by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 10 of
Stars Align ?
There's always been a risk that Stars Align would try to cover too many kids' stories in one episode, and with this one, I think we hit that. It's a statement of how good the story and production is otherwise that it's still a worthwhile piece of storytelling; but bringing things back to Toma and Rintaro while also shoving in Taiyo and Mitsue with a little bonus “Maki & Mom” time is definitely too much for under half an hour, and that's not even getting into the whole tournament piece. All of those plotlines are important – especially Toma's, which has kind of been languishing – and there's no doubt that they're going to influence things, but it feels a little overwhelming.
Of course, Toma's been in the background of many of the other storylines, showing us that he's got some issues beyond whatever's going on with his mom. We saw it the most clearly during the barbecue scene, when he was clearly unhappy that Arashi not only crashed the party but instantly hit it off with Maki. Toma's definitely possessive of him, and it feels like much more than just friend envy. Given the show's openness with its LGBTQ+ themes, it's tempting to think that Toma has a crush on Maki, but I'm not sure that's actually the case here – it looks like it's more like a sense of ownership, like Maki is his and no one else gets to claim a piece of that. He's fine with Yu and Mitsue being part of their group because neither of them has shown any special affection (friendly or otherwise) for Maki; likewise neither of them is the person Maki went to with his own problems. As not good as Toma's confrontation with Maki's dad was, it was important to him because it was Toma putting himself on the line for Maki in a way that we've not seen him do for anyone else. Given that most of the boys' troubled family lives are basically open secrets, that's significant – Toma could just as easily have stood up for Nao or Tsubasa.
Part of his attachment to Maki is doubtless because he's the one who approached him in the first place and made it so that Maki joined the soft tennis team. In that respect, Toma does have “ownership” of the fact that Maki's there; more literally he's the actual owner of Maki's racket, the means by which he plays. But his feelings of possession for Maki himself are certainly troubling, because they're the stuff toxic relationships can be grown from. The look of surprised anger on his face when Arashi immediately latches onto Maki when they run into him on the street and the flat-out anger when he finds out his brother has been giving Maki advice is alarming, and it seems to back up his mom's statement that she's afraid of him.
Of course, like several other parents in this series, she could just be being terrible when she says that. This week we finally get the hint we needed to solidify the theory that Toma is not his mother's biological child; like in Shingo's family she says that she “never wanted to be” his mother. Rather than being from a previous marriage, however, it seems more likely that he's his father's illegitimate child who was taken in, which would certainly explain the resentment. Kids aren't stupid, so even if Toma was pretty young when he came to live with them, if she resented him, he'd have picked up on it, leading to the mutual antipathy they have. While it's no uglier than any of the other boys' issues, it sure isn't good, because while broken bones will heal, scars on your psyche almost never do.
At this point, you could be forgiven for wondering if anything good ever happens to any of these kids. Stars Align sure has been piling it on with the traumas, both large and small, and sometimes it really does feel like too much. But if you had a rough time in middle school (I always think of it as the hell of my life), there's a certain veracity to the excessive horrors. Middle school is when most kids are old enough to realize that the world isn't fair or nice, when they begin to become really aware of the world outside their homes. At the same time, it's a time when it's hard to get outside of your own experiences, so it really does feel like the world's on fire and only getting hotter. What the kids are learning in the show is not just that the world sucks sometimes, but how to feel and express empathy for others. Think about the whole open-secret quality to everyone's home lives – we've gone from just saying, “Well, there are these things happening” to at least one member of the team trying to actively help another any time something goes wrong.
With only two episodes left, we may not get a lot of closure. But if the team (and Mitsue) learn that they can count on each other as people not just players, I think the series will have done its job.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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