by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Stars Align ?
What the hell? Stars Align has always delighted in the post-credits gut-punch, but this final episode took a couple of very sudden, and one incredibly dark, turns that make it feel like something got lost in translation somewhere. I don't mean that literally, but rather as a failure on the part of the creators to adequately portray what they intended in anime form, because no matter how many dark hints there were, nothing, and I mean nothing ever indicated that Maki would show up at his father's place with a knife and the intention of committing murder.
The symbolism is fortunately more on the level. Throughout its run, the series has juxtaposed the basic, cheery underdog school sports show with the horrors and traumas that the team members were living through in their home lives, touching on the fact that such sunshiny shows rarely give us any indication that anything bad could happen in the world. Even if the team ends up losing the big game the players are still emotionally gratified and able to keep going with a skip in their step and a smile in their hearts. But that's never been true here, a fact driven home by Toma's conversation with his mother right after the game. It at first looks to be a moment of triumphant reconciliation before she turns the tables on him, announcing with glee that she's divorcing and leaving Toma with his (never seen) dad while she goes off with Ryoma. She knows full well how devastated Toma will be by this statement, and she clearly revels in the fact, like a wicked mother in a fairy tale getting ready to cook and eat her child drooling in anticipation.
That moment brings the happy anime façade crashing down, reminding us that in this show, happy endings only happen in Disney films. There's not going to be any nice resolution, because things aren't that neat when abusive parents are involved, and the soft tennis club (and school in general) is only a respite from the rest of the kids' lives. When the game ends, it's back to their real world, where it doesn't matter if you took on and almost beat the local champions, because no one outside of school is going to give a damn. If Stars Align was trying to send a message, that would seem to be it – that perfect sports anime, or any school-set story, is just an idealized vision of life with all of the shadows removed. In that respect, the ending does work, especially after the exhilaration of the tennis match against the wonder twins.
But worthy as that message is, it isn't necessarily the one most viewers were looking for, and it doesn't actually resolve anything, much less give any sense of closure to the story. (Except for Mitsue, who is still drawing her new realistic art. Good for you, Mitsue!) We spent so much time finding out about everyone's difficult pasts, delving into home lives and sexualities and aspirations, that it feels like a cop out to only get real resolution for one character and partial for two others. That may be part of the overall symbolism (there's rarely resolution in real life), but it doesn't make for satisfying storytelling. If you want to see an ambiguous ending done well, read Courtney Summers' novel Sadie. This just feels dark for darkness' sake, eschewing months of building Toma and Maki's relationship for Maki to charge off on his own with blood on his mind.
If we get a second season, maybe this could be made to work, but as a final episode, it really feels like it drops the ball. I wouldn't say I feel betrayed by Stars Align, but this ending does leave me feeling equal parts angry at the sloppy storytelling and a little bit empty, because if ever there was a group of kids I wanted to be okay in the end, this was it.
That one's on me. The other is for the writers to think about the next time they decide to tell a story.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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