Stars Align – Mid Season 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.
Mid Season (6 Episodes) Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Tom: Stars Align is unique among the plethora of Sports based anime every year, attempting to strike balance between typical shonen sports developments and a look at the damaged nature of its cast, a number of whom suffer traumatic abuse from their parents. This focus on brutal mistreatment of its core cast members gives Stars Align this authentic edge of realism in what some kids go through in private, rarely sharing with others what they suffer outside of the public eye. For now Stars Align has achieved a balance between these two competing tones, often using its darker segments as jarring, abrupt cuts from the lighter, fluffier atmosphere, giving a painful sense of authenticity to its depiction of struggling youth.
Linny: Stars Align isn’t in truth the first to mix dark drama with sports but it is one of the more put together and convincingly executed ones. When Maki joins the team and proves to be a prodigy, he is met with push back and dislike from almost all the other club members. This feels very authentic as in real life, most members of a club would not be pleased to have a total newcomer suddenly upstage all of them and garner all the praise and attention while humiliating them in defeat after defeat. Shonen sports series often have old club members all in awe of the new prodigy, quickly rallying to support them as the new center of the team. While that can work, it also shows how Star Align is more concerned with depicting things in a darker light that lends to the series’ realism. As Tom pointed out, having our cast members hiding their painful secrets lends an air of authenticity and reality as again, most people in real life hesitate to share their drama for fear of complications and judgements. Stars Align refrains from showing anything brutal or abusive in detail, most of the drama coming from dialogue or implied scenes that cut out the most shocking parts. But that does not mean that it doesn’t contain some powerful scenes such as Maki visibly wincing anytime his father gets too close to him. The show also does let the characters lose control when needed like when Maki and Touma confront Maki’s father and they quickly start yelling out emotionally charged threats while Maki’s father displays the arrogant calm of an abusive adult who clearly views them as nothing more than weak teenagers he can toy with emotionally.
Tom: Stars Align really nails the jarring tonal shift of a teenager’s life, between the all fun and games club to the upsetting troubles at home. For now we haven’t gone too far with these darker elements, but there’s always the danger of something like this turning into a melodrama, such as if too many more of the boys turn out to come from abusive households (We’re up to about 3 kids suffering from a damaged home life.) The show also stumbles a bit when one of the other boys tries to get in on the darker reveals, attempting to pull on our heartstrings by noting that he feels unloved by the birth mother who abandoned him, despite being taken in by two adoptive parents who love him more than anything in the world. It’s a valid emotional struggle, but pales in comparison to what the other characters are going through. The show itself has this boy shot down as Shinjou, the team’s captain, urges him not to share these feelings with Maki, whose dad beats him for fun and money. It’s here that I’m given pause, wondering what Stars Align ultimate point in is including child abuse as a part of its narrative. Right now it works, but without a grander message at play, Stars Align could end up feeling like a hollow series designed more for shock value than an earnest point to be made.
Linny: Another aspect to the abuse narrative is quite frustrating in and of itself. Stars Align makes it clear very early on that Shinjou Touma is thoroughly despised by his mother. The reasons are vague though and midway through we’re no closer to an explanation as to exactly why. The show keeps hinting that maybe Touma is actually extremely violent, with his peers running away from a confrontation with him as they claim he’s crazy and not worth risking getting into a fight with. But we have yet to see him completely lose control besides that one time he verbally threatens to kill Maki’s dad if he doesn’t leave Maki alone. Even then, he does nothing more than yell out threats. What makes things all the more confusing is Touma’s family apart from his mother all seem to like him well enough, with his older brother even trying to explain away their mother’s treatment of Touma as the two of them just not being ‘compatible’. Maybe Stars Align is saving Touma’s truth for a big reveal but given how far in we are in and we are still no closer to a revelation, I worry the answer might turn out to be disappointing. Then there’s also the fact that Stars Align seems to be trying to offer peeks into too many characters’ lives without then fully following up. An example is the random segment in Episode 5 where we learn about the School President, Kinuyo Kasuga, who’s attempting to shut the Boy’s tennis club down due to their unproductive nature, and the drama in her own family. This reveal about her feels a little random and for now almost pointless and distracting as almost nothing has come of it and she barely features in the main story as it is. Her character has otherwise exclusively existed as the reminder that disbandment looms ahead if the boys can’t improve by the end of the school year.
Tom: For right now I’m in love with Stars Align. It feels like it’s trying to do something few anime have truly attempted; providing an authentic feeling insight into troubled youth. It’s a Slice of Life series that actually feels like a whole taste of that life, rather than something curated to just the light and fluffy. But in order to remain poised as an anime to remember it’s going to have to tie its two narratives together and make clear what its ultimate message is. Again, for now the jarring shift between typical sports fare and haunting abuse is effective, but there needs to be a deeper message and purpose to its inclusion before too long.
Linny: Another thing I would like to praise about the show is its more subtle attempts at characterization. A specific example would be seeing how the Soft Tennis Boys Club’s supervising teacher, Takayuki Sakurai types slowly and awkwardly with just his pointer fingers. This really goes well with his laid back, bumbling personality and offers a nuanced character exploration moment, adding to the feeling that Stars Align has thought out characterization and hopefully a well thought out story in the long run as well.
Tom: Overall I’m optimistic about Stars Align’s chances in nailing its landing. Besides how effective and moving the abuse sequences are, Stars Align has also generally done well with the sports focus, keeping Soft Tennis easy to understand, the team’s improvements realistic, and not harping too much on Maki’s innate talent. If Stars Align can keep it up, and bring its two competing tones together for a cathartic, well realized ending, then it could remain my top anime of Fall 2019. It’s got a hell of a battle ahead dealing with such intense subject matter, but I’m pulling for it.
Linny: What I love about Star Align’s mix of sports and drama is its restrained approach to a lot of its various elements. Not only is the melodrama doled out in metered doses, the boys take their time developing their skills. Yes, we get to see the club members start to improve thanks to better planning, practice and team ups but nobody becomes a break out star or is revealed to be hiding some sports breaking skill. For those of you who feel they’d enjoy a restrained, realistic and somewhat darker approach to sports anime, Stars Align might be worth a look in and let us all keep our fingers crossed that it can maintain the course and ultimately wind its story up with continued credibility and a strong message at the end of it all, instead of whimpering out as something using dark topics solely for shock value and drama and failing to truly develop its characters and story.
Stars Align is available for streaming via Funimation.