by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Stars Align ?
Episode four is a bit of an exercise in frustration, not because of the content, but because Funimation's subtitles are consistently twenty to thirty seconds behind the action. While it's occasionally nice to know that I have better Japanese skills than I tend to give myself credit for, it still makes watching this intensely annoying, particularly in the final post-credits scene, which marks the return of Maki's deadbeat asshole father. Having his sneering taunts and Maki's cowering reactions not in sync with the subs robs the moment of some of its impact. Add to this the simple fact that this problem has been extant from Thursday when the show went live through when I'm writing this up Saturday afternoon and we have a real issue.
That persistent problem aside, this is the most sports-oriented episode of Stars Align thus far. It's almost entirely devoted to getting the boys' soft tennis club whipped into shape á la Maki and culminates with the boys' advisor actually taking on an advisory role for a change and setting them up a practice match. It is nice to see that the show is equally adept at plain old sports drama as well as the more emotional content, although to be honest it also feels like a bit of a let-down after the flags waved and hints dropped in the previous three episodes. But if we look at it a little closer, we can still see that there are some smaller moments that continue to build the characters in quiet ways.
The most obvious of these is the fact that Maki has basically taken over the leadership of the soft tennis club. He begins by reorganizing everyone into different pairs and mixing up who plays front and back, much to the boys' dismay. But they're quickly wowed by the way that these new pairs work beautifully well, and once the frustration lifts, they're newly motivated to actually bother trying. There's some definite suspension of disbelief needed here, not so much for the fact that they can, in fact, play their own sport, but because Maki has been playing for, what, two weeks at most and can manage to judge each of his teammates and their skills perfectly? Yes, I can absolutely buy that his home life has made him a keener observer of humanity than many of his peers (and not in the cynical way that defines Mitsue), but this is still a bit much.
What's more striking is that Toma lets Maki get away with mixing things up so much. His aggression seems to have taken a major break from when he was scowling fiercely at his teammates or begging Maki to pick up a racket, and the insecurities that showed up with his brother also seem to have taken a backseat. It's possibly that he simply trusts Maki that much, but we also have to consider the fact that Toma, Mitsue, and Yuta have been spending most of their evenings at Maki's house, with Maki making them dinner. For Toma, this may be the most “family time” he's had in a long while, because we know his mother actively avoids him. So it may be less that Maki is magical and more that Toma feels secure for the first time in however long, something that appears to also hold true for Maki, who is clearly enjoying this new quartet just as much as any of them, his mother included.
That's what makes the return of Maki's dad after the credits (complete with horrible flashback of toddler Maki hiding as his dad beats up his mom) so gut-churning. The fact that the man is awful is less important than the fact that he knows how best to be awful so that it has the maximum impact on his son. While watching him haul Maki away by his tennis bag is like a scene from a horror film, the fact that he immediately zeroes in on that as Maki's new vulnerability is almost worse. This is a man who can hurt Maki in ways we (hopefully) can't even imagine, and Maki's too scared to tell his mother that he's been back around. Now that his racket is broken, the question is whether Maki tries to tell Toma that he simply lost interest or if he can bring himself to tell the other boy (or Yuta or Mitsue) the truth about what's going on. The fact that Mitsue lives in the same building could mean that she's already on the scene or will soon stumble upon it, but regardless, the ball is now in Maki's court. Hopefully he'll find the power to do something with it.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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