Where to start?
For one, it’s certainly not just a show about tennis, nor is there any knowledge of tennis required to understand and enjoy Hoshiai no Sora. The character designs are instantly distinguishable from each other and memorable, and the way they move is utterly gorgeous. I keep finding myself wondering if Hoshiai no Sora has an increased frame rate because every time the boys stretch to hit the ball it’s like watching poetry in motion. There’s no real muscle definition – that’s not the style here – but the foreshortening and seamlessness of the movement is just breathtaking. Most of this was exhibited during the girls vs boys match, which while unfairly one-sided, served to showcase how little the boys actually care about winning. This is actually a case of what came first – the chicken or the egg? The school gives more support and encouragement to the girl’s tennis team, since they always go to Nationals, while the boys are relegated to the sidelines, but is that due to the school’s lack of support or is the school’s lack of support a reaction to their lack of effort? Even their coaches embody the different attitudes between the teams. Where the boy’s coach is very laid back and constantly making excuses, the girl’s coach is outraged by the laziness and nonchalance displayed by the boys. Interestingly, the body language in this series is so on point that without dialogue or subtitles you could still understand what they’re saying and each of their general attitudes. Unfortunately, the boy’s dismal performance has resulted in their club being threatened with disbanding, but when the captain announced that their club may be cut unless they can win a game in Nationals, the best he was met with was resignation and apathy. Enter Katsuragi Maki (Hanae Natsuki), a transfer student living with his mother who enjoys running up and down eight flights of stairs and catching flying cats, and who might be exactly the breath of fresh air needed to whip the soft tennis club into shape in time for Nationals.
Now, if that were the whole story, this would be a soothing tale of the underdog with fantastic animation and a soundtrack that’s not dissimilar to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Beneath the coming-of-age story, however, lurks an unexpected darkness. Shinjou Toma’s (Hatanaka Tasuku) mother can’t bear to be in the same room with him and it’s implied in the flashbacks and outright shown later on that Katsuragi’s father has been abusing him his entire life. It’s why he and his mother moved. They’re trying to get as far away as possible. He does chores everyday for his mother, helping her out as much as he can, enjoys running, and happens to have fantastic endurance, but interestingly enough, that may not be the only reason why he’s exactly what the tennis soft club needs right now.
One of the most interesting things about Maki is his motivations, which leads directly into his current relationship with Toma, because that’s fascinating in its own right. Now, Toma’s motivations are superficially simple and understandable. He wants to continue the club that his older brother attended when he was in school, and yet given his home situation, I’m convinced there’s more to it than that. Meanwhile, Maki’s motivations are interesting because they’re so atypical for a protagonist in this genre. Most characters would scoff at the offer of free equipment and money – the fact that Toma even offered was a bit insensitive – but the facts are Maki couldn’t have afforded to attend any other way. With his father stealing from his mother in spite of his best efforts, every yen counts. Probably the most terrifying thing about that whole sequence is the knowledge that Maki’s father could return at any time to steal from him and hurt him. He knows where they live and he knows that Maki is more often alone than not, but as his mother’s boyfriend pointed out, as long as Maki’s at school, he’s safe from him. For Toma and Maki, and perhaps for the rest of the boys as their passions are reignited by Maki’s stellar performance and prickly demeanor, tennis has become a lifeline. It’s a place where they’re free to be themselves, whether that means wearing a girl’s visor or having a crush on the captain. Such is the springtime of youth.
Each of the characters are bursting with liveliness and personality, especially now that Maki has revitalized them. Toma seems to think his provacation of his new teammates was a bid to reignite their competive spirit, though it’s equally possible that’s he’s just… like that. Then again, his appointing of Asuka Yuuta (Yamaya Yoshitaka) to manager was undoubtedly an act of kindness on his part, and he’s been getting along famously with the girl in his class who lives in his apartment complex. He and Toma are honestly such good kids and wonderful leads.
As for the ending theme showcased this episode, it’s greatly enjoyable. It’s purely physical, with dancing and postures and expressions that go to great lengths to remain true the personalities of the characters – the sequence with Maki getting distracted while Toma sternly continues dancing had to be one of my favorites – while also showcasing the beauty of Hoshiai no Sora’s animation. If these first two episodes are anything to go by, this series may just be a classic in the making.
ED: “Kago no Naka no Bokura wa” by AIKI