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Interview: Stars Align Director Kazuki Akane (Part 1)

by Kim Morrissy,

Stars Align is an anime original TV series written and directed by Kazuki Akane, director of The Vision of Escaflowne and Birdy the Mighty: Decode. The story follows the trials and tribulations of the boys in the soft tennis club, both on and off the court. The anime's sensitive depiction of issues like family abuse has caught the attention of fans around the world. After the intriguing cliffhanger ending of episode 12, Anime News Network reached out to Akane at eightbit, which produced the anime, to talk about the unique qualities of the show. In the first part of this interview, we talk about a wide range of the anime's themes, from realism in animation to dealing with family abuse and LGBTQ+ issues.

First off, what sparked the initial idea behind Stars Align?

KAZUKI AKANE: Before Stars Align, I was working on Code Geass: Akito the Exiled. Code Geass is a work with a source material, and including the preparations, it took over five years to complete. As I worked on it, my desire to create a story I want to create built up inside me.

When I look at anime these days, I find myself wondering if it is possible to create one with a message to convey and there should be more of that. Personally, I wanted to tell a story as an adult about the problems that youths have, to show that their pain is not impossible to understand, that we can experience it together. The generational gap can be overcome. The youths have been told that they are to blame for their own problems, but that's wrong. It's not your fault for having problems. I think it's unfair that the youths are always told that they're not good enough according to an arbitrary standard.

I wanted to make a drama with a more positive message, and I felt like animation was a good medium to do this through. You see, anime is generally watched by people in their teens and twenties. When those people become adults and interact with young people, with their own children, I feel like they mustn't force adult ideals upon them. These days, I feel like a lot of anime is made because people have a very particular idea of what the young people want. It's so disposable, like they're just checking off items on a list. I've been told that the youths don't want to watch a heavy drama, to which I can't help but feel sceptical. Do they really just want to watch amusing and light-hearted diversions every single day? I wanted to prove that wasn't the case, and that's why I decided to try making this anime.

This series addresses some difficult subjects, like family problems and abuse. How difficult is it for creators to make anime about that sort of subject? Is there a kind of atmosphere in this industry of “don't write anything too disturbing or controversial”?

That's how it is with television shows. In Japan, it's common for shows that are broadcast on regular terrestrial channels to get the most exposure, and when it comes to TV there are certain things you've got to comply with or are considered taboo. But if you put in words with a discriminatory nuance, or words that people use when they're being discriminatory , people will frown upon it, but if you show it through actions or as a phenomenon, they're surprisingly lenient.

When it comes to parents hitting their children on TV, that would be a no-no in America, right? It's very rare to see it. Through the animation's direction, I could show how uncomfortable it is when an adult hits a child. I just tried not to put it in words.

Yeah, the ending of the first episode certainly was a shock.

Indeed, but there's so many anime where you'll see people getting slashed or shot with a gun. So why is it so uncomfortable just to watch someone get punched or struck? I did make sure to frame it and have the acting convey that sense of discomfort - that way you can see how uncomfortable it is when an adult strikes a child. From the child's perspective, it's terrifying. I wanted adults to be able to see through that perspective.

So is this series aimed at adults as well?

I want adults to see it, I want young people to see it.

I was in my teens when the anime boom started in Japan. Before then, anime was seen as just something for little kids in elementary school. When I was a teen, things like Star Blazers and Mobile Suit Gundam got big, and anime started to be for teens as well. Time has passed since then, and nowadays you can find people in their fifties and sixties who watch anime. I want those people to see it, as well as the teens of today. The target audience is broad in that sense.

Why did you choose tennis as the theme?

Specifically, it's soft tennis. It's a sport that does not have many competitive players on a global scale. It was developed during a time when Japanese people were smaller and weaker, so the games are short and it doesn't require much stamina. That's why children can play it.

