Skate-Leading Stars

Oh, Goro Taniguchi. You may be one of the current anime industry’s top directors, with excellent shows like Planetes, Maria the Virgin Witch, and Code Geass to your name, but you really flubbed it this time. This is what I would expect of Riki Fukushima after the boring slog of Tamayomi, but from you? I expect better than something so subpar, and so less than the sum of its parts.

The first problem comes in the execution of the sport of skate-leading itself. Skate-leading is an entirely fictional sport, made up for the purposes of the show, and it totally fails to come to life. Making up a sport for the sake of a story is a balancing act, as writers must provide the audience with enough context to feel like they understand what they’re watching without bogging them down in the tiny details. According to their interview, the creative team put a lot of effort into building the sport, but none of that comes through in the show. I never got a feel for what goes into choreographing their routines, how they’re scored (other than that, much like in real-life figure skating, jumps are good), or any of the other details that would bring it to life. Up until the last episode, I had no sense for whether I should be impressed by what I was seeing or not.

This stems from how skate-leading is animated, or, more accurately, how it isn’t animated. The skating, when fully animated on-screen, carries a nice sense of weight and motion, but that happens rarely. The shortcuts are so noticeable I ended up timing how often characters are shown skating on-screen in each episode; my standards were low enough that if a character was animated, and not just a static headshot with the background sliding past them, I counted it. The average came to something around a minute per episode, which is not a lot of sport for a sports anime. I understand that figure skating is a tough sport to animate, and the team appears to have chosen to stick to hand-animated cuts, but it’s really hard to get invested in the results of a sport you rarely actually see. How is skate-leading choreographed? What moves look especially impressive when the team moves in tandem? Many of the group shots of skating look more like kids playing “ring around the rosie” than ice dancing or synchronized skating.

It’s not like it’s an ugly show. The character designs by Yana Toboso, artist of the Black Butler manga, are actually quite attractive and varied. They play to established types, where you can tell a lot about their personality at a glance and, with the plot and writing to back it up, could easily move a lot of merchandise. You’ve got the megane type, the confident captain, the hothead, not one but two feminine boys, a clone of Ashe from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the gruff coach, and so on. Unfortunately, their personality is expressed primarily through their designs for the most part, with the writing falling short.

Those that do have well-defined personalities end up pretty unlikable. Skate-Leading Stars struggles as a sports-driven series because of the aforementioned lack of grounding for their fictional sport; however, it also has serious issues as a character-driven series as well. For one thing, its main cast is totally unlikable, and they never really feel like they gel as an ensemble. The rest of the team hates Maeshima with a burning passion from the first moment he steps into the club room, for reasons that are never explained. We’re told they get it together by the end of the series, but it never comes across. In fact, a lot of character details are never really given the weight that they seem like they should have, like the fact that Maeshima’s parents died right before his last match as a single figure skater and appeared to be a prominent pair of skaters themselves, which is alluded to in the first five minutes of the show and never mentioned again.

It was a bold decision to make Maeshima an unlikable hothead who doesn’t take to team sports easily because he doesn’t play nice with others, but by about halfway in, his abrasive personality got old. There’s no real growth: the team learns to shape themselves around him, rather than him learning to function as a part of a team. His rivalry with Shinozaki is also poorly-realized, especially since the two rarely encounter each other and he just generally doesn’t seem to think about him much.

By far the most interesting character is Hayato Sasugai, Shinozaki’s half-brother who is the same age, and carrying all the baggage that one would expect from that kind of situation. He’s not much more likable than Maeshima, with his cynical, calculating attitude and slouching smirk, but he’s complex and his relationship with his half-brother has far more potential for powerful storytelling than Maeshima and Shinozaki’s rather standard rivalry. He’s not a skater himself, but aims to become a coach instead, and by the end, there’s a sense that the creators wanted him to be the protagonist but were too locked into Maeshima’s story instead.

Not even a star-studded Japanese cast could save the misbegotten show with their performances. None of the performances stood out, save Makoto Furukawa as Sasugai, and there’s not much they could have done to save such a poorly scripted and plotted show. The English dub, which is not yet complete as of this writing, is in a way the inverse; it’s always a pleasure to hear voices like Daman Mills and Ian Sinclair, but Jack Reeder comes across as flat and nasal in his first major role as Sasugai.

By the end, none of the plot threads or character arcs come together in a satisfying way. There’s wasted potential leaking from its every pore, with weak character writing and even weaker pacing and plotting. With a more thoroughly explained sport and a more focused plot, it could have been a series worth watching. Instead, it’s a hazy, muddled mess, doomed to be forgotten even as its unsold merchandise gets put on clearance.

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