Stars Align – Anime Review
Synopsis: The Boys Tennis Club is a joke. After getting trounced by the Girls Tennis Club in another humiliating practice match, the bad news comes down: Any clubs not producing results are bound for shut down. Shinjou Touma, 2nd year High School student and Club captain, will do anything to keep the club from going under. Opportunity strikes when former middle school friend, Katsuragi Maki moves back into town. Maki isn’t quite your average boy though, possessing natural reflexes that could be just what Touma needs to win a crucial tournament in order to keep the club funded. However, Touma finds Maki isn’t so eager to join, not without a monetary incentive.
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Tom: Stars Align has been an interesting experiment. It’s not really a sports anime, despite the focus on Soft Tennis. It’s also not your traditional Slice of Life, often delving into character’s personal lives to find troubled family drama. It’s a series that takes the Slice of Life genre, typically known for light, fluffy content that’s lacking in personal drama or stakes, and decides to upend the equation by saying ‘what if our characters actually suffer real issues youths face?’ After a generally light and fluffy opening Stars Align delves into each of the club member’s home life troubles. It’s anything from feelings of rejection and self-loathing brought about by knowing their birth mother gave them up for adoption, to more dramatic and darker issues, like abusive fathers or apathetic, loathing mothers. These moments interrupt the frequent, easy going content, hitting the audience like a ton of bricks. It’s incredible how the series imparts the same, abrupt disappointment and horror these boys are feeling so effectively to the audience, taking victories and moments of elation and smacking you right out of them with a cut to Maki’s or Touma’s more painful moments.
Linny: If you dislike or feel strong aversion to dark drama or topics such as child and domestic abuse, let me stop you right here and say Stars Align is not for you. Despite looking like another run of the mill sports show at first glance, it is actually all about the everyday lives of the club members and the not so great situations a lot of them are facing in the privacy of their homes. From extremely controlling parents to straight up physically abusive ones, Stars Align actually manages to handle these delicate and painful topics with grace, for the most part. It never lingers on the more violent scenes for too long, never milking it for sheer shock effect and for better or worse, the show moves at a brisk pace. It rarely hams it up and seems more intent on getting the point across about the hurdles and struggles our cast members are facing. That said, since a lot of the club members are facing their own struggles, it could get overwhelming or even frustrating for some viewers as the audience gets consistently bombarded with one drama after the other. And what could push others away is how as the show progresses, we get to see more and more characters on the verge of a complete mental breakdown making that feel like too much, too often.
Tom: But in some ways, that sheer angst, self-loathing and cracking mental frustration encapsulates what it means to be a teenager, for better or worse. Taking pain, trauma, disappointment and making the most of it, even when a more level head might prevail. Then again, teen drama can be tough to watch, and if it wasn’t for how endearing these boys are I might assert that’s where Stars Align fails. Instead the cast is so lovable, passionate and adorable, that when they get a win you can’t help but cheer for these kids. And when they’re inevitably smacked back to their harsh reality you ache for them every damn time. There’s some catharsis to be had. Certain cast members troubles are more easily solved than others, allowing for some brief moments of relief as one of our Soft Tennis boys overcomes a hardship, a painful memory, or perhaps manages to move on from the heartache of yesterday. It’s almost like the series is a commentary on youth, something that’s more honest than so many fluffy slice of life that steer far and away from. But these issues Stars Align not once shies away from, tackling these more traumatic aspects to life head on.
Linny: While it’s undeniable that a lot of the boys seem to be facing some personal issue or problems at home, I think Stars Align is trying to make a point that everyone has their burdens. It’s not being dismissive but rather showing that there’s no such thing as a perfectly normal, happy life. No matter how rosy things may seem or how cheerful someone may be, there could be a lot hidden behind closed doors. But at the same time, Stars Align acknowledges that not all struggles are alike or equal. This is showcased by a scene where a club member wallows in feeling unworthy of his adopted parents’ unconditional love but is immediately chided by the team captain who forbids him from ever bringing it up in front of another teammate with a physically abusive father. A fair amount of the drama comes from the friction between parents and children. Besides the abusive parents, there’s cases of step parents struggling to love their step child, parents disappointed with their child’s lack of skills, or parents unsupportive of their child’s potential gender identity struggle. This wide spectrum of issues is something that could work in the show’s favour, maybe hitting a connecting chord in many a viewer’s heart. Another commendable point for the show is its very positive portrayal and handling of trans people. Not only does the show depict a very healthy relationship and acceptance between one of the teen boys and his mother’s trans friend but said teenager also voices support for a friend who seems to be struggling with their gender identity. In a medium that often uses trans people as gag material, it’s refreshing and hopeful to see such positive and wholesome representation and acknowledgement.
Tom: Unfortunately this is the portion of the review where our praise must be set aside for disappointing reality (Oddly, this is somehow fitting for Stars Align.) For as great and wonderful as this experimental series has been, it’s nothing without an ending, and that’s where Stars Align falls to pieces. Production troubles began almost half a year ago. The creative team apparently lost a guaranteed pick up for what was meant to be a 24-25 episode run. But without notice any earlier there wasn’t time to truly course correct and rewrite the project down, to make it now fit in half the episodes. Without the ability to course correct Stars Align ends on a cliffhanger, and a dark one at that. Instead of offering viewers a hopeful message, one that the series so obviously wanted to based on its more uplifting opening and ending segments, we concluded events on the darkest development yet. It would work as one hell of a cliffhanger, a way to entice viewers to tune in three months later to see if Maki, Touma and the rest will finally be okay– and yet we know that unless sales are through the roof, this is how it ends.
Linny: It is such a shame that an otherwise emotionally engaging and unique series ends in such a frustrating manner. It greatly hampers the chances of audiences walking away with any favourable final impressions. Given how unusual the show is in its tone and content, convincing someone to give it a chance with the full knowledge that the ending is a total wreck makes it that much harder to recommend. Stars Align is by no means a perfect show even without such an unsatisfying ending, largely thanks to its strained art and its dark content being so volatile. But had it gotten a proper wrap up, it could still have connected with those seeking a more brutal and realistic slice of life story. As it stands now, without any news or hope for a second season, Stars Align unfortunately ends up in an ambiguous spot for me; hard to recommend yet equally as hard to brush aside.
Tom: Stars Align, even with a botched ending, remains an interesting experiment: Joining Slice of Life with a more realistic, if upsetting, atmosphere of family struggles and home abuse. It takes a normally fluffy and often forgettable genre and manages to instill new life by truly making Slice of Life, well, an honest to god Slice of Life, ups, downs, warts, smiles and all. It’s a shame it ended like this, and I’ll always be pulling for an announcement that the back half of the story will finally see the light of day. But as it stands I can’t recommend the series either. Its current ending is simply dour and depressing, lacking an ounce of hope. It sits at total odds with what the series seemed to be saying, and heck, we know it’s not even meant to be the one, true ending. Really only watch Stars Align if you don’t mind experiencing something half-finished. It’s inventive, creative and wholly emotional, yet is also, quite upsettingly, altogether unfinished.
Stars Align is available for streaming via Funimation.