story that is paired dysfunctionally with bland visuals, leaving me feeling unsatisfied and confused as to how Rei really feels. Maybe this improves with later episodes, but for right now, Rei feels distant on my screen, unreachable. I don’t know why he’s crying. But I’d like to.

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8 responses to “Through Distorted Mirrors; Functional Direction in 3gastu

  1. Pingback: Rei Kiriyama’s Curtains — Lighting in March Comes In Like A Lion | atelier emily·

  2. I see the visuals a little differently perhaps in that they highlight for me how hypersensitive one becomes when depressed, and how one the one hand the world is subdued in one sense but on the other it becomes painfully rough and difficult to endure. In that state one frequently latches onto isolated sensations in the absence of happiness, searching for symbols that reflect what’s happening to you and around you, trying to be present in simple things of life but also continually finding symbolic reinforcement of the message that you are alone and friendless, or the pain will never end. For every “nice” sensation there are many more neutral or downright unpleasant ones.

    For this reason I really like the visuals of 3gatsu because it echoes my own experience. It’s gloomy, but not muted. Rei’s depression manifests as a globalized ache or toxic emptiness, warping the intensity of his experience to an uncomfortable degree. He can try to explain this warping and the attendent emotions, but on some level it also can’t be explained. It doesn’t correlate perfectly to the present reality, unconsciously colored as it is by Rei’s past. There’s an inevitable incongruency in this particular type of experience of depression.

    I also feel that the director took his cue from Honey and Clover (because the two shows have the same mangaka), and went with the updated modern version of the symbol/flashback strategy used in that anime series. Which does feels a little like Your Life in April. Personally, I sort of found Your Life in April visuals annoyingly lush. Even if there are too many of them, 3gatsu’s visuals don’t make me roll my eyes at least. I think some of the symbols will be clarified on rewatch, and I like that I am catching onto the patterns of their appearance. I’m looking forward to the rewatch value. :)

    One of the strongest visual symbols for me is the crossing of the bridge. The bridge cuts Rei off from the city. The distance is doable, but the time taken drags excruciatingly under the hot sun, and sometimes the amount of separation between Rei and community (well, specifically the girls) doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort to overcome. Perhaps a healthy person wouldn’t think anything of the distance, but Rei feels each step acutely. But cross it he does.

  3. I think the difference between the two shows you mentioned is that Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso spoon fed its audience much more than Sangatsu no Lion does. You’re not supposed to understand everything about Rei, his past and his traumas yet based on just the first episode, you only get hints dropped here and there and have to work yourself to create a still incomplete picture. I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to understand about Rei at this point, that distancing between the audience’s feelings and Rei’s own is deliberate.

    In this the series takes its cue from the manga, which also took a fair number of chapters to reveal just why Rei ended up where he is at the start of chapter/episode 1 and where for much of the early chapters the reader is observing him from the outside looking in, rather than seeing his point of view.

    The hair and water metaphors I saw differently: the air bubbles are a visual sign of something disturbing Rei’s surface calm, occurring at moments of stress, with the hair flapping in the wind reflecting his inner turmoil, rather than functioning as a symbol of being tied down.

    • First, thanks for reading! (And commenting ^^)

      I do think there’s some more obvious imagery in Shigatsu than in 3gatsu, and as you’ve pointed out, the visuals aren’t necessarily subtle, which is neat since it ties in with Arima’s very dramatic and childish thoughts. Rei is a lot older than Arima, so it makes sense that things aren’t as spoonfed as they are in Shigatsu. My problem isn’t necessarily with how overt or not overt the visuals are in 3gatsu – it’s how forced and disconnected they are from Rei’s train of thoughts. They don’t functionally back up his perception of the world. Sure, we may not seem to know a lot about Rei in these two episodes, but that’s very different than being able to drop visual cues and hints about how he is the way he is. To me, the show fails to do that and instead leads us on a different track, only adding to the confusion. Since the show obviously wants to put us in Rei’s mind, it should give us aid; creating a divide where the audience feels one thing about a subject and Rei feeling another thing about the same subject, I think, is contradictory to the whole intent.

      It’s interesting how various people are interpreting the hair/water cues from the first episode! Your interpretations sound just as cool, and I’d love to go back and rewatch those scenes with your perception in mind.

  4. To me, it’s interesting how differently we perceived the scene about the son beating his father to death. To me, this was Rei trying to deal with the impact of his match with Koda, where he (symbolically) beat his (adopted) father(?) to death in shogi. As far as I could tell from the whole setup, their match wasn’t any old match; it was a competition match, and apparently one of the things on the line in it was Koda’s ranking. Which, since he lost to Rei, he didn’t progress in.

    So how I perceived the whole first segment there is that it was all about the tension of the match and the broader tension of Rei being so good at shogi and beating the people in his life at it in general (eg, his flashback to his first shogi match where he emerges in first place and the other two kids do not look too happy in the aftermath).

    (Apparently people around Rei knew about the significance of this match, because several people make comments related to it. Or at least this is how I read the whole thing, in complete ignorance of the manga and so on.)

    • I’ve gotten several replies about this, which is fascinating, because I can totally see all of these perceptions as valid, and only proves to me that people interact with the visuals/Rei’s mindset in different ways. I /do/ know Rei lost his parents, so I had automatically connected the news to that. But your interpretation seems perfectly fitting as well! I wish the show had kind of given us a guide/helping hand to establish a specific meaning, but it’s cool to see the variety of explanations viewers have given as well.

  5. I’ve been a bit iffy on 3-gatsu’s direction myself, so I agree with a lot of what you said here. Oddly enough, even though I was really critical of them in the first episode, I think the series’ best moments in the most recent episodes are the ones where Rei is with others (Nikaido or the Kawamoto sisters). That’s when the disparity between what’s in his head and what’s actually going on around him seems the most genuine, probably because these other characters, especially Hina and Nikaido, have subtle ways of expressing their own respective sadness and the visual direction doesn’t seem as hamfisted (the talking cats can go though, ugh).

    As an aside, I think the series that dealt the best with portraying depression, or at least how self-loathing internal filters can affect the way someone sees the world, was with Mizore in Sound! Euphonium’s most recent episodes.

    • I apologize for the month-long delay to this!!

      I’ve heard a lot of good things about those two particular episodes, and granted, the show may be less dissonant for me after those three episodes I watched. But I do agree with you – one thing that I felt H!E did better than these episodes of 3gatsu was giving us different accounts on Mizore’s actions and feelings,so that when she told us her feelings herself, we could see how unreliable they were. This was especially important since people who struggle with depression /do/ have a different mindset or perceive things and memories differently. 3gatsu on the other hand, is focused on keeping us within Rei’s head, which is fine too – it’s an approach that has worked before – but I feel like it doesn’t contrast his self loathing and sadness enough with the rest of the world around him to warrant empathy. But these kinds of stories are always a YMMV thing, so it may just be me that’s having a harder time connecting with him.

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