What’s it about? After a crushing defeat at the hands of skating prodigy Shinozaki Reo, young Maeshima Kensei swore he would never compete again—though he kept practicing in secret in the years since. Now in high school, Kensei is approached by Reo’s bitter half-brother Sasugai Hayato, who has a plan to get revenge on Reo by coaching Kensei to the top.
Alright, let’s get it out of the way: the next major anime about figure skating was always going to face getting laughed off the stage. Not only was Yuri!!! On ICE one of the rare titles to break out of the insular world of anime fandom and enter mainstream popularity, it was also directed by Yamamoto Sayo, one of the most talented individuals currently working in the industry. And while the show has been popular long enough to earn itself a predictable backlash, that doesn’t change that it was not just a major landmark for queer anime but a damn good watch in its own right. Those are incomparably big shoes to fill.
Having said all that…I do sincerely think Skate-Leading Stars is at least trying to do its own thing, and by the end of this first episode it had convinced me to hear it out for two more. The first half of the episode does not acquit itself well: the cast’s childhood designs look plasticky and the staging is little to write home about, and the opening theme throws so many teams of boys at the screen that I began bracing immediately for merch-induced apathy.
But the story finds its feet with the introduction of Hayato, a scheming little sneak who strides into the midst of all those earnest, passionate sportsboys. He basically cons Kensei into stealing another performer’s spot just to throw a giant middle finger at the permanently stoic Reo.
It’s a bizarre and breathless sequence, rejuvenating Kensei’s love of skating according to Hayato’s machinations while completely failing to register on Reo–it’s a bit hard to get your name out there as a challenger when you’re stealing someone else’s identity and wearing a mask, after all. To add insult to injury, Kensei’s former teammates on the school team also immediately reject his request to join because he spent most of the episode being rude and dismissive toward their sport.
The execution of the back half threw enough kinks into the familiar formula to consistently prod a smile out of me, which is no doubt down to Stars’ own big name: chief director Taniguchi Goro, who is best known for the aggressively demented Code Geass but also directed some things that are good. The big routine that serves as the climax is impressively stylish, with boarding that knows how to use composition and dynamic shots to convey the emotions of the moment even if the viewer doesn’t understand the technical difficulty of a given move. If future competition sequences keep looking like that, the show might be worth it on spectacle alone.
That said, it’s also hard to gage the show going forward from this one episode precisely because so much of the focus is on Kensei’s solo work. This is, after all, about team skating. That means a big change in screentime calculation, where the smartest choice of this premiere was focusing in on Kensei, Hayato, and their mutual connection to Reo. Group action is different than single action in terms of framing the choreography, and so on. It could all go to hell real fast. But since they managed to win me over from a downright grumpy initial frame of mind, I’ll trust them at least a little further.