Hoshiai no Sora (Stars Align) Season 1 Review

Warning: this review contains spoilers for the first season of Hoshiai no Sora (Stars Align).

In my previous review for the first episode of 2019’s Hoshiai no Sora (Stars Align), I gave my initial thoughts on the series, praising its art direction, aesthetic choices, and strong character focus. I even speculated that the series might become my favourite anime of the year, provided it kept up the quality of its very strong first episode. And while I found Hoshiai no Sora consistently entertaining, I did find myself slightly disappointed by the series’ end, most likely because I had set my expectations too high from the beginning. Ironically enough, it was one of the very things I had praised about the debut episode that became the show’s biggest weakness as it progressed.

In my last review, I praised the series for giving the main characters realistic, personal conflicts outside of sports, a refreshing change of pace for a sports anime. And while that choice made main characters like Maki and Mitsue more dynamic and interesting, it ultimately backfired as the series focused more on the supporting cast. As Hoshiai no Sora gradually reveals that almost every single character has some kind of tragic backstory or abusive family situation, the story begins to feel more like a melodramatic soap opera than a realistic depiction of the lives of middle schoolers. The silliest instance of melodrama is Rintaro’s unnecessary adoption plot-line, but its the sheer number of tragic story-lines that greatly diminishes the weight of what could otherwise be very emotionally compelling drama. Maki’s abusive father is initially enraging and horrifying, but because the show packs its narrative with one monstrous parent after another, his villainy starts to become ordinary and much less frightening than it first was. It’s never a great idea to make every villain or antagonist the same archetype—SAO has rightly received criticism for making nearly all of its villains rapists—and Hoshiai no Sora’s writers appear to be similarly incapable of creating a cast of compelling and diverse antagonists. I understand that the show is exploring how sports act as an outlet for abused or disenfranchised kids, which it does quite well with Maki. However, it often feels like the writers just don’t know how to write interesting family dynamics without making them abusive or traumatic in some way, which is unfortunate.

Aside from feeling numbed to the redundant character trauma, I also found myself feeling confused by how irrelevant and unresolved most of it is. In the writers’ defense, I’ve since learned that the show was meant to be 24 episodes and was cut to 12 relatively last minute by the network, so I’m not entirely faulting the writers for their story being incomplete. However, to have zero closure or payoff for any of the characters’ stories feels jarring and like this season didn’t really go anywhere. The drama with Maki’s father at least culminated in episode 12’s unexpected cliff-hanger, but the rest of the kids’ arcs are left awkwardly hanging, likely to never be addressed again (Itsuki’s childhood trauma and Tsubasa’s abusive dad in particular were two story threads that felt forgotten almost as soon as they occurred).

But the biggest problem is that the excessive personal drama and character angst often gets in the way of actual sports action. The series is definitely a cross between a slice-of-life anime and a sports anime, and I was okay with that split for the first half of the series. Many of my favourite sports anime are similarly half-breeds; series like Touch and Cross Game focus more on romantic relationships than actual baseball. But in both those shows, the balance between the two foci was much clearer, and the two genres complemented each other well. In Hoshiai no Sora, the character drama that meaningfully impacts the tennis matches and the relationships between the boys on the team is great stuff. For instance, Maki’s relationship with his father, while it eats up a lot of the show’s air-time, never feels unnecessary or forced. It strengthens the relationship between Toma and Maki on and off the court and reveals new sides to both characters as they each bravely face Maki’s father head-on. Because of their shared experience and trauma, the two understand each other better, and their personal bond directly correlates to the trust they share on the court. Similarly, Nao’s stifled upbringing hinders him from feeling confident in his athletic abilities, and his insecurities impact each game he plays.

Unfortunately, most of the personal character drama is not nearly as important or impactful as these examples. Most egregious is episode 9, in which Nao has a mental breakdown and locks Shingo’s baby sister in the infirmary, because he feels she has thwarted his chances to participate in a practice match. Aside from the troubling lack of repercussions for Nao’s insane behaviour, the practice match against the girls’ team, which had been built up for a while, receives no screen-time, since the episode is entirely taken up with a minor character’s personal problems. We don’t get to see the players improve or their teams become stronger, because there just isn’t enough time to balance both sports action and excessive drama in a twenty minute episode. Although I appreciate the series’ priority on writing interesting characters and realistically depicting ordinary life, I don’t appreciate how the issues of unimportant characters regularly shift the focus away from actual tennis, which is the main draw of the show.

And it’s not just the sports scenes that get short-changed by the narrative’s unbalanced focus. For a sports anime, the series curiously suffers from a lack of compelling rivals or antagonists. The only tennis “villains,” so to speak, are Arashi Oji and the Itsuse twins. Although a fun character, Arashi is a villain for all of one practice match, after which he assumes the role of a likable friend to Maki, leaving us with just the twins for the finale’s villainous threat. Unfortunately, they make for very boring antagonists, as they are so underdeveloped we know literally nothing about them except that they’re tennis prodigies. I never got a clear read on either of these characters, so I felt nothing but confusion when they started to mentally unravel on the court. In comparison, the similar breakdown of the composed prodigy Akashi in Kuroko no Basket felt so much more meaningful and terrifying, because the show had built him up big time and because we knew exactly what kind of trauma caused him to snap. In Hoshiai no Sora, the twins’ sudden outburst of violence and aggression feels completely unearned and unexplained, which makes the final tennis match feel hollow. Because the writers jam so much material into just twelve episodes and routinely prioritize personal character drama, the drama on the tennis court is usually woefully underdeveloped, and the Itsuse twins are a prime example of that narrative neglect.

