Stars Align is the latest entry in a storied genre. Sports anime that are less about the sport themselves and more about the struggles of a core group of characters united by their participation in them. The usual trope is a group of misfits brought together by a love of their chosen game. Stars Align though, even in its first two episodes, is less straightforward. This early on, we already see a series that is more complex–and darker–than one might first imagine.
Stars Align comes from the mind of Kazuki Akane. An industry vet best known for directing the shoujo adventure classic The Vision of Escaflowne all the way back in 1996. He’s kept busy since then, with a hand in everything from Noein to the wildly underrated Birdy The Mighty: Decode to some of the Code Geass films. The guy has experience in spades, but curiously, Stars Align is his first time helming something that’s not speculative fiction of some kind. It has a lot going on, but Stars Align is nothing if not grounded in reality.
The setting is an average high school. A high school with a shining girls’ soft tennis team, and an outright pathetic boys’ team of the same. You may correctly guess that it’s the latter who are the focus of our story here. The main characters of this tale are Toma Shinjou and Maki Katsuragi. The former is the soft tennis club’s captain, and the only member who is particularly invested in the dying organization. The latter is an old childhood friend of his. Maki is an astronomy nerd, a new transfer to their school, and despite his obvious talent, not at all interested in the tennis club at first.
He arrives as the tennis club is in its death throes. The specifics aside, Toma convinces Maki to join the tennis club by basically bribing him. Maki, with a single mother who struggles to make ends meet, agrees to join the club on this condition. He is, essentially, being paid to play. It’s not exactly the most orthodox setup for this sort of show. Stars Align is not afraid to get into thorny territory. Something that becomes apparent when we find out why Maki was willing to take that bribe. The end of the first episode establishes that Maki’s estranged father is an abusive stalker who extorts his own wife and son for money. It’s a markedly dark turn for what for its first 15 minutes or so seemed like a fairly ordinary sports anime.
Cuts & Bruises
Stars Align is in some ways defined by this technique. The show likes to showcase triumphant, feel-good moments, and then cut them with harsher, more grounded ones for contrast. Maki joining the soft tennis club is undercut by why he does it, and then undercut again when we’re introduced to his father. The second episode showcases the team running together. They have a solid moment of unity as they welcome Maki to the team.
This, again, gets contrasted with a much harsher moment later in the episode. The team practice swings, and Maki spurns that unity from earlier. He instead dresses them down for their incompetence.
It’s hard to say this early on what the eventual point of all this will be. Shows certainly exist where we would be intended to take Maki’s side here, and his criticisms would be framed as “telling it like it is”–harsh but ultimately helpful. Catharsis or justification of that nature just isn’t present in Stars Align. The drama is compellingly-written and presented, but it’s certainly not an easy watch.
Slice of Life
This is all further complicated by the other characters that inhabit Stars Align’s world. The club’s manager is a gay student who we’re introduced to as the target of bullying. There’s the nerdy Kanako Mitsue, a girl who has mostly lurked in the series’ background thusfar, but seems to be harboring something of a crush on Maki. There’s the school president, whose scheme of shuffling funding around to give “better” clubs preferential treatment is what kicks off the entire plot. The roles these characters play, and even their overall importance, is an unsettled question right now.
There is one other thing to bring up, the show’s production. Stars Align is apparently something of a passion project for Akane. It is maybe no surprise then that the animation is superb, sometimes approaching film-quality. The focus is on fluidity and capturing specific motions over any sort of painterly qualities. This means the anime generally looks great, but it does have the unfortunate side effect of making it look a little odd in stills. Though sometimes in an amusing way.
We’ve also gotten a few interesting techniques, like the show going to a black and white style for parts of the running sequence.
The soundtrack is great too. The show’s tendency to snatch them away aside, the series’ more triumphant moments have been soundtracked by lilting vocal pop, another choice that makes Stars Align feel filmic. There’s also a particular standout piano piece that exists in two versions. One is rollicking and upbeat, the other sinister and downcast. The two are used as you might expect.
The final word is that despite sometimes being a difficult watch, Stars Align has a good headstart on being one of the most interesting and rewarding viewing experiences of the young season. This early on, it’s hard to say for sure that it’ll stay the course, but it’s well worth hoping for.