I started thinking about the similarities in March comes in like a lion and Teppu, of all things. They both deliberately tell a story with main characters who fit the “rival” archetype in sports anime much more than they fit the protagonist archetype. They both tell a story from the Classic Anime Rival’s point of view, and because of that, the story feels unusual and a lot of the classic sports anime tropes are messed with.
And this isn’t supposition.
March pretty much acknowledges this reversal in the scene where Nikaido frames himself as a shonen protag who needs to defeat his rival Rei and… well, when you think about it, that is essentially correct.
Rei is aloof, cynical, super talented and winning constantly because of it…but his heart isn’t really in the game. He doesn’t get along with his peers very well. He’s definitely Classic Anime Rival material.
Meanwhile Nikaido is the scrappy underdog fueled by undying passion and the power of friendship who will keep playing until he collapses and inspires everyone around him. He gets along well with others. He WOULD typically be the main character.
It’s the same for Natsuo and Yuzuko in Teppu, only to a different degree. Rei ‘s archetype is that of the more pleasant kind of rival who’s closed off rather than mean. He says he’s not the hero’s friend, but he kinda is even from the beginning. But Natsuo? She’s the nasty, hardcore rival archetype. She’s always been able to achieve the things others work at through effortless talent. She’s often “bored” by how easily she can get by and she constantly infuriates others with how lightly she takes them. She’s also violent, terrifying and has a personal mad-on for the hero.
Meanwhile, Yuzuko is explicitly noted to be the classic protagonist who got where she is with hard work! passion! determination! She’s the underdog without much talent who bridges the gap with her effort and optimism. She pulls off those surprise victories.
So both March and Teppu allow us to experience nearly an entire story told from the rival’s POV, but what new insights does this shift in focus show us? For both Rei and Natsuo, it’s lonely at the top, but this manifests in different ways.
Because he was gifted from an early age, Rei often feels a lot of pressure and people are much quicker to accuse him of being “complacent” and slacking off. As a “genius”, he has higher expectations placed on him and isn’t allowed to struggle like others. This is especially bad for a kid who clearly suffers from clinical depression which often interferes in his gameplay. He quickly begins to feel he isn’t incredible at all.
Rei’s dad’s friend scouted him for his talent at his family’s funeral. Rei lied and said he liked shogi when he honestly didn’t have any particular attachment to the game (seeing it mostly as a way to spend time with his father) just so he could have a place to belong. He was adopted into a shogi family for the sole purpose of being a protege, and his new siblings resented his superior talent and how he monopolized their father’s attention. Even Rei himself felt he was an outsider who had supplanted the “true” children of the family in the eyes of their father, and he moved out because of it.
Over in Teppu, Natsuo had difficulty understanding why others didn’t “get” things as easily as her, which caused her to unintentionally say and do hurtful things. She went out of her way to downplay her abilities and pretended to “make an effort” at first. But nothing helped. People just naturally resent someone who doesn’t have to struggle and work the way they do, and Natsuo’s brother especially resented her, screaming “I hate people who have it all” when she used her skills to help him (there was explicitly a sexism component there too, since being bested by a girl in martial arts, or saved by her, was clearly shameful for him).
While Rei responded to resentment by withdrawing and hating himself, Natsuo responded by leaning into her bad attitude. If people were going to hate her anyway, why not be an arrogant ass? Deep down though, Natsuo feels extremely wounded and lonely in the same way Rei does.
So both works show us that talent is not all its cracked up to be in a culture that revolves around competition. It leads to extra pressure, resentment and heightened expectations. Kids can be exploited for their talent and also ostracized. And like Rei, even the talented can hit a wall and crumble under those pressures.
The REASON the traditional sports anime protag is someone who relies on “hard work” more than talent is because people find it easier to root for someone who really has to work at it but remains cheerful and dedicated despite that, while they will resent someone who’s an introverted prodigy even if they’re putting in a lot of effort as well. Both Rei and Natsuo’s stories show this. So from the talented rival’s point of view, what does our classic hardworking, friendly protagonist look like?
Teppu’s answer is that from Natsuo’s point of view and actually from the point of view of most people, Yuzuko is unnerving and just a little creepy. Her unwavering determination and optimism, her ability to bounce back from pretty much anything, how she can put herself through hell for the sport and still have fun “win or lose”, and her desire to be friends with her opponents who are freshly smarting from being defeated by her- most people actually find that unnatural and offputting.
Opponents AREN’T looking forward to the next match with someone who just humiliated them, so Yuzuko’s offers of “that was fun, let’s do it again!” are usually met with resentment. Natsuo even goes so far to tell she “lacks kindness” because she doesn’t seem to understand the bitterness others are feeling. Natsuo’s spent her whole life feeling bitter, so Yuzuko enrages her.
March is a lot kinder to Nikaido, but since we are inside Rei’s head all the time, we know Nikaido’s constant passion and exuberance genuinely exhausts Rei at times. We also know that Nikaido’s passion makes Rei feel really bad about himself because he can’t have that level of energy and passion. It’s not just aloofness on Rei’s part, he’s a genuinely depressed person and Nikaido sometimes drains him or triggers self loathing. Ultimately, Nikaido is a very positive force in his life, but Rei’s also a bit frustrated with how others seem to naturally take Nikaido’s side and will lecture him for feeling genuinely overwhelmed by Nikaido.
