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This Week in Anime
Stars Align is Here and It's Hella Queer

by Michelle Liu & Andy Pfeiffer,

The little show about a boys' soft tennis club is well underway to being one of the most heartfelt and sincere representations of LGBTQ+ youth in a long time. Micchy and Andy break down everything the drama is doing right and how its characters have stolen their hearts.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

You can read our episode reviews of Stars Align here!

@Lossthief @Liuwdere @A_Tasty_Sub @vestenet

Y'know, Andy, now that we're nearly at the end of 2019, it's nice to finally see anime catch up a bit on the state of the discourse. I certainly didn't expect Stars Align to be so up-to-date on the important things, like the real appeal of anime boys.

Crushing on ikemen anime boys is out, it's all about bullying your faves now.
Bullying and
Let boys wear dresses!
They look good!

Yep, we're checking back in on Stars Align! There's more good boys, more tennis, and more really bad parents.
SUCH terrible parents, and in such myriad ways! We've got physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, ignorance, you name it, every kind of crappy parent is here.

Luckily the good kids (and the trash boys) are holding on somehow, even if figuring themselves out under the watch of parents who can't or won't give them freedom is a daunting task.
It's been really nice to finally get into the other kids after the first few episodes focused solely on Toma and Maki, and we also got some reasons for this particular Gremlin to shoot up the ranks in my heart.
Itsuki might be an acerbic jerk, but he's an acerbic jerk with a load of trauma to unpack, so I can get behind that.
The first few episodes kind of set him up with the expectation as having problems with being lesser than his 2nd ranked sister, but I'm glad we've learned they're actually really good siblings! And that perception was simply other characters pushing their view of masculinity onto him. Which turns out is definitely a major theme of the series.
Stars Align is all about these kids figuring out their identities while the people in their lives try to fit them into neat boxes - those boxes range from the roles of "perfect son" and "model student" to more nebulous ones like masculinity or binary gender altogether.
Or for some just "punching bag".
Physical violence happens to be how the Worst Dad in the series exerts power over his kid, but the other parents in the series have their own ways of putting pressure on their kids, albeit less overt or incontrovertibly abusive. And the worst part is that it's not always entirely deliberate!
I feel so bad for Rintaro.

He's too good a boy and seeing him eat away at himself through insecurity is both relatable and painful. It's kinda refreshing to see that in a sea of bad parents there are some good ones, but Stars Align is honest in showing that sometimes even then the kids are gonna have their own issues over it.
The poor kid is convinced his parents took on a burden when adopting him, so he's trying to prove himself worth their while. As far as we know, his folks are nothing but kind to him, but kids like Rintaro feel they need to earn basic respect and tear themselves up when they feel they don't deserve it. And the knowledge that his bio mom couldn't care for him makes him all the more aware that he's a responsibility that other people chose to take on.
Stars Align really wants to hammer down that traditional roles like masculinity and biological family are fucking lies that do harm to whole generations in different ways. Rintaro is so convinced that being abandoned by his biological family means someone else has been forced to deal with him being unwanted trash. There's also something to be said about Japanese bureaucracy enforcing these ideals, as the only reason he knows he's adopted is that his parents were legally forced to tell him. Much in the same way we understand that Maki's mom leaves money for his dad because no matter how much they move the system simply gives him the new address even with a restraining order. While before we got the idea that Maki didn't tell her because they had just moved, it seems more likely that she's always known and hopes she's giving enough that he leaves Maki alone.
In theory, the kid deserves to know the truth, if only for healthcare reasons. Rintaro's real problem is the stigma against being adopted. He sees himself as a burden that his adoptive parents volunteered to take on, but honestly, that's not that different from how biological parents decide to have a kid? Blood ties don't make a parent's responsibility to a child any more real, and the lack thereof doesn't invalidate a parent's job. Whether by doing the sex or going through bureaucracy to adopt, a parent who chooses to raise a kid has the same duties to fulfill.
Personally I've never really understood that stigma but I won't deny it exists. Like, how the hell did we as a society decide that someone wanting to raise a kid somehow loves less than someone forced into it. Bullshit indeed. Especially when the body language we get of his parents absolutely disproves those notions, even as his voice over tries to contradict it.

