Soft Tennis and Societal Issues in Hoshai no Sora! – Series Review

Major Spoilers Alert!

Man what an cliffhanger ending! I seriously did not expect that the show would end on that note. When I first watched Hoshiai no Sora (Stars Align), I did not expect that it would end up loving it. Nor did I expect that it would get so dark right away. Like others, I originally expected it to be this happy sports anime where everybody comes together to win a tournament. Well, I was half right. But now I’m glad that Japan decided to produce this show.

Series Recap

For those who haven’t seen it, Hoshiai no Sora tells the tale of a high school soft tennis team who are on the verge of being dissolved because they habitually slack off and don’t put any real effort into their training. Having resigned themselves to failure, the team captain, Toma Shinjo gets fed up and decides to get the new transfer student and his childhood friend,  Maki Katsuragi (CV: Natsuki Hanae, Eng: Justin Briner) to join the team. Maki agrees to join on the basis that Toma pays him for his skills. Though Maki is initially joking, Toma agrees to pay him. The story continues with Maki joining the soft tennis and using his natural charisma and craftiness to subtly enacts changes that turn his teammates into becoming better players and people.

Plot

So that’s the main story. But what the show doesn’t let on is that each of the players have their own issues to deal with. Amongst the overarching main plot of trying to score one win in a tournament, the show explores societal issues like divorce, gender, identity, abuse, bullying, adoption and just generally trying to figure out your place in the world. In terms of writing, I generally liked it. However, what upsets me about it is that we only get half the story because the studio decided to cut Stars Align’s episode length from twenty-four episodes to twelve. As a result, most the characters’ issues are not resolved, leaving the audience with burning questions about what happens next to the characters.
 

Themes

What Stars Align’s writers does do an incredible job is how the writers handle these societal issues and explain why the law and society sometimes fails these people. Most of the parents in Stars Align are not good people. They come across as cold, cruel and perhaps vindictive in Nao Tsukinose’s (CV: Yūsuke Kobayashi, Eng: Matt Shipman) and Toma’s case. In Maki’s case, it is both the law and his father who fail him.
 
Maki is from a poor family. He lives with his mother, so he has to help around the house, while his mother works hard to earn money. Their financial problems are further exasperated by Maki’s father who is an out of work drunk (and that is putting it nicely). Maki’s father is physically abusive and has beaten Maki up regularly ever since he was a child. He enjoys putting his son down and make him think that he will never amount to anything. Even after the divorce, Maki’s father still comes around for money and ends up stealing money from his own family.
 
The system fails Maki in the sense that no matter how many times they move, Maki’s father can still locate them through the family registry office. Even restraining orders do not work on this guy which infuriates me. You would think that the office would have procedures in place, so that this does not happen. But it does – which leads to our cliffhanger ending where Maki arrives home to find out from his mother’s friend, Shou that his mother has been hospitalized following another visit from his father. Fed up, Maki decides to pay his father a visit with the intent to perhaps murder him. It is really disappointing if this is truly the case in Japan. But enough about that.
 

Characters

As mentioned above, most of the characters in Stars Align have their own issues which is what makes this show’s characterizations fantastic. In Toma’s case, he has a bad relationship with his mother for some unknown reason relating to his father. His mother also *creepily* dotes on his older brother, Ryoma (CV: Masaya Matsukaze, Eng: Chris Wehkamp) and treats him like her favorite son. This causes Toma to develop an inferiority complex as he both respects and is jealous of both Ryoma and Maki. Toma also has a short fuse causing him to have a bad reputation at school.
 
However, Toma does have one romantic admirer, Yuta “Yū” Asuka (CV: Yoshitaka Yamaya, Eng: Brandon McInnis). Yuta is the soft tennis club’s manager. Yuta’s issue is that he currently identifies himself as gender neutral. While he likes girls’ clothes, he still isn’t really sure about which gender he wants to be. Because of this, Yuta is often teased for being an homosexual by the boys at school. And, although his sisters support him, his mother is against for some unknown reason. This is where Maki’s character really shines as Maki is a lot more worldly and accepting of Yuta. He accepts Yuta for who he is and explains that Yuta doesn’t have to rush the issue for now because he knows someone who is in the same boat which is his mother’s friend, Shou, a female who became a transgender male.
 

