How Stars Align offers a fresh narrative model for LGBTQ+ characters

By: S.M. Balding February 28, 20200 Comments
Yuu from Stars Align crouched in the library reading an LGBT+ nonfiction book

Content Warning: Discussions of parental abuse, bullying, queerphobia, and transphobia; use of GIFs.

Spoilers: For Yuu’s arc in Stars Align.

Stars Align upended many viewers’ expectations about sports anime by examining how much power adults, be they parents or teachers or coaches, have over children’s success and failure in sports. The show also stood out because it added to the canon of LGBTQ+ characters in anime that are not ostensibly about LGBTQ+ issues.

Stars Align is nominally about the quest of a mediocre middle school boys’ soft tennis team to retain their status as a club by winning at least one match in the summer tournament—a feat they have not managed since an all-star group of seniors graduated a few years prior. The show, however, goes far beyond the usual sports anime concerns of the court to examine each characters’ personal lives, identities, and relationships with the adults in their lives.

the tennis team sitting under a tree
Our heroes (minus a few) make their entrance.

Every character gets at least a few moments under the spotlight, and the team’s manager, Asuka Yuu, is no exception. Yuu provides an example of how anime can respectfully and meaningfully incorporate both LGBTQ+ characters and the challenges they face into their stories. 

To “respectfully and meaningfully” incorporate these characters means focusing on them in a way that does not 1) reduce the character and their plot to their LGBTQ+ identity, 2) turn them into a prop to motivate a main character, or 3) tokenize, other, or belittle them.

GIF of Yuu being bullied
Asshole bullies are assholes.

Stars Align introduces Yuu by subverting a tired LGBTQ+ narrative

Stars Align formally introduces Yuu in a way that likely comes across as alarming for most LGBTQ+ viewers. Episode 2 opens with Yuu at the center of a ring of bullies. “We might turn gay if we get too close,” one bully sneers. Luckily, Shinjou Touma, the captain of the soft tennis team, steps in. 

Later in the episode, after noticing that Yuu often watches the team, transfer student and team ace Katsuragi Maki asks Yuu if they want to join. Yuu refuses, and Maki realizes (and says outright) that Yuu likes Touma. When Yuu protests, Maki waves it off: “It’s fine. Like whoever you want.” Maki then cuts to his real ask—for Yuu to be the team’s manager.

By putting these scenes in the same episode, Stars Align avoids locking Yuu in a narrative arc that depends on them being bullied and pigeonholes Yuu as a victim. Instead, Stars Align gives Yuu supportive and open friends and defines Yuu by their relationship to the team—the fundamental unit of a sports anime.

Maki reassuring Yuu about their sexuality
Maki is a 100% jeweler-certified gem of a friend.

Stars Align lets Yuu be more than LGBTQ+

The next episodes feature a surprising development of Yuu’s character, because they drop the subject of their sexual orientation entirely. While many series would make this the primary focus of Yuu’s arc, Stars Align takes a step back to allow viewers to become attached to Yuu as a person while also building on the tension created by the two scenes discussed above.

What defines Yuu’s character most over the course of the series is Yuu’s relationship to the team. The show communicates Yuu’s status as a member of the team visually and interpersonally: Yuu gets a tracksuit, a clipboard, a reasonable degree of authority over eight boys who might not otherwise know what day of the week it is, screentime with people who are not Yuu’s crush, and eventually a new friend-slash-charge in Mitsue Kanako, another classmate who is subject to bullying for being “gloomy” and an otaku.

Notably, Mitsue’s interactions with Yuu are not used to desexualize Yuu, change Yuu, or otherwise comment on Yuu’s sexual orientation. With one notable exception, their sexual orientation is not discussed or dwelled upon at all in episodes 3 through 7.

Yuu acting as team manager
Joy. Happiness. Fulfillment. Teamwork.

Stars Align refuses to victimize Yuu

The exception is a scene that further subverts the narrative around bullying and LGBTQ+ people.

The scene unfolds as the team is changing in their clubroom. Two track team members bust into the clubroom. One strips off his shirt to boast about his physique. He then actively looks at Yuu for approval. When he sees that Yuu isn’t looking, he knocks Yuu on the shoulder, possibly slaps their butt, and says: “Come on, look at this! Aren’t you—”

Shirtless bully trying to provoke Yuu

I could write a whole article (and did write a brief Twitter thread) on this scene alone—here, though, I will simply say that it is a great example of the fact that bullying, homophobia, and intolerance do not always look like that first, violent scene where we met Yuu. This scene also underscores the fact that bullying has nothing to do with the intention of someone’s behavior (it’s not clear whether the track team member is being mean or just full of himself) and everything to do with the effect.

The soft tennis team (a.k.a. Yuu’s friends) cuts the track team member off. They communicate in multiple ways that he is making Yuu uncomfortable, with one member finally stepping in and getting an apology out of the guy. 

And that’s the scene. There is no discussion, no unpacking; just a return to business as usual. By refusing to let this scene extend beyond this moment, the show doubles down on its refusal to let Yuu be victimized and narrowly defined.

