Scene analysis: minimalist, effective opening shots of 3-gatsu no Lion

The anime 3-gatsu no Lion (“March comes in like a lion”) just ended this week. Despite being really well directed and animated by Shaft, who was responsible for other big titles such as the Monogatari series and Nisekoi, sadly, this anime remains one of the more underrated shows this season. An analysis of just the opening shots reveals an artistry that defines a true classic.

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vlcsnap-2017-03-26-15h24m03s751The very first shot opens on a monochromatic palatte and a tightly-cropped frame focusing on a ripple of water. Another ripple abruptly collides with the first, suggesting that protagonist and antagonist are of the same element — water. The two are closely related, yet opposing and conflicted. This scene parallels the situation involving Kyouko and our protagonist, Kiriyama Rei. Both Kyouko and Rei are technically of the same family and face the same problems, yet deal with them very differently due to their conflicting natures.

Further enhancing the violence and tension is the prominent use of only monochromatic hues, through which the shot keeps the focus tight on the action of opposing ripples. This idea of minimizing shot composition and color use will be echoed in subsequent shots, to boil the mise en scene down to its very essentials.

In the next 4 seconds, we see white waves tinged with blue halos that become more violent over time, suggesting the calm of the ocean before a storm, implied by unseen strong winds blowing over the water surface. The two shots juxtaposed serve to increase tension through the action of the water (a theme heavily echoed throughout the series). The individual ripples start gently but a strong wave arises out of their opposition to each other, suggesting a significant confrontation is about to occur.

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Cut to a silhouette of a boy, possibly our protagonist, standing facing vast, open skies with ragged clouds. In contrast to the extreme close-up (ECU) of the opening shots, this one is wide-angled, suggesting that there is much to see of the world. But he retains the same monochromatic black of the previous shots, presenting an empty space amidst the rich colour of the world. Perhaps he is falling into the abyss more than he knows? The scene lingers a few moments, the silhouette’s hair fluttering in strong winds, paralleling the winds agitating the water’s surface in the previous shots.

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Immediately following the intro soundtrack, we return to another monochromatic, tightly cropped shot of water flowing down a drain of a household sink. The palatte is now less contrasting compared to the initial shots, with more gradients of greys. As the water flows, we hear a woman’s voice-over (VO).

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The shot opens on a female figure, looking sinister with eyes hidden. The bokeh (background blur) is aesthetically tinged with shades of green, suggesting a rather disquieting feel. This bokeh is important as it introduces greens which are cool colors that imply a negative situation, without the need to show background detail, putting the focus on the speaker. Just using simple blurs sets the tone of the initial scenes while introducing key characters in the appropriate palatte representing their respective alignments.

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Following that, we are brought back to the same image of the water flowing down the black void of the basin, this time with even brighter highlights at top right. The volume of water flowing down the drain has visibly decreased, the sink being almost fully drained — a direct reference to the previous monologue introducing the character’s name, “Zero”. This shot has a high level of camera “shake”, perhaps to emphasise the unsettling vibe of the scene and how uncomfortable our protagonist is feeling deep down.

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We cut back to the woman, her face and her sinister smile in ECU. Her rhetorical question suggests mockery rather than seeking a response. The ECU pulls audience attention to the eeriness of her smile, hinting that this character might be the antagonist.

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Next, we are back in monochrome, this time highly stylised and contrasted. The soft lighting from the previous shots turn back to the harshly contrasted lighting of the first shots, symbolising the featured character pared down to his very essence, representing the concept of “zero”. An interesting point to note is how he is largely perceived in negative space — another reference to the concept of zero. The shot zooms in to a close up of our protagonist’s face, showing his deadpan and wordless response to the provocations of the female character. This centralised shot pulls the audience’s attention toward his eyes, threatening and confrontational, glaring at the camera.

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As we pull in even closer, we realise that his eyes are not empty, after all. The tones return to a softer grey light on the character. The detail in this light makes him less hostile than he first appears. The tension reduces somewhat, but the monochromatic palatte remains, suggesting that this confrontation is far from over.

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Remaining ECU, the camera pans right, away from the protagonist’s face and into the eyes of his female antagonist, thus making her first contact with the audience.

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As she tells him that “there is no place for [him] in this world”, we are back in high contrast, under what appears to be a steel bridge. In this shot, the protagonist becomes lost in shadow as black wipes across the screen, ending in darkness.

In these quick establishing shots, Shaft gets its major plotpoints across efficiently and economically, setting the tone for the series. Important characters are introduced without the need for backstory. Yet their relationship and the tension between them, while still mysterious, are palpable. The promise of slow revelation keeps the audience effectively hooked, Props to Shaft for presenting a novel, visionary style of directing, promising a gripping narrative technique to an already cracking tale. 🙂

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