Anime, in general, isn’t very political. Most stories are extremely bound by context, throwing themselves into highly fictitious and far-away lands to weave their stories. And that’s fine – escapism tends to work best when your disbelief’s suspension isn’t a question, after all. But that means there’s not that many anime around with the gall to say something about the state of the world today; enter Hoshiai no Sora, who’s abuse and trauma is numerous enough that it’s getting gratuitous, but it also has an undeniably potent empathetic bone and uplifting themes of acceptance, LGBT+ and otherwise.
Nao begins the episode in the usual fashion for the show: Bad Parents. As always, well crafted tension and discomfort dress the dimly lit scene of Nao’s mother berating him over his lack of motivation for studying, but it’s yet another line on an already crowded tally-chart. It’s well handled and distressing, of course, but it’s beginning to feel like much of the character depth was written as shock first, and filled in later.
Still, it’s when the mid-point of the episode comes that a few vacant bits of foreshadowing come together. The group want to get intel on their upcoming match, but can’t fathom how to sneak in. With clenched fists, the group-manager throws out a stupid, but all-too-meaningful, suggestion: ‘why not we dress up as girls?’ Yuuta takes responsibility to dress up as one of the girls, and the show-stealing Mitsue recruits Maki to join in. It’s here that one of the most heart-warming scenes of the year ensues.
As Maki and Yuuta get changed, Yuuta asks if their experience with makeup is weird. The cinematography is on-point, too, such that this isn’t a boy wondering out-loud, but a deeply seated shame pleading for recognition. It is clear, with only a few frames, that Yuuta does not identify as male. Thankfully, Maki was the perfect person to ask. It turns out Maki’s childhood babysitter was a man that ‘was officially a woman’, and as Maki keeps going, explaining the story, they namedrop the acronym FTM (female-to-male). It’s with that that the hidden language of the scene is exposed, and talking in riddles ceases. We even get a brief clip of Yuuta (who I will henceforth call Yu, the name they admitted their sisters call them) sneaking a read of an LGBT+ book in the library before deciding their identity is closest to non-binary.
The scene is brimming with healing. Maki admits he has no idea how transgender people feel, but relates that life is not simple, and there’s nothing wrong with taking time. It’s a brilliant answer, too, keeping enough childlike innocence to not ruin the story and yet not pushing their own plight down the necks of others (it was only a few months ago that I criticised Boogiepop wa Warawanai’s ill-advised, underdeveloped comparison of a closeted homosexual to a slut-shamed girl, after all). There’s so much love, and yet it’s such a short scene, and the ensuing scene of Yu rocking the girl look is utterly cathartic.
The love doesn’t end there, either, as Mitsue’s personal feelings come to a head. The episode was already crammed full with Yu’s story, such that Mitsue’s personal arc’s lack of foreshadowing held it back. While Mitsue pushes girls away from the spot that Yu and Maki use to secretly film the rival school’s ace player, she is physically bullied. As the group get away from the encounter, she freezes up. With only Yu’s segue in-between, she is next seen asking the club advisor whether her art is any good. I get how this is supposed to add up, I think; being bullied shook her, such that her purpose in life is suddenly magnified. This mirrors the conversation that Yu and Maki had. However, Mitsue wasn’t in on that chat, and there’s no monologue or meaningful time spent to setup this sudden existential outburst. But thankfully, the rest of the episode does set Maki up as the perfect person to realise she’s down – the way he runs up to her, his sport bag swaying from side-to-side goofily, only to ask ‘wanna get food?’ is so sweet.
This episode is loaded with content. It’s a loaded screenplay that doesn’t quite manage all its ideas, and comes across with more confusion than clarity in its subplots. But the key arc of the episode is no less compelling. Hoshiai no Sora’s 8th episode magnifies on empathy, and makes it feel so darn good. There is strength in friendship, and few anime depict it as strongly.
In the general context of anime, then, Hoshiai no Sora is a needle in the haystack. Off the top of my head, the only anime to use clear, undeniable language on the topic of gender identity is 2011’s Hourou Musuko. There are lots of manga beginning to crop up using the same language, such as the rather charming Giniro no Genders, but few anime can use terms like ‘FTM’ with such directness. Media, in general, (when seriously discussing the topic) is more inclined to chase after male-to-female (MTF) transitioners and tokenise transgender people, too, such that this inclusion has a courageousness rarely felt internationally. Is Hoshiai no Sora a pivotal piece of queer media?