If you’ve read much of this blog you know that I have a bit of a soft spot for sports manga. It’s an underrated genre, especially in the English-speaking fandom, and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s some pretty generic shounen stuff out there. But when sports series are really good – Capeta, Major, Giant Killing – they’re some of the best shounen there is. And the fact that I love sports as well as otaku pursuits certainly doesn’t hurt.
Which brings me to today’s manga pick, Baby Steps. This is about tennis, but you’ll have to trust me when I say it’s better than that other tennis manga – the popular one. Baby Steps runs in Weekly Shounen, where the series tend to skew a little older and quirkier than in arch-rival Shounen Jump. And that’s one of the things I love about Kachiki Hikaru’s manga – it has a very offbeat sense of humor and a fiercely independent pacing that doesn’t always progress as you expect it to.
Our hero is Mauruo Eiichirou – known to one and all as “E-chan”. E-chan is 15, first-year high school, and a tremendous student. He’s legendary for his note-taking – incredibly elaborate and precise notebooks full of information on every topic in school. He’s also knows for his extremely adult way of speech and behavior, far more calm and analytical than his peers. Socially he’s nothing special – though I like the fact that the series doesn’t go the easy route and portray him as a pariah or bullying victim. The general tone of his classmates towards E-chan is puzzled bemusement.
One day E-chan, in a bout of self-analysis, despairs of his physical conditioning – or lack thereof – and worries that it might end up hurting his stamina for studying and testing. In a moment of pure deductive reasoning he decides that as a growing boy he needs to get some exercise and proceeds to do a thorough study of the options available to him that won’t eat too much into his study time. This eventually leads him to the local tennis club, where he somewhat reluctantly participates in a practice he’d intended to observe and finds himself becoming fascinated by the sport. The rest, as they say, is history.
There’s lots more to the story, some of it fairly stock stuff – the cute girl from school who also plays tennis, the cocky senpai at the top of the local junior ranks (and a possible love rival), the crusty coach and various friendly and unfriendly rivals. But what the story is really about at this point is E-chan attacking the game of tennis the way he does everything else – by obsessively analyzing it. Every practice (end eventually, every match) is an opportunity to add to his research, and his notebooks always accompany him onto the court, much to the puzzlement of his opponents. Along the way, E-chan finds himself becoming obsessed by the game itself – and starts to like the changes he sees in himself. And of course, there’s always the possibility that romance might bloom…
I enjoy this series a lot – I think it’d make a terrific anime someday. E-chan makes the whole thing work – he’s thoroughly likable for his innocently precocious manner and way of thinking. I think this is a character and a story that can relate not just to teenagers but to anyone who’s ever taken up a hobby and found themselves falling in love with it. The series is ongoing but there are 14 volumes out already, so there’s plenty to enjoy. Go read it!