With the Fall 2017 anime season upon us comes the much anticipated second season of March Comes in Like a Lion. The oppressively hopeful series aired fall through winter of last year and follows a young man on the slow road to recovery from major depression as he uses the Japanese chess game, shogi, as his unstable pillar of support. The iconic visuals of Studio SHAFT combined with the show’s courage to tackle delicate topics have earned it high praise over time.
The second cour of March’s first season aired alongside the highly acclaimed Scum’s Wish during the Winter 2016 season. The new series, animated by Studio Lerche, details the lives of high schoolers struggling to come to terms with their romantic feelings as they engage in the hairy nature of hookup culture and friends-with-benefits. Although the topics of interest may differ, the overall tone and atmosphere of each show are closely similar.
Both March and Scum’s Wish deal unabashedly with heavy issues. They are both shows that take their subject matters deadly serious and take your breath away with the visceral human emotions on display. They do not shy away from placing the viewer in an uncomfortable situation and keeping them there for extended periods of time to make them feel what the characters are feeling. How these two shows go about making the viewer feel this way, however, is where March Comes in Like a Lion and Scum’s Wish fundamentally differ. That is the difference between sympathy and empathy.
A Lion Cries Out
When it comes to clinical depression, the protagonist of March Comes in Like a Lion, Rei Kiriyama, is a textbook example. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) a “major depressive” episode is strictly classified as a period of two weeks or longer while meeting five of the nine symptoms of depression such as insomnia, weight loss, and morbid ideology. In one scene we even saw Rei lock himself away in his room and go days on end without eating or drinking after a particular event left him completely destabilized. By the end he was so weak he could barely stumble to the convenience store to buy food.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately “16.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had at least one major depressive episode” in the year of 2015. That means approximately 6.7% of American adults at the time could directly relate to Rei in what he was feeling and going through. They could directly sympathize with him.
The tricky thing about the DSM definition for depression, though, is how rigid it is. What about the person that only experienced four symptoms of depression but for much longer than two weeks? Or how about the person who experienced all nine symptoms for a week and a half? These individuals are still very much “depressed”, just not in a way that can be defined as “major depression”. The point being, depression goes beyond the written guidelines, and anyone who has experienced these feelings and emotions can sympathize with Rei to some degree. What March excels at, however, is forcefully grabbing those same viewers who don’t have experiences with severe depression and putting them in a position to empathize with Rei.
Studio Shaft is notorious for their avant-garde animation styles. They use this to their advantage together with Rei’s own mental commentary to vividly illustrate his fragile psyche, the good times and the bad. When Rei finds relief in a supportive environment, the warm colors and exaggerated facial expressions put you at ease. When Rei’s very foundation is pulled from beneath him, the frantic and crazed shots that follow never let you rest. And when Rei’s own despair threatens to suffocate him, your own breath is taken away by heavy images of sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
March Comes in Like a Lion gives the viewer no options. It drags them in front of this portrayal of a fragile human being and assaults them with waves of emotionally charged imagery. March forces the viewer to put themselves in Rei’s shoes and imagine what it must be like in his situation, and that is called empathy.
Even Scum Has Hopes and Dreams
With all that said, we can switch over to Scum’s Wish. Scum’s Wish also excels at making its viewer feel very distinct, specific emotions. Unlike March, however, it does not rely on establishing an initial empathetic connection to accomplish this. Instead of conjuring a crystal-clear image and forcing the viewer to dive into it, Scum’s Wish instead asks the viewer to recall certain memories from their lives.
Scum’s Wish follows a multitude of characters rather than a singular protagonist, each with his or her own thoughts, feelings, and anxieties on the tangled web that is the plot. Among those characters will be at least one, maybe more, that any one individual of high school age or older can directly relate to.
As these characters speak and interact with one another the viewer naturally recalls their own memories from when they felt the same way. The feeling of needing to be loved, or to love someone. The feeling of having little self-worth. The feeling of inferiority to those around us. These are pasts we would rather not recall but watching Scum’s Wish causes those memories to bubble to the surface of the mind. We can sympathize with the characters because we’ve been there and felt exactly how they feel as well.
The story set forth is Scum’s Wish is very much a worst-case-scenario, though. Although the feelings set forth in the show are extremely prevalent in modern society, not everyone has actually acted on those feelings like the characters in the Scum’s Wish have. Each and every episode shows that scary “what-if” situation that creeps up from the back of the mind when confronted with unpleasant memories. What could have happened to you and those around you if things had gone just a little differently? The sympathy the viewer felt for the characters quickly turns to empathy as they imagine him or herself in that situation, using their own memories as a foundation.
Differing Paths, Common Destination
The order of psychological appeals in March Comes in Like a Lion and Scum’s Wish are opposite of each other. In March Comes in Like a Lion the viewer is oriented with Rei’s perspective first, before allowing them to relate to his feelings and experiences in some capacity. Scum’s Wish, on the other hand, lets the viewer establish their own personal relationship with the characters before delving into a scenario that they can reasonably fathom could have happened to themselves.
In short, March Comes in Like a Lion elicits empathy before sympathy, while Scum’s Wish elicits sympathy before empathy. While their paths may differ, both shows accomplish the feat of eliciting raw human emotion from the viewer to remarkable success. Each carries a burdensome weight unique from the other, and it is those weights that make each show special.