And our very good boy deserves to not live with such a hang up. When he puts his tennis notes away because he stops believing in himself it hurt, and I'm so mad that they haven't come back out of that bag yet.
I just want to shake the kid by the shoulders and tell him he's not an investment! That's something I myself grew up believing, that I somehow owed it to my family to be successful because they spent all that time and money raising me. But while it's totally fair to be grateful for the love and labor, it's ultimately not a kid's responsibility to prove themselves worth the effort their parents chose to put in. It's never a kid's choice to be born, and for parents to pretend otherwise to exert control is emotional abuse, plain and simple.
Yeah I was kinda shocked that Toma's reaction to Rintaro's confession was "DON'T TELL MAKI!" because oh my god Toma show some compassion, but also out of everyone Maki seems like he'd understand. If anything he should've been like "DON'T TELL NAO." The idea that you as a child are somehow proof of the parent's worthiness sucks and it sure was a contributing factor to me fruitlessly pursuing a degree I was no longer interested in and that was destroying my mental health so I'm 1000% on these kids breaking free of that kind of thinking.
Yeah like, I totally acknowledge that parenthood is hard, and that parents are complicated human beings with their own faults and weaknesses. But children aren't simply extensions of their parents but independent human beings with their own needs and wants, and they deserve to be treated as such.
nao's mom is especially ruthless in how she impacts the lives of the rest of the club, going as far as looking to sacrifice them in order to elevate her own ego.
I'm sure she justifies it to herself as all for nao's own good, but it's really telling when she lets it slip that she found the club's performance embarrassing. That's not a good reason to go all PTO mom on the school's administration!
That she phrases it in the way of "Do you know how embarrassing it was for me?" is so scary and then she has no interest in seeing how he's improved! All she cares about is that he didn't instantly win at the start so as far as she's concerned his having friends and working hard towards something he cares about is all a waste.
No wonder nao's stress-scribbling instead of paying attention to club meetings.
I had almost forgot that the thing she got the club suspended for was lying about one of their happiest moments. Telling the school they were overworking the kids and forcing them to practice on a Sunday. In reality:

And not only did she know it was a nice get together for the kids to take a break but also this weird remark:
"How can a barbecue be fun without booze" is such a wine mom Karen thing to say.
Lady what was your childhood like? Also would you be more OK with this if nao came home wasted?
Truly priceless that her supposed "concern" is overwork when she insists that nao study every free moment.
Look he went and got to pet a very good dog and have some fun with friends when he should've been going to cram school and validating her as a mom.
I'd say she's the show's worst mom but we don't know if this one is still in the picture.

Hopefully off getting mental health treatment somewhere? Odds of that are low given the stigma around mental illness, but y'know, just a suggestion.
It's why I left worst open, because there's a lot of stigma on postpartum depression, but we also don't know the full deal with Toma's mom and why she's so fearful of her child. It's just a smorgasbord of the different ways parents' actions hurt their kids. Even the kids that seem to buy into their shit.

I really appreciate that even as a kind of haughty villain I never get the feeling we're supposed to think she's bad because of her appearance; it's one of the ways the show is good about both body image and gender roles.By all accounts the president is a product of her environment and doesn't fully understand the problems with her ingrained worldview.
Plus she owns dressing up and eating snacks.
She's a garden-variety ojou-sama with two generation of women who can't leave their kids alone preceding her.
Instagram game on point tho

She's largely positioned herself outside of their power struggle because she feels that eventually she'll have all the power anyway, so let them have their fights.
The thing with this kind of inter-generational struggle, though, is that it doesn't really stop. It might be amusing to her to watch her mom and grandma at each others' throats right in the moment, but once Grandma's out of the picture I'm certain Kinuyo Ririha Kaori and her mom are gonna replicate the same dynamic to some extent.
Yeah, her perpetuating the cycle is all but guaranteed, and that's a unique spot among the rest of the cast who are actively trying to break free of the bullshit social conditioning telling them what and who they should be.
A majority of the show has been setting these backgrounds and reasons up, and we're now running into the time where it's gotta start paying off, and boy is it great to see when it starts happening.
Our favorite gremlin is finally admitting to herself that she actually has aspirations beyond dunking on the boys and mooching off their dinner (and unwittingly being a trans ally).
Her cynicism finally breaks and allows her to believe in herself after watching the boys (specifically Maki) trying so hard and improving despite the world still seeing them as losers in a binary sense. Her ironic internalizing of being a loser just doesn't cut it anymore, because it's easy to be a loser when you're alone and don't try, but now she's got others that care and understand how important trying is.
She's basically made a #brand of ironic self-deprecation out of fear - it's easier to accept failure and rejection when you pretend you don't care - but some people absolutely see right through her act. Not coincidentally, those that do are also huge losers and social outcasts.
No one likes being on the relationsteps alone.
Like me, Mitsue is pretty much allergic to sincerity but is actually a big ol' softie under the veneer of irony.
Also: awkward finger guns.
Also literally me.
It was great to see all these little honest quirks lead to her finally seeking out confirmation, and how far the show takes this message.

