The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Stars Align ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
I was moderately interested in Stars Align for most of this first episode's run before the post-credits scene happened. Now I'm definitely interested to see where it goes while also being concerned that the show can handle everything it's set itself up for: a sports drama about an underdog team poo-pooed by the entire school (and its scrappy captain) and a story about dysfunctional families, complete with physical and emotional abuse of the children by the parents. It's certainly possible to weave those two stories together and for the kids in question (at this point Maki and Toma) to find a saving grace in their sport, but it's a very ambitious goal because the two themes are so different.
The hook is very well done, though, and the episode manages to evoke a series of emotions. First up is plain old irritation at the way the boys' soft tennis club is treated; somehow they're not a good group of kids because they aren't super competitive and would rather have fun playing the sport while the girls' team is invested in winning. The reactions of the two teachers watching the girl/boy match certainly says a lot about the different attitudes people can have about school sports – the girls' coach is furious and feels like the boys are making a mockery of the game, while the boys' coach basically has the attitude that they're just kids, so let them be. Unfortunately it's the girls' coach's that is the prevailing feeling, and when the student council next meets, the president decrees that losing clubs are a drain on winning clubs' resources. To say that this infuriated me is to understate it, because it espouses an attitude of “winning is everything” that I find toxic when applied to, well, anyone, but especially to children. For Toma, it tells him that his efforts to keep the club his beloved brother played have been in vain and that what he's doing has no value, which is doubtless behind his increasingly frantic attempts to get Maki to join.
And what's behind Toma's concern is not entirely a love of soft tennis, unless I miss my guess. Toma's close with his older brother, but his home is very clearly not a happy one, as we see when his mother begins to panic about being home alone with Toma. Since Ryoma (the older brother) isn't concerned, it's probably not because Mom is actually afraid of the younger son, but rather simply that she doesn't like him for some reason. She seems to be actively rejecting Toma, and that's worrying, even if nothing Toma has done thus far indicates that he has any feelings on the subject. On the other hand, Maki's homelife is considerably more concerning. Comments he and his mother make at the beginning of the episode indicate that they move around a lot, and when we finally find out why, it's so different in tone from the rest of the episode that it feels like a punch in the face. (It's also more in line with western Young Adult fiction than a lot of anime.) It's definitely something I want to follow up on, despite my concerns about the scope of the show's ambitions and the almost too-simple character designs, because if it manages to pull this combination off, I think it'll be good.
As an anime-original production written and directed by Kazuki Akane, the director of Escaflowne and Noein, I had high hopes for Stars Align entering this season - particularly after witnessing its gorgeous trailer, which was absolutely brimming with expressive, charming character animation. Having seen this first episode, I am happy to report that Stars Align is easily the best-animated premiere of the season so far, and is also setting itself up to be the season's premiere character drama. If you have any affection whatsoever for stories about characters struggling through the infinite conflicts of daily life, Stars Align demands your attention.
It's hard to know where to start when describing this show's visual effect, since its strengths all work in such effortless unison. The character animation is likely its most immediate and striking feature; every single character in this premiere is enlivened through charming yet realistic and smartly observed animation, all their personalities and relationships with others clear in their physical presence. Conversations between groups of characters are never still affairs here; characters don't just accompany their own statements with physical embellishment, they consistently move and react to each other, creating a perpetually convincing impression of adolescent life as it is truly experienced. When a given character is made uncomfortable by another's entrance, you can absolutely tell; when they're comfortable and in their element, their personalities bloom in the fullness of their physical self-expression.
Stars Align's method of conveying information and drama purely through animation extends beyond its conversations and character acting. The practice tennis match this episode makes it abundantly clear exactly who on the boys' team is genuinely dedicated to play, entirely through the passion and anger of their movements. You can really feel both the pride and bitterness of team captain Toma in his movements on the court; meanwhile, the joy that transfer student Maki feels in running and physical exertion is captured with equal grace, through a combination of jubilant animation, inviting color work, and the sunny guitar melody in the background.
As I said, no single strength of Stars Align's aesthetic stands alone. This episode is confidently paced throughout, and holds its cuts for just long enough to let their emotional impact land. The layouts are always beautiful and often rich in emotional intent, with characters' feelings regularly echoed through the sharp angles of their portrayal, their positioning relative to others, or a given scene's overall lighting. Scenes of camaraderie at school are conveyed through intimate shots that take tremendous advantage of the show's background animation, making for a stark contrast with each protagonist's unhappy home life.
That leads us to another of this episode's strengths - its lightly illustrated yet truly biting family drama. Stars Align isn't one of those sports dramas where the central sport also feels like the center of each character's universe - it's a character-first story, and the surrounding substance of Toma and Maki's lives directly informs their relationship with tennis. Both Toma and Maki are suffering through unhappy conditions at home, circumstances this episode conveys with unflinching clarity. But through capturing the full context of Toma and Maki's lives, Stars Align is better able to illustrate what this sport and this team might mean to both of them: community, pride, and maybe even purpose. The beauty of Stars Align's communal character animation feels even more significant in the context of the darkness each of these boys are shouldering; the freedom and joy of creating your own community, captured entirely through animation.
From its direction to its lighting to its sound design to its scripting, this would be an excellent premiere even if it weren't so beautifully animated. Toss in that fluidity as well, and you end up with what is very likely the strongest premiere of the season. If Stars Align can somehow maintain its remarkable visual strengths, it could easily be one of the year's best shows.
I can't see myself ultimately following this series, mostly because true sports series which can truly hook me only come along a couple of times in a decade. However, this original series makes a stronger effort than most to appeal to me with its first episode. And that's before its jaw-dropper of an epilogue scene.
Whether fair or not, that's the scene that everyone who checks out this episode is going to wind up talking about. Even before that, the writing had shown a little more ambition than normal; Toma is desperate enough to recruit former friend Maki that he's even willing to pay him off for his athletic skill. The financial status of Maki's single-parent home is also brought up without making it a central point (as is usually the case), and there's some problem between Toma and his mother. That helps set up some potentially interesting subtexts to offset the lackadaisical attitude of most of the boys' soft tennis club, which is nearly extreme enough to constitute a legitimate joke. (Some students certainly see them that way.) The potential disbanding of the club, on the other hand, is a more typical crisis, though here it seems driven more by practicality than any evil plot by disaffected Student Council members. It also sets up the conflict needed to give the story a goal. With Maki finally accepting Toma's offer to join, everything seems to be proceeding smoothly if slowly.
Then that epilogue hits – literally. Not in the slightest did I expect the series to suddenly and emphatically introduce domestic violence and handle it so seriously and devastatingly. More painful than the slap which could well echo across the season was Toma's all-too-realistic reaction to it. In retrospect the appearance of Toma's scumbag of a father puts some earlier scenes in a different perspective, especially Toma and his mother moving when they were; doubtlessly it was to get away from him. This is far heavier content than series like this normally delve into, so there's a bit of natural concern about whether or not the writing is going to be able to handle that properly while integrating it into the main story. While writer/director Kazuki Akane's credits mostly consist of more action-oriented shows, he did hit home runs with the passionate The Vision of Escaflowne and the very involved Noein –to your other self, both of which delved into some trickier emotional realms, so the potential for something great to come out of this is there.
Stars Align initially seemed like a pretty typical sports show title, one connected to Toma's interested in astronomy, but now the very real possibility exists for it to embody a deeper meaning. That might be enough to make it worth a look even for those who don't normally bother with sports series.
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