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.
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.
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.
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.
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.