March Comes in like a Lion is an anime that touched many people’s hearts all across the world. Its heavy and realistic approach on tragedy, family troubles, and ostracization in a heartfelt story about learning to love and recover have been praised by critics. Particular applause has been given towards the story’s complex yet brave take on mental illnesses such as depression and autism.
Without having had any personal interactions with autistic people, I was one of the ones who actually missed out on the portrayal of autism. It was a friend who is still heavily involved today with researching autism that first pointed it out to me. Having worked with autistic kids for her research, she said that Rei practically checks every mark in the book for signs of autism, from current day behaviors to flashbacks of his childhood.
For those who might not be aware, autism is a developmental disorder that impairs an individual’s ability to communicate and interact with those around them. People who have autism are often seen as “weird” by their peers for their lack of understanding of human emotions as well as their inability to express their feelings toward others. Common signs include infants who smile significantly less than the average infant, fewer interactions and engagements with peers and activities that kids often find fun.
Autism operates on a scale. Those with high-functioning autism can still learn to interact with people around them, and they often lead normal lives. They get married, hold a job, and have children. Those with severe autism, however, have trouble interacting with literally anyone and will have trouble learning if at all. Based on the many grand lectures by my friend and my own fair share of research, I am thoroughly convinced that Rei is autistic, albeit on the lower end of the spectrum. I have broken down the most common traits that can be found in autistic people.
1. Avoids eye contact and prefers to be alone
A big problem that the general population has struggled with is understanding the difference between simply being an introvert versus actually having autism. It doesn’t help that the signs, when written or said aloud, sound so mundane and commonplace, such as this particular one. Anyone can easily say that they prefer being alone and have trouble making eye contact. However, the difference is in the actual struggle. While it is not natural for introverts to surround themselves with people or possibly make eye contact, it is something that they are still capable of doing. Sometimes, they may interact with people when the situation demands it (i.e. job hunting). Sometimes they don’t even think about when they’re with a comfortable audience, such as close friends and family.
However, an actual autistic person will struggle immensely in the area regardless of who they are talking to as those with severe autism are practically incapable of ever meeting someone’s eyes. It doesn’t even matter if the person they’re speaking to is someone they have known and have been close to for years. They still cannot meet the person’s eyes.
Rei’s preference to be alone can be easily interpreted with a variety of other reasons that plague him: he’s obviously an introvert, he has a very complicated family history that probably pushed him to stay away from people in general, and he appears to have depression, another mental illness that forces victims to stay alone and away from people. However, his continuous avoidance for eye contact is something that can be traced pretty solidly to the idea of autism.
If anyone goes to rewatch the episodes, the audience can see that Rei almost consistently keeps his face slightly down or slightly off to the side. It is almost rare to catch a glimpse where Rei is actually looking anyone right in the eyes. By the beginning of the series, it had already been established that Rei had known Nikaidou and had been acquainted with the Kawamoto family for a long time. Yet it took almost twelve episodes later for Rei to even raise his head, and a whole season before he could face Nikaidou, Hinata, and her sisters head-on. Even then, take special note to any conversations he has. Often times, they happen when he is busy with something and is simply unable to look at the person he is conversing with in the eye.
It is a small detail that can go practically unnoticed to an untrained eye, and I commend the author and the anime adaptation for sneaking it into Rei’s character.
2. Struggles with understanding other people’s or their own feelings
This is the largest reason as to why autistic children have trouble developing friendships. Because of their lack of understanding about their own feelings, and in turn other people’s, they are unable to communicate like how a “normal” child would. Their actions and words are often blunt to the point of being rude or sometimes incomprehensible. However, they are not being rude. They simply do not understand that the words they have spoken are even capable of hurting someone’s feelings.
Rei illustrates this particular trait multiple times in the series and continues to do so in the second season. One of the biggest moments in the first season was how he struggled with teaching Hinata how to play shogi. He bluntly begins to spit out everything he knows at once and is absolutely perplexed at the idea that Nikaidou’s illustration of cats representing each shogi piece even helps facilitate the understanding of shogi at all. Rei never fully comprehended just how confused and, in a sense, how small he made Hinata feel when he just bluntly spoke out every bit of knowledge he had on shogi, and neither did he understand that he might’ve hurt her in any way.
This is even reflected in his past when he could not make any friends at school. The classmates’ side conversations are often about how “weird” he was and how he didn’t “talk normally”. This immediately hints at Rei’s struggles with communication even as a child, and an even bigger sign is the fact that he does not understand what it is that makes him so weird and neither does he particularly care. He somehow knew he was different, and there was nothing else for him to explore. His struggle to understand his own emotions continues into the second season where he feels an indescribable rage and hatred towards the bullies after Hinata’s terrible experience with bullying. But what stood out to me from that scene isn’t the reveal that he clearly cares about Hinata so freaking much, rather that he doesn’t even understand why he feels that way at all and seems to be completely oblivious to the signs of how deep his emotions ran for the young Kawamoto girl. The struggle for autistic people to understand their own feelings is a fairly complex topic, and for anyone who’s interested in reading more about it can click here for a well-written article.
