It's been a long time since a piece of media totally destroyed me. Hoshiai no Sora (Stars Align) would have been a shōnen/sports anime masterpiece if it wasn't for executive meddling. This show left me speechless and mourning for half a day after watching the final episode. Like the ending of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood years ago, I felt like there's nothing else I can watch now that won't feel shallow and meaningless.
I would like to recommend it to everyone who likes animation and can handle being very sad, but the huge caveat is that the story remains unfinished due to the production committee giving up on it. The director vows to continue it one way or another, but that may be years in the future.
Read the rest if you have watched it, if you don't mind spoilers for the first episode, or if you never plan on watching it.
Hoshiai no Sora probably ended up in my anime bookmarks one day months ago when I went over AniDB and saved any sports anime that looked promising, and its time came yesterday. In the last few years, most of what I watch is in the "feel-good" category. These anime are mostly sports themed and almost all follow the strict template of having a weak-looking kid who's not interested in sport clubs activities being recruited by the captain of the struggling high-school team who notices they are a diamond in the rough.
Hoshiai no Sora tricked me into believing it is one of those anime. The protagonist, Maki, has just transferred to a new middle school. By sheer luck he ends up in the same class with a childhood friend, Tōma, who notices Maki's speed and reflexes and tries to recruit him to his about-to-be-shut-down boys soft tennis team. In any other sports anime, the convincing would probably involve some begging and maybe an one-to-one game to kindle the latent interest in the sport.
Maki breaks the sport anime convention: his time is too scarce to waste on after school activities. He and his mother are a single-parent household and food-insecure. She works endless hours, and he has to take care of all household chores in addition to studying. Tōma creeps everyone out by stalking Maki enough to find out about this beforehand and being already prepared to bribe him into joining the team. He promises him money every month and a bonus if they actually win a match. Equipment and uniform will also be provided to him free of charge, and Tōma himself will help with Maki's chores. Tōma admits that his family is loaded pretty much straight up, and he is not ashamed of it. He doesn't even wait to hear Maki's answer to his offer, he interprets his momentary hesitation as acceptance.
I can't think of any other anime in the shōnen/sports genre that didn't treat poverty or wealth inequality as a temporary problem that can be solved off-screen with a weekend baito. In a long scene after the credits of the first episode, we actually learn that Maki's poverty problems are simply never going to be solved. Having returned home from school before his mother finished working, Maki is ambushed by his dad, who has a habit of showing up to shake down his ex-wife for cash. We learn that Maki's mum has come to expect this and always leaves money at an obvious place for him. Maki hates that and he always tries to hide them. He is never successful though, and it earns him his father's wrath.
Maki's character was just too real. I could see a lot of my life in him, albeit with Maki's stakes being higher. We teetered on the poverty line for a decade or so after my parent's divorce. There have been a couple of years where we mostly ate bread with butter and sugar on top. But we where helped along the way from the weak but functioning pre-2012 welfare system (since mostly disbanded), and more importantly by social workers like Ann from "I, Daniel Blake" who acted on their principles and not the strict interpretation of the law. In Hoshiai no Sora's Japan, the welfare system seems to be missing. Maki's dad informs us that the family laws are an MRA's dream -- he has joint custody and the right to know Maki's home address at all times. In Maki's Japan, but apparently also in real Japan until recently, corporal punishment is not illegal, and it happens on camera in this anime a lot. Children of divorced parents in Cyprus are lucky in a twisted way: custody laws mean that any semi-credible accusation of domestic violence carries a high risk of losing custody and going to prison. Children in two-parent households may be more at risk since parents work together instead of against each other.
The series felt unrealistic on one aspect though, and I am afraid it speaks mostly about myself than the show itself. The soft tennis team is an example of a safe space for boys with different abuse backgrounds, a semi-intentional community based on empathy and care. They are not good at the sport, they barely have the motivation to play it. They go there every day because they find solace in each other. This is great for them, and I hope it happens in real life. But my experience made me very cynical, it wasn't until my mid-twenties that I had the opportunity to experience a similar level of intimate friendships, and I still hold back from totally opening myself up.
It's a real shame this show wasn't allowed to tell it's whole story. I'm sure none of the problems the character face would have been resolved with a happy ending. The show is too realistic for that. We were robbed out of a lot of character growth though.