by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Stars Align ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Stars Align ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Stars Align ?
There is a real tendency to paint childhood with a rosy bloom, but the truth of the matter is, for a lot of people, the memories are more painful than perfect. Of course, when most stories try to go the other way we end up with the torture porn of kiddy lit, so striking the balance is a much more difficult proposition than you might imagine. My prime examples of works that get it right are the Sunny series by Jennifer and Matthew Holm and anything by Raina Telgemeier, but if it continues to handle itself as well as these three episodes, Stars Align may manage to get itself added to that list.
On the surface, this is a show about a pretty awful boys' soft tennis club at a suburban middle school. What makes them so bad at first just looks like plain old indifference, but about midway through the first episode, the little details begin to add up. Not only is their faculty advisor not a sports guy (I believe he's an art teacher), but the girls' team is phenomenal and has a coach who knows what she's doing. Since the guys keep getting compared to the girls no matter what they do, it just becomes easier to embrace their general suckage and just try and let everything roll off their backs. After all, if you know and accept that you're the laughingstock, the words can't hurt you, right?
The one exception to this seems to be Toma, the team captain. He's almost absurdly motivated compared to everyone else, and in episode three we finally start to see why he's so invested: his mother doesn't think he's worth much. Why she thinks that is still unclear, but hopefully it's more than just “he looks like x deadbeat relative” or something similar. It could have something to do with the temper we see him display this week – every time he and Maki win a match, he grimaces horribly, like he's furious about something. Granted, middle schoolers don't have the best control over their emotions (like when he throws down his racket or when Itsuki hits the bully with his), but there's something almost alarming about the whole thing. Yes, the club will lose school funding if the team doesn't improve, but why is he so invested in this particular thing over all others?
The answer may well lie with his older brother, who in school was a soft tennis player. That's certainly part of the appeal for Maki, as well, albeit for different reasons. While Toma may see succeeding at the sport his brother played as a way to make his mom love him, Maki remembers it as a symbol of kindness and possibly protection from an older kid. When we first see Maki with Toma's brother, his face is bruised and cut, but the initial assumption it's easy to jump to is that he's just fallen or run into a tree or something. But after the reveal at the end of episode one, when we learn exactly why Maki and his mom move so often, the scene takes on a darker tone: it's very likely that Maki was beaten by his father in the recent past.
While abusive parents are no oddity in anime, who could frequently give Hansel and Gretel's (step)mom a run for her money, it isn't often presented in such a matter-of-fact way. It's clear that Maki's dad has done this before (he knows the tricks) and that Maki is familiar with it, but like many who suffer from abuse, he can't bring himself to just walk away. But if he has a weapon, a skill, maybe he'll also have the courage to do something. Soft tennis may at least in part represent that to him, a thought that's driven home this week with Itsuki hitting the boy who's making fun of his family situation with his own tennis racket. Like Maki, Itsuki was abused by a parent, in his case a mother possible suffering from post-partum depression, but his story is mostly out in the open. That doesn't make it easier, but at least people around him understand his actions. Maki isn't yet at the point where he can tell someone what he's been through, and it will be interesting to see if he ever reaches that point.
Even besides these big plot moments, it's worth mentioning that Stars Align also does some nice things with just the everyday bits and pieces. Maki totally accepting Yuta and his crush on Toma is a great understated and almost brushed-by moment, and it has the added bonus of Maki simply having too much to worry about to care about crap like who someone is attracted to. Mitsue's entire character is so true to the proto-goth middle school girl that it's simultaneously funny and painful to watch her, and that goes for all of the way-too-familiar instances of bullying. Middle school can hurt, and this show seems to know that.
With all of that it's a shame that the ending theme, with its excellent displays of character, is caught up in a controversy that could easily have been avoided. But even if that changes, we'll still have smoothly animated tennis swings to watch, and if the show can keep up this level of honesty and keep itself balanced, I think we could be looking at a winner.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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