What’s it about? When the student council president announces that clubs will receive funding based on how much passion and success they have, it looks like that’ll be it for the notoriously terrible boys’ soft tennis club. Team captain Toma Shinjo is the only one of them with any sort of skill, and he isn’t ready to just let go. When his old friend Maki moves to town, it seems like they might have a fighting chance, but it turns out Maki is dead-set against joining any kind of club. How can Toma convince Maki to team up and save the club?
Content warning: Depictions of physical child abuse.
Finally, some good fucking food.
Not that it comes as any sort of shock – with Akane Kazuki (The Vision of Escalfowne, Noein: To Your Other Self) helming the project, Stars Align was easily my most anticipated show of the new season. I didn’t know what to expect other than, hopefully, quality animation and storytelling, and thankfully I got exactly what I came for.
At first, Stars Align seems to be a particularly well-told version of a pretty standard sports story. The underdog team of kids who just want to have fun playing tennis together! The one kid who could be the savior of the team and make them actually competitive! Camaraderie! Friendship!
It works out especially well because of the lovely character design, animation, and musical score all coming together. It’s fairly slow and gentle, but the animation absolutely brims with life. The characters speak and move with their whole bodies, not just their mouths or limbs as needed. Their body language communicates their comfort with each other, giving the impression that the team is a cozy way for them to spend time together, even if they’re not particularly fussed about competing. And that’s fine! Not everyone needs to approach every aspect of their life with burning spirit.
The strong writing and direction build up a sense of Maki as a multifaceted individual, even within the space of an episode. We see his excitement at his new apartment, his interest in astronomy, and how he shuts down when Toma first tries to convince him to join the club. He’s a good kid, but more complicated than most sports anime protagonists. It doesn’t take long to find out just why he’s so complicated, too.
Turns out Stars Align has an unusual level of class consciousness. Maki doesn’t want to join because he’s not interested; he doesn’t want to join because his mom works long hours at a low-paying job. Clubs take up a lot of two things: money and time. Two things that the son of a working mother, who has to take care of all the chores and errands, simply doesn’t have.
Clubs play a different role in Japanese school culture than in the US – they’re not accounted for in college admissions, and Maki is still in middle school either way – but it still made me think of how they can so easily become inaccessible, which can close so many possible doors. Nothing is equal opportunity without access to particular resources.
Still, it looks like the show is on its way to being a heartwarming tale of friendship, the end credits roll, and you ready your remote, mouse, or controller to move on to the next thing… but the episode doesn’t end. Instead, Maki’s father forces his way into the apartment he shares with his mother, beats the shit out of him, and steals the money Maki had hidden away. It’s shocking and visceral without coming across as lurid, only painful and heartbreaking. In that scene, Maki and his father are colored in desaturated, greyish shades, contrasting with the bright atmosphere of the apartment.
The use of color perfectly brings across the feeling of wrongness and invasiveness, something dark and cold and violent infecting a place that Maki and his mother have gone out of their way to make bright and warm and welcoming. Maki doesn’t try to be heroic or fight his father off – after a couple blows, he curls up in the corner, trying to make himself small and unobtrusive in hopes that his dad will leave him alone.
It’s an agonizing scene, but it does a great job depicting the random cruelty of abuse and just how hard it is to get away from permanently. Divorce, moving away, hiding away your money, locking the chain… you can do everything “right” and your abuser might still find you and take advantage of you. Even as my heart breaks for Maki, I applaud Akane for how he handled the scene.
Stars Align already looks to be the best series of the season. Just… try to have something bright and happy ready to go after you finish, okay?