Then there are the other club members. Itsuki Ameno (CV: Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, Eng: Derick Snow) has body issues as he has a burn scar on his back from when his mother poured boiling water on him when he was an infant. As his mother suffered from Postpartum depression, she was later placed in a care facility and he now lives with his father and older sister, Namie. Nao Tsukinose lives with his mentally abusive mother who is obsessed with Nao becoming the best in academics and enrolling in a good university. While this doesn’t seem so bad, she actually treats her own son more like a puppet and wants him to live a life according to her own designs. Whenever Nao acts out like staying in the soft tennis club against his mother’s orders, she complains to the school landing the rest of the boys in trouble. His father is also no help at all, as he acts cold and ignores the situation. This leads Nao into becoming a “compulsive liar” due to the immense stress he is under. That is until he learns to stand up for himself.

In contrast to both of them, we then have Rintaro Futsu (CV: Gen Sato, Eng: Garret Storms) whose problems are slightly more normal. Rintaro is a illegitimate child whose birth mother put him up for adoption when he was a baby. Though he has good parents, he begins to doubt himself after finding out the truth of his birth. He takes his situation fairly for granted causing Toma to scold him for it. Rightly saying that Maki would yell at him if he ever found Rintaro whining about his problems. Next is the Tsubasa-Shingo pair. On the surface both Tsubasa Soga (CV: Toshiyuki Toyonaga, Eng: Ricco Fajardo) and Shingo Takenouchi (CV: Keisuke Sato, Eng: Adam Gibbs) come from seemingly normal families. However, Tsubasa’s father is a former soccer player who disapproves of him playing soft tennis instead of soccer. While Shingo’s mother acts nervous around Shingo because he is from a previous marriage. Then there’s the last member, Taiyo Ishigami (CV: Kohei Amasaki, Eng: Dallas Reid), who suffers from some social anxiety problems which he works on throughout the show.

Among this team of boys, there is also one girl, Kanako Mitsue (CV: Mayu Mineda, Eng: Rachel Glass), who is Maki’s neighbor and acts as an unofficial member of the soft tennis club. Kanako is sarcastic, loves to draw and wants to become a professional artist, but her parents are against it because it is not a proper career to them. Their coach, Takayuki Sakurai (CV: Takahiro Sakurai, Eng: Aaron Roberts) also comes across as one of the more level-headed adults. He genuinely cares about his students and wants what best for them and not the parents.

Animation

Animation-wise, Stars Align has amazing animation. The water colored backgrounds and the drawing styles of the characters are rather unique and sets a nice ambiance between the more cheerier and dreadful moments. The transition between the tennis actions are exciting and is sure to delight audiences.

I also acknowledge the issue where TBS Animation had ripped off Miko Nanakawa and Melochin’s choreography. While I don’t approve of the studio copying the dances, I still think the dancing parts was the best animated part of the series and did well in emphasizing each of the characters’ unique personalities.
 

Voice Acting and Music

The instrumental music in Stars Align is some of the best music I have heard. The music is very gentle and mellow and really carries the slice of life feel of the show. While the ending theme song really carries the “this is the time of youth” vibe. With the voice acting, I think both the Japanese and English Dubs were wonderful. Funimation gathered together a wonderful cast. Justin Briner is just a fantastic Maki, while Josh Grelle pulls off the wonderful seriousness of Toma. Though Adam Gibbs’ Shingo does sound a bit older than he is supposed to be.
 

Summary

 Despite my initial impressions of the series, Stars Align is a wonderful slice of life anime. It has great animation, music and characterizations. Rife with realism, this show can appeal to a wide audience and has something for everyone. Though some may not like the violence in this show. It is nevertheless something to look forward to. I eagerly await the day when the director makes the sequel and finishes the tale of these youths. 

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