Yuu's friends standing up for them
Support! Your! Friends! Protect them! From! Dumbasses!

Stars Align lets Yuu speak for and define themselves

The final arc of Yuu’s character development in the series as it exists directly addresses Yuu’s LGBTQ+ identity, while yet again subverting an anime trope that is commonly used for laughs: crossdressing.

Yuu and Maki must crossdress to get intel on Joy, a star player from another school; while the school has banned outside spectators, Joy’s fangirls still find a way to watch. Critically, this storyline arises because the narrative necessitates it. Mitsue admits that while she could spy alone, she doesn’t know enough about soft tennis to get the intel the team needs. Yuu, who has made their ability for data-gathering known at this point, is the best person for the cause and would probably be well-served by having an extra lookout. 

Just as importantly, Yuu themselves suggests crossdressing as a solution—they are not dragged into it or singled out as someone who should crossdress because of their suspected sexual identity. The show then uses this subplot to give Yuu space to address their identity in their own words.

Yuu discussing their uncertainty about their identity

As Maki and Yuu get dressed before going to see Joy, Maki asks Yuu if they know how to put on makeup. Yuu replies simply and with a smile: “My sisters taught me how.” And then: “Don’t you think it’s weird?”

After Maki says no, though others might, Yuu addresses the heart of their identity: “I have no idea what I want to do or who I want to be.” 

Maki goes on to explain that he knows a trans man. This is, in fact, a character the show introduced earlier with no attention paid to his gender. Maki says he considers this man a part of his family and, importantly, that Maki respects and understands his struggle and identity, even if Maki himself does not identify with it. Maki likens questions of gender to larger existential fears: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do?

Yuu reading a book about LGBTQ+ identities
Books matter.

Yuu responds by saying those are exactly the kind of questions they themselves are caught up in. The show shows Yuu reading a book about LGBTQIA+ identities. Then, Yuu says: “If I had to say, I think I’m non-binary. But it doesn’t feel right to be categorized like that. Still, the world always wants a decision one way or another.”

Yuu’s thoughts and Maki’s response (“I feel so out of place just by living sometimes”) makes Yuu’s questioning larger than gender binaries or presentation or sexual orientation. This scene beautifully casts Yuu and their identity into a question of painfully human (and adolescent) proportions: What does it mean that I am here now?

With that, Stars Align delivers a simultaneously uplifting and terrifying answer to the question of gender identity and sexual orientation: It can (and should) be self-defined, even as the world demands answers.

The timeless question of existence emerges.

Stars Align shows how adults can hurt children—including Yuu

And Stars Align knows very well that the world demands answers—most often when it has already decided what the answers should be. This same episode shows as much when Yuu’s mother discovers Yuu returning their sister’s clothes. In one simple line, she becomes the world that threatens to crush Yuu despite their newfound friends: “You’re a boy, you know. You’re my son.”

This scene brings Yuu into the show’s ongoing central theme: the power adults over children, and how they can abuse it. Yuu’s devastated expression shows us how much damage has been done.

Yuu's mother berating them

The True Tragedy: The premature ending of Stars Align

Stars Align has generally been well received, though some reviewers have noted that the show tends toward the melodramatic.

While Stars Align does focus on extreme examples of abuse and neglect, it uses them in part so viewers may consider more subtle and insidious instances: The stepparent who refuses to consider a child from a previous marriage their own; the mother who tells her son she never wanted him; the system that requires parents to tell their children that they are adopted or gives parents the right to know their child’s address regardless of whether they have been accused of abuse.

Yuu looks down, upset

Similarly, Yuu’s bullying is necessary to construct not only Yuu’s narrative within the show, but also a narrative about how shows typically treat their LGBTQ+ characters—as punching bags, tragedies, and sacrificial lambs on the altar of other characters’ progress.

Stars Align is a carefully constructed court that Director Akane Kazuki uses to display and then dismantle the terrible, trite, harmful stories society insists on telling about parents, about gender and sexuality, about children, about sports and their value, about success, and about meaning. He pulls back the curtain on ourselves.

Yuu sits in their room, smiling slightly

Unfortunately, Stars Align was not allowed to air in its entirety, so we cannot yet know what Akane had in store for Yuu and the soft tennis team. Akane received word late in the show’s production that the airtime would be halved, and instead of compromising his story, he simply decided that he would tell what he could in the time given. 

The show ends on a cliffhanger that viewers can clearly recognize as a midpoint. While some characters’ stories have ebbed and flowed over the show’s twelve episodes, Stars Align has barely scratched the surface of other arcs, and many major plot points (Maki’s father, Touma’s mother, and more) are left unfinished.

We can only hope that Akane finds the means to give the world the rest of this beautiful, bold, and much-needed story. While details are limited, a “fan movie” and “special collaboration movie” about the show have been announced. Until we know more, I will cherish the pieces that we do have, Yuu’s story most of all.

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