Hoshiai no Sora (Stars Align) Episode 1 Review

Warning: this review contains spoilers for episode 1 of Hoshiai no Sora.

I didn’t have a lot of free time to watch anime in 2019, as the first two thirds of my year were devoted to finishing grad school; any free time I had was generally spent watching retro anime and a small selection of new series like SAO, Dr. Stone, or My Hero Academia. Subsequently, there was a lot of great new anime from 2019 that I missed out on. I want to catch up on some of the series I missed, and, because of my love for sports anime, I decided to watch the first episode of Hoshiai no Sora this weekend. I’m just one episode in, and I’m already blown away. Aside from perhaps Yona of the Dawn (a personal favourite anime), I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a first episode of an anime that’s grabbed my attention as quickly as this one has. While nothing too eventful happens in this episode, there’s so much excellent groundwork laid here, promising an entertaining, realistic, and refreshing sports anime series.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this series so far is its shocking level of realism for an anime and especially for a sports anime. All of the high school protagonists actually look and act like children, worrying about looming math tests, their home lives, and asking out cute classmates. While I adore sports anime and their often absurdly dedicated protagonists and singular narrative focus, it is refreshing to watch a sports anime where high-schoolers are not solely defined by their interest and connection to a given sport. Protagonist Katsuragi Maki likes math, is fascinated by astronomy, and is a dutiful son who does all of the household chores. Next-door neighbour Mitsue Kanako is a peculiar and slightly introverted girl who enjoys filming cats and isn’t at all interested in tennis or any other sport. Each of these characters feels like a normal and well-rounded person with a diverse selection of interests and pastimes. Such normalcy is so rare in anime of this genre, and I’m really appreciating the change of pace. Hopefully the series is able to maintain this tone, as it inevitably enters its first generic tournament arc.

In addition to its realistic depiction of children, this show features realistic parents too, achieving perhaps the most impossible feat in all of anime. Most shockingly, the parents are extant, with Maki’s mom playing the most important role so far. While she is mostly depicted as a kind mother to Maki in the few scenes she appears in, a later scene with Toma provides more detail, revealing that she is a divorced single mother who works as an architect to make ends meet. These little details of her job and past provide a clear sense of the protagonist’s domestic life, and they also realistically explain Maki’s independence and self-sufficiency, traits that every other sports anime high-schooler inexplicably possesses. Maki’s mother will also likely play an even more important role in the rest of the series, if the episode’s final and most compelling scene is anything to go on.

After the ending credits, we see Maki’s alcoholic and abusive father reappear, looking for money. This short scene is perfectly done. From the first shot of the father’s hand prying open the door to the bone-crunching sound effects of the beating he gives Maki, every moment of this scene is genuinely horrifying. It perfectly captures the feelings of terror and helplessness a young teenager at the mercy of an abusive father would feel, and each brutal punch and kick made me flinch more than any over-the-top shonen-style violence ever has. Watching Maki huddle in the corner helplessly, letting his father steal his mother’s hard-earned money, is heartbreaking, and it’s the realism of this series that allows this scene to evoke such a strong emotional response. The show’s tone isn’t grand or larger than life, so seeing a boy being attacked by his father feels appropriately scary and tense. In that way, this episode reminds me a lot of the series Erased (another personal favourite); Erased was also able to evoke a strong sense of realism and capture that delicate balance between the innocence and powerlessness of childhood/adolescence. In both series, a more lifelike and subdued tone allows for a greater sense of emotional investment and sympathy for these characters.

Complementing Hoshiai no Sora’s sense of realism is a particularly strong aesthetic style. It’s a colourful show, with a lot of green grassy fields, blue skies, and orange sunsets. The colour pallet is also quite subdued and captures the look of warm and tranquil summertime. Unlike traditional sports anime, the settings and aesthetic direction throughout this episode are soft and serene, more so reflecting the art-styles found in slice-of-life anime, such as Whisper of the Heart or Tanaka-kun is Always Listless. Judging by the first episode, the series seems like it will tap into the relaxing atmospheres of those other anime as well. The animation is also notably strong, with subtly expressive characters and fluid movement during the tennis matches. There are no super-powerful special tennis moves—as of yet, anyway— and the animation of the tennis matches further reinforces the attention to realistic detail that so defines this episode.

Another one of this episode’s many strengths is its characters. In a lot of ways, the main duo of the series, Maki and Shinjou Toma, feel a lot like every other sports anime duo. Toma is knowledgeable about and enthusiastic to play a sport but is stuck in a club that’s unable to seriously compete in tournaments. Maki is naturally gifted with excellent reflexes but has no interest in said sport and must be conscripted by the duo’s more enthusiastic half. This dynamic is not original at all (Ahiru no Sora, another sports anime from 2019, explores a nearly identical storyline, as did older series like Major and Touch). However, despite the unoriginal dynamic, Hoshiai no Sora does a good job of making these characters feel fresh and interesting. For once, an anime actually explores why the nonchalant/bored character doesn’t care about something he’s naturally gifted at. Although his boundless energy and skill would make him great at sports, Maki has never allowed himself to think of them as an option, due to his family’s financial concerns. When Toma promises to pay Maki if he joins the tennis club, we get some insight into Maki’s character. He confidently rejects every one of Toma’s attempts to get him to join but is immediately caught off guard once money is mentioned. He is unable to say no due to his surprise, and when he returns home to cook, we see that he is delighted about the prospect of finally being able to play a sport. This situation offers a more nuanced depiction of the now cliché overpowered and apathetic protagonist found in so many anime, since Maki’s apathy is a largely self-imposed and understandable attempt to protect himself from disappointment.

As for Toma, we don’t know as much about him yet, but this episode offers a few interesting details; we know he has some kind of complicated family situation—he too has a mother and a father whose absence actually might impact his storyline!—and his passion and enthusiasm for tennis is endearing. Although he hasn’t been as developed as Maki so far, I’m still excited to see where his character goes from here. I’m also hoping that we get to see more of the girls’ tennis team, since there was a blissful lack of awkward sexualization in this episode, and I think it would be a waste not to develop some of these female characters further.

Having finished episode 1, I couldn’t be more excited to start the next episode and see what this series has in store for me. This was a perfect pilot episode, and so long as the rest of the series follows suit in quality, Hoshiai no Sora could easily be in contention for my favourite anime of 2019. This series feels like a breath of fresh air, and I’m excited to see where this new sports anime goes.

Hoshiai no Sora is legally available for streaming on Funimation.

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