All that said, I don’t hate or dislike this show by any means, even if it may seem like I do. Overall, Hoshiai no Sora has a lot to offer, and, as I said earlier, it is a consistently entertaining anime. Although the character drama is often over-the-top and too time-consuming for my tastes, the main leads are excellent characters, and the chemistry between each of the pairs, with the exception of Itsuki and Rintaro, is shockingly well-developed for just a dozen episodes. The best character by far, Maki is an absolutely delightful protagonist. Like many anime protagonists, he is flippant, nonchalant, and disinterested in almost everything anyone around him cares about. However, as the series progresses, he turns out to be a much more complicated character. Yes, he’s sometimes sarcastic and disinterested, but most times he’s just giddy at the chance to escape and play sports without worrying about financial and familial troubles. As I mentioned in my last review, Maki’s disinterest is an obvious façade to protect himself from getting his hopes up, and that duality in his character is what makes him so interesting. Seeing him fluctuate from a cheerfully competitive kid on the tennis court to a cowering and battered son at home is heartbreaking every time, largely because his character is so likable and so believably drawn.

In addition to Maki, secondary protagonist Toma is also a great character. He’s eager and passionate about tennis, but he has a tendency to get too lost in his own head and lose sight of the fact that tennis is meant to be fun, a habit his partner Maki attempts to curb. Toma is an earnest, selfless, and generous kid, even giving Maki money to bribe his father and assuming full responsibility for his team’s lack of results. However, Toma is also a tortured soul, barely able to contain his rage towards both he and Maki’s abusive parents. The scene where he threatens Maki’s father is a particularly interesting character moment. He threatens to murder Maki’s dad, which initially seems like a child’s attempt to seem brave and intimidating, but then he brings up the fact that he’s a minor and could get a lighter sentence for murder, a comment delivered so matter-of-factly it implies he’s thought about this kind of thing before. If the show does continue, I hope the writers dive further into his family life and explore where his anger comes from, since the tenuous control ofhis rage is the most compelling aspect of his character.

The last character I want to mention and perhaps the most unexpectedly interesting one is Mitsue. Usually in sports anime, the sole female character is the team manager, since that’s the easiest way to write a female character into a show that exclusively focuses on a boys’ sport. And while Mitsue is disappointingly but predictably the only female character of importance—I had hoped we would see more of the girls’ tennis team, alas—she remains steadfastly uninterested in tennis, aside from cheering on the boys, and pursues her own interests, which is quite unusual for a character in her position. Her decision to unashamedly commit to drawing the unpopular art that she enjoys is brought on by watching the boys devote themselves to a sport they suck at, and that’s really interesting to me. Her story-line serves as a comparison between art and sports, showing how both work as an outlet. There’s no privileging of one over the other, as both art and sports are represented as healthy ways to cope with negative emotions and influences. With Mitsue’s character, the writers are able to reinforce their realistic treatment of sports as just another hobby or outlet rather than the be-all and end-all of existence, and because of that, Mitsue’s character feels really fresh compared to many of the female leads in sports anime.

My previous review gushed over the aesthetic art-style and animation quality of the first episode, and I’m happy to confirm that these aspects of the show never weakened. The animation is impressively consistent, and the tennis matches are fast-paced and exciting. Even though there are a fair amount of reused frames of animation, the animators are able to incorporate them in a way that doesn’t detract from the momentum and excitement of the match. The animation during the finale’s tournament is particularly solid, as it manages to vividly portray the simultaneous exhaustion and elation Maki and Toma feel when they find themselves advancing farther than they ever imagined they would. I might have my problems with this series, but the quality of the animation was never one of them.

The finale is a notably well-directed episode, with abrupt cuts during the OP and ED that perfectly set the jarring and horrifying tone that defines this episode, but it’s the cliff-hanger at the end that is the real episode-stealer, largely due to its strong aesthetic choices. We don’t get to see what Maki’s father does to push his son over the edge, leaving us in dreadful suspense, and the suddenly foreign colour palette only intensifies that feeling of disoriented horror. During Maki’s journey to find and kill his father, the sunset shifts to a much harsher orange, the buildings become grey and streaked with grime, and the primary source of light becomes ominous lightning flashes. With this scene, the show’s aesthetic shifts from its typical slice-of-life charm to something much more gothic, reflecting the shift within Maki as he approaches his father’s apartment. This final scene packs a heavy punch, in no small part thanks to its artistic choices, and promises a lot of potentially interesting developments next season.

Lastly, I absolutely have to mention the OP by Megumi Nakajima and the ED by AIKI. I never skipped either of these songs once, since they were both so catchy (and I’ve listened to both many times since finishing the series). Outside of excellently fulfilling their roles as bookends, both songs also spice up every tennis scene the show sets them to, and they never fail to deliver intense amounts of hype. As a whole, the soundtrack is good, but those two songs are definitely the most noteworthy.

Ultimately, Hoshiai no Sora didn’t live up to my hopes for the series, but considering my hopes were set abnormally high due to a near-perfect first episode, the show is by no means bad or not worth watching. There’s a lot to like in this original anime, from well-developed and dynamic main characters to beautiful art and fluid animation. While the show has a tendency for melodrama and squanders too much of its limited time on redundant and pointless side stories, Hoshiai no Sora is still an enjoyable journey and a solid entry into the sports anime canon. Here’s hoping for that unlikely second season.

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