If Stars Align were about a major sport like basketball, volleyball, or baseball, then you could have aspirations of playing it professionally. In high school, the kids who have talent will get support from their parents to keep at it further. But soft tennis wasn't a professional sport when we made the pitch to make Stars Align; it's a sport that the children play purely to have fun. I wanted to make a drama around that.

There are a lot of anime that focus on sports like basketball, but personally, I can't help but see them as rather calculated. You pick that sport because it can make money, right? But that was impossible for soft tennis. There were no professionals. So you'd only play it because you like it. I thought it would be nice to pick a sport for pure reasons like that.

Kids in middle school who are around thirteen or fourteen live their lives in the least calculated way, I think. They don't think about how they're going to make money as an adult.

Because soft tennis was born in Japan, do you think that nuance might not get across to overseas viewers?

That is a shame. I should have explained that more within the anime itself. Please do spread this information.

I'm curious about the title “Hoshiai no Sora”. Is it a reference to Tanabata? (Interviewer's note: The festival celebrates the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, star-crossed lovers who can only meet once a year.)

Yes, it is.

Ah, I see. The English title has the nuance of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it doesn't indicate the star-crossed lovers of Tanabata in particular. I suppose that's another thing that you might not grasp if you don't know about Japanese culture.

Oh, I didn't know that. Translating into English sure seems difficult.

Do you play soft tennis yourself?

Yes, I played it when I was in middle school and in my first year of high school. Some of the things I experienced in middle school are in the story. It's true to life in that way.

Many sports anime present the sports in a very stylized way, but Stars Align is very realistic. It seems very difficult to animate sports in such detail. Why did you decide to aim for realism?

On a technical level, a lot of animators add stylistic touches. Personally, I think it's easier to draw sports in an exaggerated way because you can fudge the details. Animators who can capture realistic movements display incredible skill. The quality of animation in this industry is so high that I thought I'd like to try aiming for realism.

So it was like an experiment?

Yeah, I suppose there was an element of experiment to it as well. I wanted to try something new with the visuals. Around the world people like over-the-top action, but when it comes to sport, and especially something that children are playing, too much style and exaggeration will make it harder to see their emotions.

With this anime, I wanted to portray both the sports and the characters' problems and emotional turmoil in detail. I wanted both aspects to be realistic.

What did the animators do to understand the proper form for playing tennis?

At eightbit there are people who are experienced tennis players. Some of them are quite good. We had them filmed and the animators used them as reference.

The match scenes have mostly 2D animation, but there are some occasional 3D elements. Was that something you wanted to explore further?

The quality of Japanese animation is really high. You can use computers to make a moving 3D camera-like effect, but I mostly wanted to emphasize the 2D animation. The 3D elements are there to complement the animation. I do think that CG has its place, since even a relatively inexperienced animator can create a sense of space through it, but my ideal is for the animators to convey that space through their own hands.

So that's why the CG parts are limited?

That's right. I think that hand-drawn animation has an appeal that can't be captured through computers. I wanted to focus on the characters' movements in order to convey a sense of realism, so that you can get closer to the characters' perspective. They feel more tangible that way. If you rely too much on layouts that are unrealistic or manga-like, it'll feel more like you're watching a theater show or a stage play, and the audience will find it harder to identify with the characters. That approach has a strong impact, but you might lose sight of the characters as people. I thought if I used too much CG, that might end up happening.

On the other hand, whenever you make an animation that seeks realism, people will question why you didn't make it through live-action. Did you get that sort of question for Stars Align?

I think that the animation in Stars Align is a decisively different form of expression from live-action. I was taught that animation is an abbreviation and an embellishment of reality. If you just replicate reality as is through animation, it comes off as hollow. By abbreviating and embellishing, you can get closer to the essence of what you're depicting. When you reflect reality as is, you don't get closer to the essence, but by emphasizing and abbreviating “it”, you can depict it. I think that's the magic of animation. I feel like some creators have been forgetting that in recent times.

