Pardon me as I just breathe a little sigh of relief, even as I don’t allow myself to relax yet.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: to paraphrase Roger Ebert, I love Baby Steps. Love, love. love, love, love Baby Steps.
Clear enough, I hope. I make no pretense at being impartial about this series – though whether my limitless admiration for Katsuki Hikaru’s manga makes me an easier or tougher audience for this adaptation, I can’t say. I can say this much, though – I actually got pretty emotional watching this episode several times – for example, when the great Namikawa Daisuke joined the cast as Egawa Takuya. Somehow hearing that voice brought it all home and made it seem really real – I’m actually watching Baby Steps on-screen.
I’ll open my discussion of this second episode – which was an excellent one – by making a broad statement – Baby Steps is probably the greatest sports manga ever. To clarify, Cross Game is probably my favorite sports-themed manga ever – with Touch right behind it – but baseball is not the main point of either. Major is a tremendous, encylopedic chronicle of baseball – but as much as that, it’s a personal study about one person’s life from toddler to retiree. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of another series that actually gets the sports so right, and is so thorough about it. Capeta is really the only one I can think of that comes close, with the qualifier that while I watch auto racing and F1 casually, I’m no expert on the subject and certainly not a participant. But it is the only other series I’d draw a comparison to.
Here’s the thing with Baby Steps – I know tennis. I played it, I practiced it, I hit against the wall for hours and groaned when I popped it up over the fence and had to chase it. One of the two primary things that, for me, make Baby Steps the greatest sports manga ever is the fact that it gets tennis so fundamentally right on every level. We see it lovingly portrayed in this episode – tennis is a democratic sport. All you need is a racket, a ball and a court – there’s no cost to play at a public park or against a garage door. Tiny tots and genki geezers can enjoy it, and while you can spend a ton on lessons and equipment you don’t have to – you can effectively pick up the sport and play it for next to nothing.
Then there’s that feeling, that first time you hit the ball perfectly and you feel it with your entire body and soul (and every time you do it thereafter, too). That was the other moment in this episode that got to me, because thank heavens the anime – for me at least – got that moment right. That’s a moment that you can achieve in tennis without being a great athlete or devoting your life to it. It’s no exaggeration to say that this scene is one of the most important in the entire series, because it says so much about both the game and about Ei-chan, and it propels the narrative forward like a gust of wind filling a spinnaker on an America’s Cup yacht.
And then there’s the other primary thing that I think makes Baby Steps the greatest sports manga ever – it’s a peerless deconstruction of a fascinating main character. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s no one quite like Ei-chan in manga, never mind sports manga. It’s difficult to capture such a complicated person in a few words, but a major part of it that Ei-chan has a tremendous amount of self-awareness. As you read the manga you feel very much as if you’re inside Ei-chan’s head, because he’s always observing everything around him – including himself. He’s methodical, persistent, meticulous – yet never a bore, and never less than completely genuine and likeable. His approach to the challenge of tennis is the heart of the series, and it’s like nothing else you’ll see in sports manga.
But then, this is anime we’re talking about here. The truth is, I don’t know how much of all that is going to survive the transition from a 30-plus volume manga to a 25-episode anime. I was a bit worried after the first episode, though re-reading the start of the manga reminded me that it, too, is a slow-builder. This ep made me feel much better, because it pretty much nailed everything it tackled. The animation is still nothing special, but the substance of the manga appears to be intact. I felt the same things watching it that I do when reading the manga, and that’s a good sign.
How will new viewers respond to Baby Steps’ voluminous levels of detail? I can’t say, but I can say that because this is a story of one boy and one game, it can’t be changed – Baby Steps is like that because that’s how Ei-chan’s mind works. He wants to know how the S.T.C. courts are organized (A-F, depending on strength), the exact dimensions of the court, why it uses yards instead of meters, the angle of his elbow (good call by Kojirou to use the phone to record him), all of it – because Ei-chan knows himself, and knows how his mind operates. It’s no spoiler to say that part of Ei-chan’s journey is learning how it’s sometimes necessary to adapt his way of thinking in order to clear the next developmental wall in front of him, and it’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story – though how much of that makes it to the anime is anyone’s guess.
Another great part of this story is the contrast between Ei-chan and Nat-chan. Again, I won’t spoil but this is a major component of the series’ charm, and again, the episode (I felt) did a fine job at giving us a sense of that. Nat-chan has a completely different sort of mental approach than Ei-chan – she’s instinctive and intuitive (I could get into a discussion of personality types, Meyers-Briggs and how these two kids are opposite, but we’d be here all day). This is utterly fascinating as it relates to tennis, of course, but the friendship between these two is also the centerpiece of the non-tennis side of Baby Steps. And again, Murata-sensei seems to get these two, thank God – I really feel their relationship in the same way as I did in the manga. Ei-chan’s reactions are especially interesting, because they reveal a gap on his self-awareness – he knows seeing Nat-chan (especially when she’s with Takuya-kun) makes him feel things, but they’re feelings he’s not really familiar with. Again, not to spoil (sorry if I’m repeating himself) but watching Ei-chan apply his trademark systematic approach to understanding feelings of romance is another of the great joys of Baby Steps.
I better step myself, because I’m lapsing into rhapsody here. But that’s just how much I love this series, and how glad I am at every small sign that the essence of it is making it into the anime. We’re starting to see the cavalcade of great supporting characters arrive with Takuya, and the formal introduction of Ei-chan’s best friend Kageyama Kojirou (Terashima Takuma) – there are many, many more to come. I wish I could look forward to two years of seeing this develop on-screen and savoring every great moment, but if six months is what I’m going to get I’ll just have to savor that. So far, the signs are pretty good that I can trust Murata and Katsuki-sensei to capture the magic that makes Baby Steps so unique.