First Look: Stars Align

Alternative title(s): Hoshiai no Sora, Even in an ever-changing world, only the starlit sky will not change
Anime original by 8bit
Streaming on Funimation

Premise

Shijo Minami Middle School is known all over the country for its excellent girls’ soft tennis team. The boys’ team, on the other hand, is little more than a punch line. Desperate to avert his club’s dissolution following a draconic new rule imposed by the student council, the team’s captain tries to recruit Maki Katsuragi, a new transfer student, after noticing his amazing reflexes. Maki, however, refuses to join unless the club is willing to pay him — hinting at the fact that he has other things to be worried about.

Aqua’s verdict: Game, Set and Match

If there is anything you could hold against Stars Align, it is the fact that it is tapping into an already egregiously saturated market. Whether it is actual creative ambition that made the slice-of-life genre the peanut butter to anime’s jelly, remains to be seen, but the fact persists that if there’s been an anime I’ve enjoyed over these few past seasons, chances are likely it’s been a naturalistic coming-of-age dramedy. Stories like Just Because, Bloom into You, A Place Further than The Universe or Given all operate within the one genre that anime — ironically, unlike some of the genres it actually pioneered — all but consistently knocks out of the park. Although Stars Align presents itself as a sports anime, its true allegiance makes it fit snugly alongside the aforementioned shows, as the hot-blooded rivalries and tense, tactical power plays spotlighted in shows like Haikyu!! take a back seat to the portrayal of a hobby a a vessel for personal development, last seen elevating shows like Ping Pong or Sound! Euphonium.

Does that mean that Stars Align is generically good by virtue of ticking off some boxes on a list? It certainly merits to say that the broad strokes making this pilot a joy to watch are decent in an almost offhandish kind of way. Nuanced character animation, clear compositing, snappy dialogue, it’s all here because of course it is, showing off an offbeat sense of comedy and love for the craft that recalls studio 8bit’s earlier prestige project — Comet Lucifer — with which it shares a character designer and chief animation director. Though two widely different shows with widely different objectives, Stars Align and Comet Lucifer have a casual impressiveness in common, eschewing the over-directing and look-what-I-can-do showboating of many other director-driven projects — Stars Align was both directed and written by Kazuki Akane, director of Escaflowne and creator of Noein — and in favour of being good just because being good makes an anime all the more entertaining.

Nevertheless, Stars Align‘s inoffensive excellence — if that’s what we want to call it — only accentuates the refreshing beauty of its details. From minor details like a soft tennis club member tripping over a mobile barrier or ensemble dark horse in the making Kanako’s slouched posture, to major ones like the fact that this show goes out of its way to include various female characters despite being about a boys’ soft tennis club, every minute of Stars Align feels considered. The show reads as effortless, but never lethargic. While anime tend to cruise from one important scene to another on a road cobbled together from obligations and clichés, all the details in Stars Align are there because they need to be. It certainly doesn’t avoid tropes like the reluctant prodigy or the abusive gangster father, but it implements them in ways that feel natural and necessary, not to an unwritten set of genre rules, but to the story the creators are trying to tell. The already infamous post-credits sequence doesn’t make as much of an impact as it does because of its content, but because of its excellent details — the suspense, the jarring tonal shift, Maki’s realistic reaction — that make viewers empathize with a plot line a dozen other anime would see passed off as cheap posturing.

Still, reducing this episode to those last couple of minutes would be a huge disservice to the exceptional watch it is throughout. Suffice to say, that Stars Align comes with the heartiest of recommendations, not only for its honest, disturbing portrayal of abuse, but just as much for its strong pacing, its artistic flourishes and its depiction of teenage life in all of its awkward memorability. While I do have my reservations about the two extremes the show is trying to meet in the middle — Will the next tonal whiplash be as effective as this one, or will it steer the show towards farcical bathos? — I do wish for Stars Align to carry on showing both the joys and the sorrows of life. Here’s hoping we have another coming-of-age classic on our hands, but given the genre’s recent track record, I’d say it’s all but written in the stars.

Gee’s verdict: Disadvantage

Stars Align probably wins the, “Least interesting anime until the last 5 minutes” award of this season for me. We start off with a sports story as old as time. The apathetic and weak boys soft tennis team is in danger of being disbanded due to a lack of results. Its scrappy captain, determined to save the club, will do anything, including paying a promising transfer student to lend his skills to the team. We’ve seen this all before. Ragtag team, reluctant ace player, and underlying human drama are all touchstones of the genre. In fact, it’s the last one I want to get to here.

The undertones of traumatic familial relationships is already quite apparent in the first episode, culminating in the rather stark shift in tone of the final minutes when Maki’s estranged father finds where he and his mother have been living. It’s a pretty hard scene to watch, and it casts the rest of the episode into a deeply fascinating lens. But would I say it’s a surprising one? This starts getting into territory that’s best saved for a longer piece, but I’ve already begun to see talk in the anime discourse of how “subversive” and “revolutionary” Stars Align is for its focus on human drama.

The thing is, sports anime have always dealt in human drama. From Big Windup to Ping Pong to Slam Dunk, every good sports story understood that our emotional investment in the presentation and outcome of their featured sports hinged on our emotional investment in the characters. Ren Mihashi is a compelling character because of his struggle to overcome his trauma and social anxiety. Peco and Smile’s final match is a contender for one of the greatest individual matches of a sport ever portrayed in the history of the medium because of what we know of its participants. So the idea I’m beginning to see get bandied about that Stars Align is doing something, “no other sports anime has ever tried” is a sentiment that’s working from a false premise or a lack of understanding of the genre’s history. That isn’t to say Stars Align is doing it poorly, in fact it’s those human elements that have me invested in what is otherwise shaping up to be a somewhat generic sports anime. But don’t pretend like it hasn’t been done before.

Artemis’ verdict: Serving Up The Drama

I have zero interest in soft tennis (or really in any kind of team sport) and usually don’t care that much for sports anime, so this title wasn’t originally even on my to-watch list. To my surprise though, I ended up liking the episode, at least enough to keep the show around for the time being. In part this is because there just aren’t many titles I’m watching so far this season, and while I may not love sports anime, I am always a sucker for a decent slice-of-life series. I’m also always up for anime set in school that don’t just deal with school and the various love lives of the characters – when siblings and parents come into the picture, I’m bound to be twice as interested. I don’t think Stars Align is by any means perfect – many moments are a little too on the nose, and in general I would’ve preferred something with a little more subtlety, maybe even something that hinted at certain developments but kept me guessing for a while rather than laying it all out so directly. That said, there’s definitely enough here to make the series stand out from the crowd, largely because of its choice to mix the darker and far less spoken-about aspects of teenage life with an otherwise classic school sports/club drama. I’m in.

One thought on “First Look: Stars Align

  1. This is one of those anime… I don’t know where it’s going, but it’s sure got me hooked. Even without the last few minutes, I was getting the same kind of “understated intensity” vibes that I got from the first episodes of both Euphonium and Just Because.

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