By Briana Lawrence
So there’s this particular clip I would always see floating around whenever anyone brought up Stars Align, the sports drama anime from Kazuki Akane and studio 8bit.
It’s the clip of Maki and Yu having an actual discussion about gender identity (that recognizes being nonbinary which…holy wow).
For the longest time, this is all I knew about the series, but after accidentally bingeing the whole thing (lol oops) I discovered so much more about these soft tennis kids and the lessons they learn throughout the series, and how these lessons can apply to kids and adults alike!
Try your best
Like most sports anime starring a ragtag team of underdogs, Stars Align features a team so bad that they’ve been regulated to practicing with the leftover tennis balls that the girls’ team uses.
Due to the team’s poor performance, they’re given an ultimatum: get good or get out. Fortunately, they have newcomer Maki Katsuragi on their side. What’s interesting about Maki is that he isn’t some tennis prodigy who was born with a racket in his hand. Maki just…tries.
We’re not given some shounen-level tennis ball smash complemented with superpowered visuals. It’s just basic soft tennis, endurance training and encouragement to be confident enough to give it your best shot, something we could all serve to learn a little from. From there, it’s truly amazing what the team (and you!) is able to do when they make a real effort.
Learn from your losses
No one loses quite like Shijo Minami Middle School. That might sound like an insult, but the team constantly learns something from every match they play.
Their true strength lies in the fact that they treat each game as an opportunity to figure out how to hone their skills. They research their opponents. They come up with strategies. They learn how to complement each other on the court and, in the end, they celebrate whether they win or lose. There’s something nice about seeing applause around genuine attempts at bettering oneself. A little self-care goes a loooooong way.
Some of their opponents also learn valuable lessons from matches. Most of them don’t see the point in facing off against Shijo Minami, but who better to figure out weaknesses than from a team of losers? Their opponents learn to not take their adversaries for granted and, more importantly, to not let their egos get in the way; again, something we could all use a little more of.
Back to that clip I mentioned in the beginning. Yu reveals to Maki that they’ve been questioning how they identify. They think nonbinary may be the closest fit, but they aren’t sure.
This scene is cushioned between one of those classic “boys cross-dressing to infiltrate enemy territory” plot threads, but surprisingly, none of it is treated as a joke. It’s not just Maki who’s chill about Yu’s cross-dressing plan; the entire team is. This helps Yu open up to Maki about how they’re feeling, and in the end, Yu is encouraged even if they aren’t sure what to label themselves as.
Heck, they may never settle on a label, and that’s fine.
Kids are often told they’re too young for these kinds of things, but this series highlights how self-discovery happens at a young age, and why it should be nurtured, not snuffed out. This is painfully illustrated with a LOT of the parents, such as team captain Toma’s mother, whose actions impact her entire family since she has the epiphany as an adult with children who rely on her.
Then there’s Nao’s mother, who’s so overprotective that she’s basically trying to own him. She clearly has a tight grip for reasons beyond his control, reasons I wish she could’ve worked out before she had a son to take it out on.
The series shows how a lot of adults think they know best simply because they’re adults when, in reality, they’re more lost than these kids…and maybe even a little jealous of them living their lives freely.
Do something, just ‘cuz!
Some of the parents in Stars Align don’t see the point of the soft tennis club if their kids aren’t gaining something they deem as being worthy of their time. But listen. Let me give you this pill. It’s hard to swallow. Ready?
You can do something based purely on the fact that you like doing it.
While this is perfectly illustrated with Toma learning to enjoy soft tennis instead of trying to be as good as his brother (whom his mother favors), I found myself relating to Kanako and her art. As she decides to change what she illustrates, she gets discouraging comments because it’s not the style that her followers are used to.
We’re also told that her parents think it’s a waste of time. Despite this, Kanako decides to do the art for herself, a hard lesson for me to grasp onto personally since I’m a creator trying to make a living off of my work.
But there’s nothing wrong with doing something for yourself, something that has no gain other than “I enjoy doing it,” even if it’s something that you can potentially benefit from later (or are benefiting from right now).
Surround yourself with positivity
As a sports anime enthusiast, I was surprised that no one’s trying to win to further their budding career as an athlete. Stars Align truly is about the friends they make along the way.
Of course, many a sports anime has a focus on friendship, but this may be the first I’ve seen where that level of positivity was so crucial. These kids are clearly using the club as an escape from the awfulness that’s waiting for them after school.
Back in college, the space where I could be my most authentic self was at conventions and in online groups. There, people knew I was bisexual, but I wasn’t out to anyone outside that environment—that would take me years to reveal. I imagine that, for the soft tennis club, their space is the court, the locker room, their advisor’s office (one of the few adults in the series who doesn’t suck), and that intentionally slow walk home.
Bottom line: The kids managed to create a space just for them, and honestly, a lot of struggling kids figure out a way to do this. It’s definitely a lesson we all need to take to heart from Stars Align: Give yourself a positive space, especially when things are at their worst.