A figure skating prodigy in his youth, Kensei Maeshima left the sport after yet another loss to his rival Reo Shinozaki. Years later when Shinozaki announces that he will be leaving behind his solo career to join a skate-leading team, Maeshima is compelled to follow his rival into the group sport after some convincing from Shinozaki’s brother, Hayato Sasugai. Not much of a team player, Maeshima struggles to join his high school’s skate-leading team and needs to find a way for his new teammates to accept him if he’s ever going to get a chance at facing Shinozaki in the rink once more.
Skate-Leading Stars is an original anime series from J.C.Staff that follows Maeshima as he enters the world of skate-leading, learning how to be part of a group sport and competing in a series of competitions as part of the Ionodai High School team. It’s a fairly standard premise for your average sports anime that could make for some entertaining moments, however Skate-Leading Stars frankly struggles to sustain the basic elements that make the average sports anime enjoyable.
One of the things I like about sports anime is watching the matches or performances, both from an animation perspective and the dramatisation of the matches based on character conflict or internal struggles. They’re exciting and give the viewer an insight to the characters when they are under pressure, as well as simply being visually engaging and fun to watch. If it’s a team sport, these matches also provide neat insights into character dynamics and how teammates work together to accomplish a goal. Despite the fact that matches are the bread and butter of sports anime, Skate-Leading Stars goes out of its way to hide the team skating segments throughout the series. Performances are often hidden by long panning shots of crowds watching the skating rather than focusing on the skating itself, and there is an extremely disappointing scene where the camera pans away from the skating rink – where the main characters are performing – and towards the roof, where the shot holds for the rest of the scene. Throughout the series, it is very common to not see the performances of Ionodai or the other skate-leading teams at all, whether it be their short program (a shorter, more technical performance) or free skate (a longer, more freestyle performance).
This lack of seeing the performances means there isn’t a lot of opportunity to become familiar with Ionodai’s routine or feel a sense of progression of their abilities. As a result, the series misses the opportunity to share some of the most interesting elements of sports anime – the visual spectacle of the performances, watching the main characters hone their skills, and seeing the performances change and adapt as the series progresses. As a result, Skate-Leading Stars struggled to capture my interest and made for pretty lacklustre viewing.
Like edutainment-type shows, sports anime also excels as a genre where the audience can be entertained by the character drama and narrative, while also learning about the sport that’s the focus of the show. In my experience, series like Haikyu!! and Yuri!!! On Ice are particularly good examples of shows that balance their narratives seamlessly with information about their sport of focus (volleyball and figure skating respectively), making the viewer feel like they have a good understanding of the sports and its rules. Becoming familiar with a sport you may have previously known very little about is fun. On top of that, becoming familiar with the rules of a game or competition in a sports anime gives the series structure, and make for great payoff as you grow to understand how the competitions work. Sports anime are basically a battle anime where the reveal of a new rule or strategy ups the ante or recontextualises a match, and when a series gives you that familiarisation and understanding of the competition it makes these moments more enjoyable.
I say all this because as I continued to watch Skate-Leading Stars it became very clear that the series struggled to illustrate the rules of the sport in an engaging way. What’s worse is that the rules felt at best unimportant and at worst vague and unintelligible. After some web searching, it became very clear that this could be explained by the fact that skate leading was a fictional sport invented for the anime and does not actually exist. Fictional sport is of course not a bad thing, there are tons of fictional sports across anime and beyond where the sport is fake or has magical elements to it that make it unreal. The issue with skate-leading was that I was not invested in it as an actual competition, because I never felt like I understood the rules or strategies at play. As a result, any narrative drama or competitive excitement was lost on me.
Skate-Leading Stars misses the mark on what generally makes a sports series enjoyable – the performances are often literally hidden from view in uncreative ways and limited information on how the titular sport actually works makes it difficult to be invested in any of the competitions. Definitely not my thing, but it might resonate with fans of figure skating looking for something novel to enjoy if they’ve already seen Yuri!!! On Ice.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.