There are lots of ways for a family to function – or dysfunction. While it can smack of melodrama, I do appreciate that Stars Align acknowledges that as it touches on the different backgrounds of the boys in the soft tennis club and other satellite characters, not just because it's a nice change from the usual anime family, but also because it gives everyone a solid reason to feel like they're the only ones coping with something hard, and that's a very real feeling, especially at age fourteen. Everyone's got their own insecurities that either drive or hinder them, and learning that is one way to learn empathy. That's certainly looking to be the case for Toma, who began the series with a laser-focus on his club's continued existence (as his coping method for dealing with his own family crap), but this week really starts to show that he can see past his own specific problems.
That those issues are still related, tangentially at least, to the soft tennis club makes this development feel more organic than if he'd suddenly discovered the Power of Love or some such thing. Unsurprisingly it really begins with Maki, who proves his resilience by showing up at club and asking Toma if he can borrow a racket. When Toma immediately calls him on his “I broke it” story, Maki opens up to him about what's really going on – that his abusive father has been stalking him and shaking him down for money, with a few hits and broken rackets thrown in for kicks. And while we can say that Toma just doesn't want to lose his tennis partner (and that's how he phrases it to Maki's dad), it feels more like that's the only way he can vocalize what Maki means to him, while the truth is that he can't stand to see his friend hurt.
Maki's confession is important in more ways than just that, though. We don't know if this is the first time he's opened up to someone about his family life (although it seems possible), but for the viewers this is confirmation that his mother knows what's going on, and in a way facilitates it by leaving money out for Maki to give his father when he shows up. She probably thinks she's helping, not giving the man a reason to beat his son, but that's figuring without both Maki's own wish to be rid of his father, which leads him to hide the money rather than just handing it over, and the man's own vicious nature. Previously Maki's mom has said that she has a restraining order against her ex-husband, but this week we learn why she can't seem to stop him from coming to the house: apparently Maki's father still has legal rights over his son, and so all he has to do to find him is show up at a governmental office and ask for his address.
I can't tell you how angry that makes me, and it seems to imply that Japan has some sort of Victorian parent-owns-child law on the books, although this could all be made up for the dramatic purposes of the show. There's an implication that Maki's dad simply refuses to give up his parental rights, which is presumably why we get the story of Rintaro's background this week: he was given up for adoption by his birth mother, a term specifically used by the show. For Rintaro, it means that all he can see is that his parents didn't biologically “have” him and that means that he somehow has to do more to live up to their expectations out of obligation (rather than that they chose him, making him special), but in terms of Maki's situation, it becomes a weapon his father can use to keep his son and ex-wife fearful.
But now Maki is beginning to form a support system. Toma's unquestioning, and at this point unwavering, help seems to be the first time someone's stepped up for Maki, and that he immediately gives him a new, better racket and insists on confronting Maki's dad is heartwarming. He doesn't run away from Maki's tears or hug, either, and while we certainly saw another worrisome incident of his temper, it feels more important that he's growing to truly care about Maki. Even Mitsue notices that something has changed in their relationship (although how she interprets it is up in the air), and while it could cause friction on the team, as we begin to see with Rintaro's breakdown this week, Toma may gain the empathy to cope with it from this.
In some ways what's going on is that the characters are forming their own “family” group. With Maki and Toma that's more obvious, but the wonderful moment this week when the rest of the team stands up for Yuta when a track team member busts into their locker room to harass him for being gay also shows the way the group is banding together. Likewise the total acceptance of Mitsue as part of the club demonstrates that acceptance that they're all learning; virtually no one is surprised when she appears for their practice match, and Yuta was actually a bit upset that she originally wasn't going to come.
Now we'll just have to hope that Kinuyo, or Kaori, as she prefers, is able to develop some of that empathy and move beyond her squabbling family as well. But of all of the characters, she seems like the longest shot of all.
Stars Align is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.