The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Skate-Leading Stars ?
What is this?
Figure skater Kensei Maeshima stopped his career when he met rival Reo Shinozaki. Some years after, Maeshima, now a high schooler, uses his physical talent to help other clubs with various activities, while never committing to any one thing. One day, he sees a press conference where Shinozaki announced that he was shifting from single skating to "skate-leading." After that, he met a boy named Hayato Sasugai, who knew of Maeshima's single skating career. Sasugai invites Maeshima to the world of skate-leading, or competitive team-based skating.
How was the first episode?
Hey, kids, here's an interesting thought! If you make an ill-advised bargain with someone, along the lines of, oh, I don't know, swearing that you'll quit the sport you love and that your recently deceased parents performed if you lose a competition against a highly-skilled competitor, you don't have to stick with it. Especially if you're a grieving ten-year-old who still did pretty darn well and placed second. But if it wasn't for that, Skate-Leading Stars might not have a story, so here we are. Poor, angry fifth-grader Kensei, whose life was already in the toilet, told his emotionless rival Seo that he'd quit figure skating if he lost to him, so when Seo comes out victorious and cruelly tells Kensei that he'll never beat him, he just…stops. If Kensei was looking for a way out of figure skating because it reminded him of his parents' deaths (and his coach's in the same accident; gotta pile on the tragedy for this poor kid), that'd be one thing, but since that's clearly not the case, it just feels like an over-dramatic set up for introducing the point of the show: skate-leading.
I started to suspect that skate-leading was a made-up sport when it had military-themed position names. It is, as far as I can tell, an anime-only variant of synchronized skating, and while I'd kind of rather have seen an anime series about that gender-neutral sport/performing art, I also can't quite find it in me to fault Skate-Leading Stars for making the effort to combine the ever-popular boy idol group story with the residual popularity of male figure skating from Yuri!!! on Ice. Full marks for just going for it, show!
Despite some lovely and graceful animation of, specifically, balletic arm movements and jumps, this first episode really does feel like a bit of a misery party. Kensei grows from an angry kid to an angry teenager who hasn't been able to let go of his past (specifically the role Seo played in it), and that's less a character trait than a blueprint for how most of the introduced characters function. The members of his high school's skate-leading team resent him for having quit, his friends don't really understand him, and Seo's half-brother Hayato, who pops up with dreams of vengeance of his own, is so unbelievably angry about pretty much everything that his character design radiates fury. (Seo appears to have had his emotions surgically removed.) Since all of this comes crashing down on Kensei, all based on a decision he made as a grieving child, it feels even more melodramatic than is the norm for sports dramas. While I wouldn't call it bad, it also failed to grab me. There may be a good sports story in this series, but there also isn't a single likable character in this episode or a decent motive to be found, and I'm not quite willing to wait until one turns up.
Although I watched figure skating while growing up, I lost interest in it as a sport or artistic endeavor as an adult. That was a big part of the reason why I never ended up following Yuri!!! on Ice despite its evident quality, and that is also a big part of the reason why I won't be following this one, either, even though its first episode shows some promise.
The other main reason is that the set-up here is about as stereotypical as they come for a sports-related series. The MC was a star as a child but not the best, so he gets out of the sport. Years later he returns to it partly due to an old rival. One of the two even slightly original twists to this is that the MC's return is not purely self-motivated; he must be egged into it by the half-brother of his rival, who does not even deny that he wants to use the MC to get revenge against his star brother over his cold, smug attitude, but still manages to slickly play to the MC's ego. The MC also (deservedly, it looks like) gets the cold shoulder at first over trying to join the sport's team at his school, rather than being welcomed back as the wayward prodigy. While neither is a dramatic game-changer for the genre, they nonetheless add some more compelling facets into the scenario.
That's good, because the cast certainly is not selling the series to those not normally interested in bishonen-focused fare. What little has been shown about the personalities of nearly all of the guys introduced so far amounts to checking boxes off on the list of standard bishonen archetypes in otome games and/or reverse-harem titles; only the half-brother bent on revenge deviates much at all. Balancing that out is a relatively high level of character design and animation quality on the skating scenes; this may not be quite at the Yuri!!! on Ice level, but it's still better than normal for animation in a sports genre.
My other quibble is that “skate-leading” would appear to be a made-up sport for this series, as no equivalent to it exists in actual competitive ice skating. Creating original sports variants can work – Keijo!!!!!!!! proved that – but I question the practicality of the configuration used in this case, as having five skaters on ice at the same time doing fancy moves seems very limiting. This episode could have benefited greatly from having a sample of the actual sport rather than all being backstory and set-up, and its absence is the biggest reason why I cannot rate this episode higher.
It's going to be hard to avoid comparing Skate-Leading Stars to a certain mega-popular ice-skating anime that everyone knows because, well, it isn't like there are a whole host of other points of reference to rely on. Besides, when it comes to its presentation, at least, Skate-Leading Stars acquits itself decently well compared to its more famous counterparts. The sequences of the different skating routines we see from Kensei Mashima and Reo Shinozaki are nowhere near as involved or eye-popping as what Yuri!!! on Ice delivered on a regular basis, but you can tell that J.C. Staff isn't skimping on the visuals. The brief cuts of spins and twirls that we do get are weighty and convincing, and though I still have no idea what Skate-Leading is supposed to be, I'm sure it'll be neat to watch when we eventually get to see it play out on the ice.