Both Teppu and March show the burning envy the rival feels toward the protagonist, envy that has nothing to do with being “bested” by them. In fact, at the end of the March anime, we have yet to see Nikaido win against Rei onscreen, but Rei is still filled with awe and envy at Nikaido’s unwavering commitment and how he can make declarations like “I’m going to become Meijin (the top shogi player in the country)” with total sincerity and confidence.
Natsuo also envys Yuzuko, and she’s very aware of this. Having fun and working hard at something, achieving victory through that hard work, even experiencing loss- those are all things Natsuo really wants to do but was always denied. Yet these things seem to come to Yuzuko so easily. In her view, Yuzuko is the one who “has it all”. She has friends, a “good personality” and she can experience all these setbacks but still throw her heart and soul into something in a way Natsuo never could. It makes Natsuo want to break this seemingly unbreakable girl.
The whole manga is triggered by Natsuo losing to Yuzuko and looking for revenge, but it’s not because Natsuo minds being bested- in fact, losing to Yuzuko got her really pumped up because it meant for once she had a goal and a reason to work hard. What puts Natsuo on a warpath is that Yuzuko seems to possess this contentment Natsuo can never obtain, the kind of commitment that others admire.
Having a “rival” character be the lead also allows March and Teppu to play with the classic sports anime arcs and be a bit unpredictable. Neither of them follow the classic “get into sport, suck at it and lose, work hard, make a stunning comeback and show up your rival” formula popularized by Rocky.
Rei doesn’t really have to do a training montage or anything because he’s already been working hard and being amazingly talented at shogi his whole life. When he starts losing, “hard work” turns out to be the wrong answer. In fact, it’s a catastrophic answer, Rei already spends so much time on shogi practicing. From the beginning, he’s thrown himself into shogi to escape how empty his life feels otherwise. So obsessing over it even MORE accomplishes nothing besides screwing up his health and exacerbating his loneliness. And whenever he tries to set some dramatic personal goal for his victory- revenge against Gotoh, making money for Hina- it backfires.
Rather, the answer for Rei is to go on an emotional journey and actually pull back from shogi a bit. When Rei gets other things going on in his life besides shogi, he’s better for it. Rei casually starts winning again and rises in rank OFFSCREEN at the end of the anime, because he and the story are more focused on his relationships for now. Hanging out and shooting the breeze with other players, spending more time with his surrogate family- these things are what really help him. Shogi becoming SECONDARY in his life is what actually makes him do better. And that’s pretty interesting.
March comes in like a lion kind of interrogates how romanticizing obsession and singular devotion to a sport can be dangerous. We can destroy ourselves in the name of “hard work”. Being a well-rounded person and taking care of yourself needs to be taken into consideration too.
Teppu also doesn’t follow the classic protagonist arc, of course. Natsuo’s first few fights are very anticlimactic for her- she wins easily and that lets her down. But then she struggles and loses against Yuzuko, and she finally feels some measure of catharsis.
She put her all into trying to beat this opponent and then experienced the feeling of losing even after having tried her hardest. That feeling is a first for her, and there’s a sense of release in that. Maybe she was honestly looking to lose this whole time. In many ways, Natsuo follows a typical rival’s arc- and falls like the rival always does. But losing is a victory for her. It’s a good thing, and what she needed.
But Natsuo’s arc isn’t ENTIRELY that of the classic rival in structure. When Yuzuko offers the hand of friendship, Natsuo rejects her. She realizes she will never be like Yuzuko, but also that she doesn’t need to be. So what if she has a bad personality? Yuzuko’s ‘good personality’ is bad in its own way too. She doesn’t need to aspire to that.
Yuzuko is disappointed by this, feeling sad because she thought she’d found a kindred spirit in Natsuo- someone who could have “fun” with MMA the way she does. But her friend and fellow athlete Ringi assures her that it’s a good thing people are so different from each other. Natsuo doesn’t have to become like Yuzuko, and Yuzuko doesn’t have to be like Natsuo or anyone else.
That seems to be the message of Teppu in the end. Not that Yuzuko is “bad”, but that people shouldn’t try to force themselves into her mindset, or laud it above all others.
In contrast to Natsuo, Rei IS genuinely close with Nikaido, even if he finds Nikaido’s constant friendship speeches and positivity exhausting at times, Nikaido keeps Rei inspired and helps him actually enjoy playing shogi even when he’s feeling his worst. Rei cares for him very much. But March also emphasizes that it’s okay that he and Nikaido are different. After all, Nikaido will be the first person to tell anyone that he NEEDS Rei. He was in danger of slipping into a conceited “bad attitude” HIMSELF, feeling others didn’t work hard like him and looking down at the people he beat, until the day he lost to Rei. It grounded him, he gained a goal. He doesn’t really resent Rei for his greater talent, but understands Rei goes through a lot and works hard in his own way too.
March is overall less harsh towards its characters than Teppu, but the works have a similar message: that our classic rival characters are no less deserving of sympathy than our classic underdogs. Everyone has their own struggles to deal with, and the way we treat talented kids can be downright toxic at times. And putting “hard work” on such a pedestal can have its consequences too, especially in a culture where kids are often pushed past their limits. These innovative stories and the changes in perspective they offer can be invaluable.