by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 7 of
Stars Align ?
You really have to admire a show that can shift from intense action to quiet everyday life in the space of one episode and manage to be just as engaging in both storylines. Of course, we basically expect some sort of post-credits bombshell by this point, so the revelation that some parent is griping about the team's training methods is awful but not really shocking. (And if you've worked with schools, it's even less so; there's always that parent.) What's more important is that Stars Align can maintain a forward trajectory no matter what it's doing, and that's really impressive.
This week's episode opens with the conclusion to the practice match with Toma and Maki facing off against Oji and his doubles partner. Yes, the other guy has a name, but due to the way Oji treats him, it's almost as if he's not really a character – as Maki phrases it, Oji doesn't see him as a partner or even a teammate; he's just the guy who has to be on the court with him per the rules of the game. That's why Toma and Maki almost manage to defeat them, because what they lack in experience (or practice, in Maki's case), they make up for in teamwork and trust. They're a strong pair not just because they're the most athletic on their team, but because they have the closest bond off the court as well. When Toma figured out what was going on with Maki and confronted his deadbeat dad, he proved his friendship to the other boy, much as Maki has proven his worth to Toma with his attitude and willingness to help with something Toma thought no one else really cared about. That means that when Maki really figured out what the other side's problem is, Toma's willing to put aside (to a degree at least) his competitive nature and listen.
It's too bad that Toma and Maki lose in the end, but it also reads as the show's fidelity to honest storytelling. It would have been an amazing underdog moment had they won, yes, but it wouldn't have felt organic in the way that the rest of the plot has. Even Oji (and his gorgeous Golden Retriever) crashing the boys' team picnic in the second half feels believable, because in the end he is able to recognize that they played a good game and seem like nice guys, plus, in one of the most realistic moments this proud dog owner has seen, they liked his dog, so they must be okay. And now that the competitive moment is over, it's okay to be friends with them…especially since he won.
Not that Toma's so sure of this. As Maki hits it off with Oji (and Kamuy), we see a few scenes of Toma sitting alone way off at the end of the table, looking at Maki and the rest of the gang with a carefully blank face. While he doesn't say much, at least, not until Yuta notices like the good egg he is, it's clear that it's not just that he's awkward at making friends, but more that he feels left out. Maki, we get the feeling, was beginning to feel like Toma's special property in the sense that they're closer than anyone else. Now he's starting to worry that maybe Oji is going to take him away, with his fancy purebred dog and talk of having a home nutrition expert. Since Toma initially got Maki to agree to play soft tennis by saying he'd pay him, it isn't hard to see where he'd feel he has a valid reason to worry about Oji ousting him from the position of “Maki's best friend.”
Interestingly enough, this episode has two other distinct moments of change in terms of the group dynamic. The most heartening is of course when Itsuki comes into the locker room and begins changing with everyone else, no longer hiding the burn scars everyone knew were there. It's a powerful, but quiet, statement about how they've all come together as a group and how much more comfortable they all feel around each other, like when the rest of the boys defended Yuta from homophobic comments before. How this might contribute to the boys' increasing surprise at the fact that Mitsue shows up to everything isn't yet clear, but this is the first week they appear to notice that she is, in fact, a de facto part of the team. Maybe it's because it's a team picnic rather than practice or a game; it almost doesn't matter, because I feel like sooner rather than later she's going to have to actually say something – after she figures it out for herself, of course.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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