Getting back to the story, episode 8 includes a scene discussing LGBTQ+ and X-Gender. When did you become interested in this subject and why did you want to include it in the anime?

It was around five years ago. Homosexuality is a fairly common theme among Japanese manga and novels, particularly in Boys-Love works that are aimed at women. I knew that there was a genre for same-sex relationships, but as far as entertainment in general goes, I had my reservations about how it's often portrayed. You see, in live-action television, love between men is treated as comedy. It's a similar case overseas as well, like in America or Europe, and I couldn't help but feel uneasy about it. I always thought there was something wrong about it.

In Stars Align, there's a plot where the boys dress as girls so that they can gather intel on a rival school. When I was writing it, I heard that people who question their sexuality and gender exist. So I actually gathered information about it. Someone I know introduced me to a person who presents as male, but the family registry says he's a woman. Through talking with him, I understood that this kind of plot shouldn't be mere comedy. When he told me that he'd been questioning his gender ever since he was a child, it made me think about the struggle we all have to reconcile our identities and where we belong in the world.

The scene in the anime is not just about same-sex relationships but about finding our place in the world. It's about all kinds of things. Gender identity is a part of that as well. Finding that purpose in your own being is something that everyone who participates in society has to do in some form or another. I wanted to make use of that in my story, or rather have it as one of the themes.

You don't really see much of this kind of thing in anime, do you? I mentioned before that it's presented as comedy, and I think that's awfully insensitive. Questioning your gender is a perfectly valid thing to do. I think that anyone who has ever questioned their place or reason for being should be able to empathize in some way.

Japanese people have an old-fashioned way of thinking when it comes to these things, so there's not yet a widespread understanding of LGBTQ+ and X-gender. There are Japanese words like “okama” and “onee”. I think we really ought to change the way we talk about such people. Young people should be able to understand, so I wanted to try putting this message into an anime. Even in Japan, young people have a better reaction regarding LGBTQ+ than older people do. Older people tend to panic. (laughs)

But, you know, I was really surprised by the amount of reaction the episode got from overseas on Twitter and so on. When episode 8 came out, there was a flood of reactions from people happy about the message about LGBTQ+ and empathizing with others.

You've talked about how anime has to innovate and try new ideas. What do you think was the biggest innovation about Stars Align?

We touched on this before, but personally speaking, I think a lot of anime depicts the world in a deliberately unrealistic and fantasy-like manner. You know the term escapism? A major premise for a lot of anime these days is to present a dream world and tell the viewer to go play in it for escapism. I'm told that this is what succeeds commercially.

Life in Japan these days is tough, whether you're an adult or a child. Everyone has it rough. There are adults who think that they want to go home and have fun watching escapist anime. But in my view, we've finally reached a point where the genres have become diverse and the range of expression has broadened. Animators are very skilled, and there are a lot more people who can do good voice acting these days. If their powers of expression have increased, why must they work on just fantasy-like stories? I think that anime should also be able to focus on reality and depict real problems that can invite the viewers to think along with them. Stars Align is the first time I feel like I've been able to convey that through a television anime. This kind of anime has its appeal, too.

You know, Japanese manga is really diverse. There are fun and interesting manga that also grapple with societal problems. Whatever the topic, there's a manga for it. That's the strength of manga, I feel. It's been 50 years since the advent of TV anime in Japan, but it still hasn't reached that level of diversity. If we don't diversify, Japanese anime will die. Living things that can't adapt just won't survive, you know? It's the same with the mass media. That's why I wanted to create some of that diversity and make this industry a little more flexible.

The adults have been telling me that this kind of thing doesn't sell, but even if it doesn't sell right now, it's for the sake of animation 5-10 years from now. I think the consumers, particularly young consumers, may understand that. Commercially, this may be a bit of an experiment, but that's why I wanted to give it a shot.

Join us again in part 2 of this interview, where we discuss the future of the show past its TV run and the current realities of the anime industry.

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