There's just something about this show that didn't click with me, though. The character designs don't appeal to me very much, for one, but more than that, I never found myself getting invested in the show's story or characters. None of the main cast, not even Kensei Mashima, serve the story very well, in my opinion. The show tries to inject some pathos into Kensei's backstory when we learn about the tragic death of his parents and his failed rivalry with Reo. Everything takes a turn into the realm of unwieldy soap opera, though, when we jump forward a number of years and find an older Kensei consigned to a life of being an all-star at seemingly every sport that isn't ice skating, and he can only practice his true passion by himself, in the dark, at some random park. That's when Hayato arrives, a baggy-eyed schemer who feels ripped from an entirely different anime that uses his own lifelong hatred of his arrogant half-brother Reo to convince Kensei to put on the skates once more and beat his rival once and for all.
With Kensei and Hayato's broody backstories, Skate-Leading Stars seems like it is trying to apply the typical veneer of sports-anime machismo to the world of figure skating, and not in a way that feels especially compelling or organic. I would love to see the anime equivalent of I, Tonya or the like, but I'm not getting the sense that Skate-Leading Stars is aiming for that level of drama or tension. Between Hayato and Kensei, you get the impression that boyish spite, more than anything else, is what binds them together and pushes them forward. Since neither of them are especially interesting or likeable on their own, their shared craving of victorious vindication is the only thing that the audience has left to connect with, and I don't think it is enough. If I can make one comparison to Yuri!!! on Ice, it would be that it wasn't just a love story about Yuri and Victor's romance; it was also about how each of its heroes were driven by a love for the competition itself. When it comes to melodramatic ice-skating anime, or any sports drama for that matter, I'll take the one that is driven by love over the one that is driven by spite every day of the week.
While I was preparing for the new season, Skate-Leading Stars caught my eye for one reason: chief director Goro Taniguchi. While he's not my favorite director working in anime, a work by the man behind Code Geass and the adaptations of Maria the Virgin Witch and Planetes is always worth at least a look. Plus, since a certain other extremely popular figure-skating anime, I've learned quite a bit about the sport and it's a nice change, watching a sports anime with some prior knowledge instead of picking things up as I go.
Okay, and the pretty boys. Listen, I'll never watch an anime just because of its male character designs, but if I'm already interested, it's never going to hurt. The designer Yana Toboso created Black Butler, so she knows what she's doing here.
There are a few subtypes of sports anime protagonists, and Kensei is the “talented, left the sport for [reasons] years ago but secretly still loves it,” type. He has an intense rivalry from childhood with current leading skater Reo Shinazaki, who is cool-headed and his polar opposite. He gets drawn back in by a new friend, who also wants to beat rival for [reasons]. It's all very typical plot beats for the genre, and the most innovative part is that skate-leading, a sort of team figure skating/ice dancing deal, is entirely fictional.
The most interesting character in the first episode is Hayato, who convinces Kensei to get back into skating and join a skate-leading team to beat Reo. Turns out, he's Reo's half-brother by way of their father's affair, and he hates his spoiled, favored sibling. He's bitter, self-serving, and unpredictable in a way that's unusual for a protagonist's teammate, and I'm looking forward to seeing how his twisted personality affects the narrative going forward.
I'm also interested to see what skate-leading looks like, but alas, the first episode doesn't have any actual examples. Instead, it's just individual figure skating so far, but it looks great. There's some genuine creative storyboarding and animation sprinkled throughout the episode, especially during Kensei's big climactic performance. The visual storytelling is strong, as is typically the case with Taniguchi, and is sure to set the show apart despite the safe storytelling.
My biggest concern is that Taniguchi will have to step back his involvement to focus on Back Arrow, his other show this season. Should that happen, it'll be just Toshinori Fukushima, director of the decidedly mediocre Tamayomi, at the helm. Until that happens, I'll try to be optimistic.
It was probably inevitable that from the moment Skate-Leading Stars was announced, it was being compared to the inescapable Yuri!!! on Ice from 2016. Sure, there have been other figure skating anime through the years, even male-led ones, but when something makes as big a splash as YoI did, there's going to be some percentage of its viewers who see anything with even superficial similarities as a copycat. And that's really not fair to SLS considering that outside of starring dudes who skate, it's got a totally different approach to sports storytelling and character.
For one, this is very much a high-school sports anime, with all the expected trappings. Leading man Maeshima is ever the hot-blooded shonen protagonist, determined to be the best skater there ever was and upstage his prodigious rival – he even has the sad backstory of dead parents who were also star skaters. The supporting cast is a large spread of very attractive anime boys who will doubtless have their own styles of skating and backstories to explore, but for now our main sidekick is the conniving Sasugai, who enlists Maeshima in a scheme to overthrow his half-brother's domination of the skating world, and he's easily the standout of this premiere. The gimmick of a 5-man team skating sport is only barely touched upon so far, but it also offers an interesting wrinkle to the otherwise often solitary nature of ice skating competition, so there's hope for some neat ideas to come in later on.
The animation is also generally solid, though understandably not as ambitious as the full-length routines YoI implemented. The routines we do see are short, but sharply timed and do a great job capturing the movement and athleticism of the cast, which is probably a good approach for a full-length series that's going to feature multiple teams skating at once. However it does serve to make the show feel a bit more generic, with its focus seemingly only on winning and the lead proving his skill, and does feel a little like wasting the unique mix of athletic prowess and artistic expression skating encapsulates. In general you could probably replace skating with any other team sport, and not much would be lost for the premiere.
But hey, I'm a sucker for a well-told sports story, and so far Skate-Leading Stars is hitting all the right marks. It looks nice, the characters are entertaining, and if nothing else I'm excited to see some of the ridiculous skating outfits featured in the OP.
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