You may or may not have heard about this anime, but if you had it was likely from Anifem’s glowing reviews of the series, Fanbyte, or perhaps the viral clip of two characters discussing gender norms and a father-figure who is transgender. There’s also a very relevant post by The Afictionato on how it compares to other underdog stories in sports due to the fact that it comes “directly from minorities.” To put it succinctly, Stars Align has been sold as Fall 2019’s progressive darling…
… which is initially part of what drew me in to give it a shot. Representation is cool, and well written representation is awesome has always been my viewpoint. Don’t forget which blog you are reading.
Okay so maybe Haikyuu also got me interested in sports anime in general recently but I digress, the point is for the reasons described I ended up watching a few episodes every time I went to my grandma’s house (she had the Funi subscription, I was stuck with CR at the time). Despite the plot being somewhat cliché here and there I enjoyed it, a lot actually. The emotional core is more than strong enough to activate your suspension of disbelief like any good vanilla Shonen or Isekai flick. But this is not what I’m talking about today, today I’m asking you to humor me for a bit on something else.
Upon actually watching it myself, I have to admit, I was a little surprised by the fact that it was received the way it was. Technically speaking, looking only at the minorities you usually see referred to as minorities (within the sometimes-hellhole that is social justice twitter)… there is only one obvious “minority” character in the main cast. They aren’t even a player on the tennis team. Yuuta Asuka, later revealed as non-binary and to prefer being referred to as Yu, initially started out as one of those tag-along characters, meaning they were hanging around just because they have a crush on a member of the main cast. They became part of the main cast after being asked to take on the role of team manager since he’s hanging around so much anyways.
There is very little obvious variation in ethnicity or body type. There are no disabled people as far as I’m aware. Even my Aspiedar (it’s like gaydar but for finding fellow neurodivergent people) has been more-or-less silent for most of the series, only ticking up a bit briefly during a certain scene in episode 9. Additionally, technically, most of the female characters are either antagonists or sideline characters. At first glance, the main cast looks like just a group of white boys.
To put it bluntly, I was mildly surprised that this is the show that’s been lauded as the progressive show of it’s season.
But it was a pleasant surprise. Allow me to explain why.
Especially for those of us in social-groups where it’s been normalized to not just put pronouns but also other identity markers, such as our race, ethnicity, disability, or sexuality in our social media bios… it’s easy for us to take that for granted and forget that we don’t always know what everyone has gone through in their lives. I myself am somewhat guilty of taking this for granted as well: as I am generally more likely to follow someone if I see them identify themselves as autistic, like me, in their twitter bio. Don’t get me wrong, the culture of self-identification is a convenient tool to help people with similar experiences find each other, I’m just saying that it’s not infallible.
Many people choose to keep their gender, race, sexuality, nationality, disability, or any number of things about their life anonymous for any number of reasons.
Maybe they are afraid of bullying or backlash, or even live someplace where it would be genuinely unsafe to leave evidence of their sexuality, gender identity, or nuerodivergence especially such as being plural on their phones. Maybe one is unsure about an undiagnosed disability and therefore unsure about making it public. One can also for sure be unsure about their own sexuality or gender identity. Bisexuals in particular are more likely to be closeted than lesbians or gay men at least in-part due to the unique challenges of Bipobia. Many non-binary people have also spent years or decades in their quiet (sometimes less quiet, but that’s besides the point) questioning stage, as some of the narrative in this article illustrates.
Still there are also cases where one simply wishes to have some heckin privacy, they just want people to like them for who they are instead of their labels, or maybe there’s just not enough space left in their bios, these are all valid reasons.
None of this even takes into account the kinds of experiences that can’t be easily summed up into a label.
Let’s face it, most people aren’t going to put “my mom poured boiling water over me when I was a baby” in their twitter bio.
Abuse in general is something most people are only comfortable sharing with very close and trusted friends. They don’t owe strangers anything when it comes to disclosing what’s likely their most painful memories, and if the abuse is ongoing, that’s a whole different can of worms entirely.
Multiple characters in the tennis team turn out to have experiences related to physical and/or emotional abuse.
In fact one of the main themes of this whole anime is everyone has a hidden story.
The main character is no exception. By the end of the first episode it turns out he had been rejecting his childhood friend’s pleads for him to join the tennis team, not because he didn’t want to or that he was being cold, but actually because he couldn’t. At least he couldn’t without substantial financial help. He’s the son of a single working mother, very clearly marking him as “working-class,” shown running himself ragged to not just keep up with school but also to complete household chores.
However, socioeconomic class is not always so easy to categorize or identify. On-fact class itself and it’s consequences are often invisible. This is why I intentionally left Maki’s socioeconomic status out of the introduction to the blog post, not counting it as one of the obvious “minority” categories. Outside of it’s intersections with race or sexuality it’s not a hot-topic, as a result there is very little widespread understanding of socioeconomic class as a broader cultural force. This leads to many microaggressions towards and misunderstandings with (read number 5 from this one) working-class + poor people at all intersections.
Even those with the best intentions or conventionally well-read background in social justice often unwittingly perpetuate extreme classism or elitism.
Finally, we must address Colorism real quick.
Stars Align doesn’t have many characters that would be considered visibly “black” based on our (certainly flawed) popular western standards of blackness… but Stars Align does portray a variety of skin-tones faithful to the true variation of real-life Asians.
Colorism has a long history of it’s own through Asia, distinct from racism because it’s about minute variations of tone among people of the same ethnic group.
It’s the reason Chinese people to this day wear big hats when outside to prevent tanning, to keep their fair skin.
It’s also why people, women especially through Asia including Japan,
Colorism is a prejudice based in-part on eugenics and in-part on classism because low-wage outdoor labor resulted in natural tanning aka darker skin.
This context is often missed within the west-centric discourse on diversity and representation.
Maki Katsuragi, the main character, is a genius. He’s a prodigy, and despite never having picked up a racket he’s better than most of the other players on the team within less than a day.
At first, Maki seems to regard his teammates with a certain smugness that can only be attained by someone who knows, or thinks they know, they’ve had it harder than anyone else in the room and are still winning (or are winning because of how hard they’ve had it in life, which made them stronger).
Maki insults his teammates, asking why they suck on the first day. For real, Maki was a little shit at first, even if his feelings were (uncomfortably) understandable.
This bitterness, this chip on the shoulder, our tendency to try playing the ‘oppression Olympics’ so to speak, this is why it’s sometimes so hard for people from different minority backgrounds to unite and support each other. The fact that our struggles are often invisible means we don’t always know what those around us are going through.
Maki didn’t know until he started making a serious effort to help those around him instead of insulting them.
Seeing this anime with such a plot received the way it has was surprising but heartwarming.
As critically relevant as it is for society today, it’s also a type of plot that’s incredibly difficult to get right. Through a genuine understanding of the types of minorities and people often ignored in the current discourse on identity-politics, and tasteful, incredibly insightful portrayal of all of them, this show did it right.
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