by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Stars Align ?
It'd be understandable if at this point if you wondered whether or not any of the kids on the boys' soft tennis team could catch a break. This week's episode reminds us of the untenable situation Nao is in with his monster mom, but it also gives us more insight into what's going on with Shingo and Tsubasa's families, and while they have different brands of dysfunction of varying degrees, it's still clear that in Stars Align, there's no such thing as a perfectly happy family.
Tsubasa's situation, which comes at the end of the episode, it perhaps the most brutal. At first it looks like everything's perfectly fine in his house – his older brothers are gently ribbing him about soft tennis and the atmosphere is light and happy. All of that changes the minute his dad walks in and spots the racket in Tsubasa's hands – immediately he begins ragging on his youngest, non-soccer-playing son, chasing him out of the room in order to keep berating him. While Tsubasa shouldn't have called his dad an asshole, it's hard to deny that he's been pushed by the dead look in his father's eyes and being put down repeatedly. That's absolutely no excuse for his father to slap him across the face so hard that Tsukasa falls down the stairs and breaks his wrist, all while the man stands there and just watches.
There's a moment when Tsubasa reaches out his hands, desperately grabbing for something to stop his fall. His father is right there; he could have easily reached out, which is the natural automatic reaction. That he doesn't is chilling, and to hear it followed up with the sickening crunch of the boy's arm is horrible. Mom immediately runs in and asks if she needs to take her youngest son to the hospital, but by this point Tsubasa can't stand to be there anymore. His brothers make a token effort to stop him, but ultimately don't bother to put on their shoes and follow him out the door. Meanwhile Dad is just standing there on the steps, looming over all of them like the monster in the shadows no one wants to acknowledge.
Thankfully Tsubasa goes to Shingo's house and Shingo gets his dad to take his friend to the hospital. (Kudos to the artists and animators, incidentally, for making Tsubasa's broken arm look exactly like that bad a break does – my ankle looked just like that when I broke it in four places.) It probably says something that Shingo's dad doesn't question why he's taking Tsubasa to the hospital rather than his parents, and the doctor clearly suspects something too; he specifically asks if Tsubasa was pushed down the stairs. Granted, this is a question many mandated reporters are required to ask (in the US, at least), but the boy's body language is screaming that something is just wrong about this situation. When he tells the doctor that he's “just a clumsy idiot,” all of the alarm bells clearly go off for the doctor – that's a classic excuse put forth by victims of abuse.
Interestingly, the word “abuse” comes up earlier in the episode in relation to another of the boys. Nao's behavior is raising red flags for his teammates, especially Rintaro, his close friend. Certainly the way that he just sits there by himself slightly apart from the other boys is a sign, but when he lies about not being able to find Shingo's little sister An (he's actually locked her in the infirmary), Maki and Rintaro both realize that something else is going on. Nao's mom appears to be something of an open secret at school, as we see when Rintaro comforts a sobbing Nao while most of the team politely ignores him (Maki's sidelong glance is both a marker of his newness at school and his desire to help people), and on their way home, Mitsue, Yu, Maki, and Toma debate whether or not his mother's need to exert total control over Nao constitutes abuse. Given that he's basically stopped eating (does the woman not notice?) and is showing clear signs of emotional distress, I'd have to say that it does.
That makes me very, very worried for Nao. Yes, other boys (and Mitsue) have difficult family situations, but most of them have some form of support – Tsubasa, Yu and Toma have their siblings, Maki's got his mom, Shingo has his dad. (His mom is textbook evil stepmom straight out of Wilhelm Grimm's 1857 revisions of his tales.) But Nao seems to be an only child with a detached dad. Unless one of the teachers is able to step in, that leaves him with only age-mates for support, and there's only so much they can do to help him.
He's already showing dangerous signs, wondering aloud why he exists. Please don't let him be Neil from The Dead Poets Society.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.
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