Original Posted By sakugablog
Author, Director, Scriptwriter: Kazuki Akane
Animation Character Designer, Chief Animation Director: Yuichi Takahashi
Visual Designer: Miki Takeshita
Art Designer: Kazushi Fujii
Art Director: Shiori Shiwa
Kevin: After dedicating a whole essay to explain exactly what makes FGO Babylonia such an extraordinary project, it might sound nonsensical for me to say that the most ambitious title this season could be this mundane-looking show about kids playing soft tennis. But perhaps you’ll understand where I’m coming from when I say that this is a passion project by Kazuki Akane, best known as the director of Escaflowne, Noein, and Birdy the Mighty: Decode. If there’s one shared trait behind all of these, it’s precisely that: ambition, manifesting in different ways. Although Escaflowne‘s original pitch belongs to Shouji Kawamori (another creator with… bold ideas, let’s say) Akane reshaped that into its iconic shoujo-esque self, while also imbuing the production with the tremendous gravitas that became integral to its identity — and to Akane’s own brand too, for better and for worse.
That grand vision could be felt all over Noein, Akane’s first actual passion project. Its action scenes became a free canvas for the budding digital animation movement, which he saw potential in before most directors; a testament of his scouting skills but also his understanding of the particular qualities of digital animation, and how that could really help his need for setpieces that feel big. Besides serving as the alpha release for what we’ve come to know as the revolutionary webgen movement, Akane’s ambition during Noein‘s conception also made him build a dense narrative around quantum physics concepts… though unfortunately, that seemed to distract many viewers from its emotional core of the story, so it never managed to even come close to the popularity of his first title.
That trend continued with his reimagination of Birdy, which was seen as a quirky little series with a fun core relationship, but never received the credit it deserved for its lasting effect on anime’s best digital animation; were it not for Akane’s 00s titles, the Norio Matsumoto-inspired school of animation that defines webgen works to this day might have not taken off. Let it be known that his constant yet ever-evolving ambition can backfire spectacularly — I’ve heard first-hand horror stories of the delays it caused for the entire team during Code Geass: Akito the Exiled — but seeing Akane get treated as the director who made Escaflowne and then didn’t land a hit again feels like a small anime tragedy.
But enough about the director, what’s Stars Align about? Following sports anime tradition, it’s a coming of age story that deals with the bitterness of adolescence as a starting point, all framed through a soft tennis club that’s on the verge of being shut down. Does that sound too down to earth for a creator we’ve been touting as a unique and wildly ambitious storyteller? Perhaps so, but don’t let that lead you to think that Stars Align isn’t near and dear to Akane’s heart; as if the fact that he came up with the original concept and wrote the scripts on top of directing the entire series wasn’t clear enough, Akane has openly admitted that this is a project he wanted to make for a very long time, and he’s delighted that he finally had a chance to.
I’ll be frank and admit that I have no idea where Akane’s grand ideas will take him on a narrative level now that he’s dealing with a mundane scenario, other than the fact that friends who saw the premiere confirmed that it was heavier than it might appear, but at least I know that Akane’s unwillingness to cut corners production-wise is the same as ever. Whatever vision he has, he won’t make compromises about it, even when he’s dealing with a constant motion activity like (soft) tennis. Due to their breakneck pace and particular demands — like the need to keep matches played in small and static environments visually engaging for long periods of time — racket sports are an absolute nightmare of a theme for a TV anime production. Not that long ago, we saw Hanebado‘s attempt at addressing that: a high-profile production backed by a multimedia giant like TOHO, taking a very realistic approach via lots and lots of rotoscoping.
While that worked well for Hanebado, at least until the production ran out of steam, a project like Stars Align simply doesn’t have the resources to attempt to painstakingly recreate sports matches in a photorealistic way. Ever since the first PV we’ve known for a fact that, although they have studied reference footage so that their depiction of the sport has an authentic feel to it, the actual animation is much more exaggerated, the kind of loose work that we’ve come to expect from Akane’s works. When it comes to visual engagement, Akane’s placing his bets on the very involved camerawork to convey the tension of the matches even for the viewers who aren’t invested in tennis. If you’re more of a traditional animation purist and this is making excessive CGi alarms ring in your head, rest assured: the director’s already said that it’s restricted environments and far shots, and then confessed he’s trying to make those look indistinguishable from the traditional footage. Regardless of his role in advancing anime’s digital efforts, Akane’s always been a strong believer in hand-drawn animation.
It goes without saying that Akane won’t be able to reproduce the extraordinary teams he once gathered; be it due to the intermittent nature of his anime career or simply because time’s unforgiving, younger creators have taken the mantle of industry leaders. However, this industry is all about relying on your acquaintances, and Akane managed to meet quite a lot of talented individuals when he was all the rage. One of them happens to be character designer and chief animation director Yuichi Takahashi, whose skills stood out to Akane back during Noein‘s production to the point that he’s always wanted to collaborate with him like this. It’s easy to see why: Takahashi is at his best when dealing with simple designs that he can give malleable quality to — like Tsuritama and Stars Align itself — and that happens to fit the director’s needs of free expression to a T.
Will the whole team be able to realize Akane’s always demanding vision for the whole show? We know for a fact that they’ve got an above-average production buffer since they showed very advanced production stages for episode #4 months ago, which checks out with how long it’s been since the show’s announcement, but I always advise some precaution with Akane; his ambition, especially on a limited TV anime environment, can be a double-edged sword. That said, even if worse comes to worst in the latter parts of the production, I’d still recommend giving this show a chance. Flawed as I admit his works often are, Akane seems physically incapable of making anime that isn’t fascinating in some way. And come on, how am I not supposed to be optimistic about the fate of a title localized as Stars Align?