3. Remains nonverbal or has delayed language development
I included this because it is one of the biggest signs for autism in a child, but I actually do not have any proof of Rei from the anime itself. Since this is a sign usually reserved for babies as they learn to talk, there is simply not enough material to use as examples. However, because this is such an important sign for autism, I thought it was too important to not list out.
4. Gets upset by minor changes in routine or surroundings
This particular detail is largely played for laughs as the Kawamoto family, Nikaidou, and his beloved science teacher constantly disrupts Rei’s well planned and simple life, much to his annoyance and exasperation. However, has anyone noticed exactly how identical each of his day largely is? He wakes up at the same time, practices for a majority of his free time, goes to school to sit on the stairways with the same lunch every day, and then heads off for shogi practice or shogi competitions.
If Rei lived with no outside interactions, I sincerely believe he would live the exact same day every single day for the entire year. And that in particular is not a very “normal” thing to do. Autistic people live on schedules and patterns and can react very poorly to any changes to what they see as a “perfect” or uniform life. In the anime’s case, the interruptions and surprises are intended to be good for Rei as he learns to branch out with new people and new experiences in life. But do not forget just how flustered and how lost he was in the first few episodes when his schedules had to accommodate the unexpected changes.
5. Has highly restricted/specified linear interests
I think this is easily the most obvious of signs to Rei’s possible autism. In Season 2, he bluntly admits that he doesn’t particularly have this “passion” or “love” for shogi. In fact, he doesn’t even consider it a hobby. It’s just something that he’s good at, and he knows it. And because of that fact, it seems like that’s the only thing he can possibly do. He had a literal mind implosion when his friends asked him about shogi being a fun activity because the thought of it never occurred him. Shogi was the only thing he simply can and will always do. This one interest and extreme intensity of seeing only shogi as a literal lifestyle is one of the clearest signs that differentiates Rei from the rest of his peers. Nikaidou is passionate about it, but it’s clear that he sees fun in other activities, such as writing, and Shimada, as dedicated as he is to shogi, is the same way.
6. Performs repetitive behaviors such as flapping, rocking or spinning
This actually doesn’t pertain to Rei, but it does pertain to his father. Something Rei mentions when he was thinking back on his family was the fact that whenever his father played shogi, he would constantly rock back and forth without stopping. Rocking while doing an activity is another big sign of autism, and even more interestingly this “habit” could be hinting at the fact that autism is heavily linked to genetic factors.
The exact number or percentage of genetic linkage is still difficult to trace back since there are multiple factors and mutations that possibly lead to supposedly non-inherited autism. However, there has been evidence that autism can be inherited because of a specific genetic mutation in the body. Scientists have concluded that around 15% of autistic children are linked to their parents’ genetics, though the number is only an estimate, and the fact that Rei’s father seems to exhibit signs of autism hints at the fact that Rei might’ve inherited it. More evidence that leads to Rei’s father being autistic is the fact that his relationship with his own family is heavily strained, and that he practically had no friends aside from Rei’s adoptive father.
7. Has unusual and often intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors
In the American medical drama, The Good Doctor, the autistic protagonist lives in a practically empty room. In an episode, it was revealed that the protagonist lives alone with only a bed, a closet, and a TV. That is because excessive details tend to override autistic people’s senses. This is also reflected in the way that Rei lives by himself. He literally has nothing in his room except for his bed, his shogi board, and a closet of his clothes.
Played for more comedic measures, Rei has also shown himself to be overwhelmed when he stays in hotel rooms with their excessive furniture and luxuries as well. He was also clearly flustered when his teacher introduced him to the science club as the members were doing a variety of different things all at once, not to mention in a loud fashion too. And interestingly enough, one of the reasons why he felt comfortable with the Kawamoto family in the first place was because of their steadiness and reliability. If you pay close attention to each episode, you will notice that anything out of the ordinary when it comes to color, light, or sound will affect Rei immediately as he is hypersensitive and aware to these changes in a fashion normal people usually aren’t.
8. Fascination with water
This was likely the most shocking and captivating information I learned through my research of autism with professionals. Autistic children are apparently highly drawn to water, and their obsession with seeing or listening to water can even be dangerous when left alone. I do not know if this was a purposeful decision by the author, but it is without question that water plays a large role to the entire story. Water is repeatedly used to symbolize not only Rei but also the situation he has found himself in. Rei feels a connection to water; just as how water is clear, see-through, and easily forgotten, he himself is also ignored by the people around him, but he doesn’t even mind it. And in the very first episode, Rei makes a point that he chose his apartment just because it was so close to water. In fact, he even remarks that he always loved being near water and seeing water as a whole.
March Comes in like a Lion is a proud and courageous story that confronts many issues even modern day people are unwilling to admit to such as bullying and depression. Though this is unconfirmed by the author, the fact that an autistic protagonist may be used to tell a story simply adds one more drop of complexity as well as braveness to the melting pot of humility and empathy that the author has already created.