Which means it's time to talk about Yu.
Ah yes, gender crisis Yu.
Episode 8 is one of the best episodes of any show this season and I highly recommend watching the entire show just for it. The honest information and empathy put into it is shockingly good. It establishes that it's not just these kids, but there are other generations who have had their own struggles and successes.

It also adds a bit more context to the first time we met him way back in episode 1.
Knowing that Maki was basically raised by a single mom and a trans man does help to contextualize how he's so chill about everything. He's seen people struggle in a bunch of ways, and he takes all those observations into perspective when he meets people whose experiences differ from his own. While I would've preferred to hear Shō's story directly from him rather than filtered through Maki's interpretation of it, it is incredibly heartening that not only is Stars Align familiar with how the transgender community talks about this stuff, but also acknowledges that for some kids, questioning their gender or sexuality is just another aspect of figuring out who they are.
The additional detail of Shō helping raise Maki alleviated a lot of that "telling someone else's story". Maki isn't just talking about this person he knows about, but an intimate relationship with a family figure. Combined with his horrific dad, I'm so thankful that Shō has been there for Maki when he could be and that Maki has taken to paying this forward to others and feeling satisfied with questioning his own gender identity but comfortable with not making a hard decision on it.
Maki doesn't have any hangups regarding his gender identity, but the important thing he tells Yu is that it's perfectly okay not to be 100% sure about it, especially at their age. He has the perspective to know that at 13, they have plenty of time to figure out what they want to be - what gender they are, what career path they want to pursue, what makes them happy, all of it.

This scene goes so far to normalize being LGBTQ+ as not an inherently political statement, but as a lived reality that some people grapple with and some people don't. It's not any more "adult" or agenda-driven than any other identity crisis that kids face; being LGBTQ+ isn't a choice (though participating in communities formed around shared identities is). That is, trans people don't have identical struggles to cis people, but they're not inherently like, cryptids for other people to deal with; they're here, they exist.
It's also nice that Yu has siblings that understand and support him.
There's so much emphasis in the show on the ideas of learned behavior and perpetuating problems, and that's juxtaposed with these kids just doing their best to be good to each other and if not understand at least acknowledge what they're going through.

Not to say all adults are garbage, but it takes more to break through to them, like Takayuki finally get involved with the club and his students in a positive way. While we don't know his exact details, we know that he has his own issues with the world, and he thought his staying out of the way and letting the kids play around was good for them, but they're just kids and they need someone with a bit of power to support and protect them.
The kids can do a lot to support each other! But yeah, that only goes so far; I'm fairly sure that two 8th graders wouldn't be able to hold their own in a fistfight against a grown ass man.

And it's super nice of Mitsue to make a scene to keep scrutiny off of Yu, even if she doesn't realize she's being an ally. But she wouldn't have to if not for transphobia altogether.
She's very good at playing tough and jaded when alone but doing it in a situation where there were guaranteed consequences is terrifying and shows how far she is willing to go for her friends.
Protecc this gem of a trash child, she's trying so hard to be shitty.
Feed her
I mean, Maki has the right idea.
Protect him too!

I gotta say one of the cruelest things the show does is how it plays with ending episodes. Have a good happy time with the kids? Time for a heartbreaking post credits scene! And now that your heart has been ripped out HAVE A CHEERY SEE YOU NEXT WEEK
Thankfully we always have more dumbasses to distract us from the pain. Can I just say I adore how Shingo and Tsubasa's big strategy is to be so obnoxious that their opponents can't focus.
Look you play to your strengths, and sometimes your strength is being a gigantic dumbass.

Which I fully believe all of us at TWIA can truly understand.
Meanwhile our bosses just look at us like

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