by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 8 of
Stars Align ?
Is there any worse feeling than knowing that you don't fit with what you're “supposed” to be? Maybe, but in middle school, it's kind of hard to imagine it. That's the overall theme of this week's episode of Stars Align, and while it may feel melodramatic for some viewers, for others it's going to feel all too familiar. The highlight of this is probably Maki and Yu's heart-to-heart when the soft tennis team decides that to scope out their rivals in the upcoming tournament, they need to send girls to spy – and since they only have the semi-reluctant Mitsue, that means that two of the boys will need to cross dress to do it. Yu's known from the start that Maki doesn't care who they like, so when Maki acts impressed that Yu knows how to do make-up, that becomes the opening gambit in a discussion about gender and identity. Yu admits (and it does feel like an admission or a confession) to being non-binary, feeling neither fully “boy” or “girl,” although they don't seem entirely certain that that's the best fit just yet. Maki agrees and says he may be as well, telling Yu about Shou, his mom's friend who we've seen several times before over the course of the series. Shou is transgender and has been very open with Maki about feeling wrong in the female body he was born in, and that's clearly something Maki has spent a lot of time thinking about – not from an acceptance point of view, but rather as another thing to consider as he grows up. That's a luxury Yu hasn't had, as is perfectly driven home when they're confronted by their mother in the obligatory post-credits gut-punch, and it makes you really, really happy that they've got a friend like Maki and potentially an adult like Shou to be there for them, because clearly parental support is not going to happen any time soon.
Maki does come off as almost preternaturally perceptive this week, zeroing in on Yu and Mitsue both as people in distress (although he doesn't seem to do the same for Nao, which may be the saving grace of this potential plot device), but he is in a good position to understand where both of them are coming from. His treatment at his dad's hands has almost certainly given him at least some insight into why Mitsue stays away from other girls (the strong implication is that she's been bullied; we've certainly seen brief moments earlier in the series), while growing up with Shou around has given him a much more tolerant approach to gender identity than most of his peers have likely been exposed to. But Maki's empathy is also part of his armor; if he's looking out for other people, he doesn't have to be worrying about himself and when his father's next going to come for him. To a degree it's a distraction for him, and the only time we've seen him really break down has been with Toma – arguably the discussion with Yu was for Yu's benefit, not Maki's, and even any earlier hints that Maki is genderqueer were almost exclusively done (at least initially) around Toma alone. Maki truly is kind and caring, but generally he keeps himself to himself, almost as if he's safe behind his wall of empathy.
He's also not the best person to understand what Nao is going through. It's his mom who complained to the school about the soft tennis club, and apparently that's something that she does a lot. (Did anyone else catch that while the subtitles read “helicopter parent” Toma's words were actually “monster parent?”) She's convinced that Nao is wasting his time with the team and that somehow her wants are also his wants, to the point where she gleefully ignores his very clear body language and pointed words, only seeing and hearing what she wants to. Apparently Mitsue's mother is the same way about her art, and we've seen Kaori's mother and grandmother fussing over how their goals for her are obviously more important for her than her own. Really only Maki's mom has been shown to be overtly supportive, and she's almost never actually in the show. That makes the club advisor's words to the principal about suspending the soft tennis club's activities to punish the boys after Nao's mom's complaint stand out – this move, he says, may be best for the school and the parents, but what about the kids? What about Nao poking at his dinner and drawing graphic screams on his paper? What about Mitsue putting herself in a scary situation to help them? What about Yu finally finding a group to fit in with?
Maybe part of the problem is that everyone, the kids themselves included, see themselves as tennis balls being slammed back and forth across the court, trapped in an endless volley between who they're “supposed” to be and who they're trying to become.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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