I’m not going to say that I wish Pierrot (Sundays are a very good day for them this season) and Murata-sensei’s Baby Steps wasn’t any good, or that it was already selling out the integrity of the manga. That wouldn’t be true for starters, for obvious reasons – I love this series and want it to be great, and I’m going to enjoy every moment that the anime is recognizably the Baby Steps I hold in such high esteem.
The thing is, though, that the longer the anime stays religiously true to the manga, the more agonizing it’s going to be when those two roads finally diverge (in a yellow wood?). And we’re steering a true course three three episodes, with only about five chapters adapted and nothing of real consequence changed. The animation and art is nothing special (though the tennis itself is nicely depicted) – this is certainly not Haikyuu in that respect- but apart from that it’s the real deal.
If only we could look forward to it staying that way. Not to be a broken record but this episode – to its credit – further illustrates just why it’s so critical to the effectiveness of Baby Steps that it not hurry things along. For starters is the fact that learning a sport doesn’t work that way – it’s slow, laborious effort that yields improvement by the millimeter, not the foot, where a high-schooler getting skunked by a grade schooler after a month of practice can still be wowing the coaches with his progress. For a series that wasn’t aiming for realism losing that authenticity wouldn’t be such a big deal. But a big part of what makes Baby Steps the best manga ever at the “sports” half of the “sports manga” label is that it depicts the journey so authentically. Hell, it’s just truth in advertising – Katsuki-sensei didn’t call this series “Baby Steps” for nothing.
That ties directly into the second reason why the slow and steady approach is so crucial here, Ei-chan himself. Think for a moment, those of you that are fans of the genre – how many sports series start with a main character who’s never even picked up the equipment of the sport in question? Doesn’t even know the rules? The usual is to join them at the beginning of the main journey (like Haikyuu or Diamond no Ace) or as a small child with a gift and/or special love for the sport (like Major). Even in Yowamushi Pedal, which starts with a main character who’s a complete novice to competitive cycling, that MC is already well-versed on the basics of riding a bike, and precociously good at it. Indeed, about the only one I can think of that almost (not quite) fits the bill is Capeta – and that’s about the only one I can think of that comes close to Baby Steps‘ patient and encyclopedic approach.
It’s more even that that, though, because it’s not just anyone taking those baby steps but Ei-chan himself. He sums himself up very well this week in defending his approach from Kojirou’s ribbing – “I need to understand this.” That’s just the way he’s wired – his way of mastering something is to understand it at the atomic level, tennis included (even the puzzling scoring system is an obsession and an irritant), and once he gets invested in something he’s not satisfied to be mediocre at it. His reaction to seeing what he thinks is Takuma and Nat-chan kissing (false alarm) is also classic Ei-chan. He’s not faking the puzzlement he shows at his flushed and dismayed reaction – he genuinely doesn’t understand that he’s reacting that way because he likes Nat-chan because he has no experience on that subject. It’s not in the notes.
Of course, as we’re seeing, it’s not just Nat-chan that’s the important part of that equation but Takuma as well. This is another facet of Ei-chan’s nature – he soaks up knowledge from everyone around him, and doesn’t prejudge or discriminate. Takuma reveals himself to be a troubling subject – he’s hot-tempered and arrogant, and has earned the delinquent label at school. At STC the head coach, Miura (Kusunoki Taiten, who, ironically, portrayed a player in Prince of Tennis – surely, all these two shows will have in common apart from gut and balls) knows Takuma has pro-level ability but bemoans his lack of effort. And Takuma is especially hostile towards Ei-chan, it seems – and certainly no less so than when Nat-chan (“Aren’t you paying too much attention to him?”) looks at the still-raw newbie and declares that he’s going to be great at tennis someday. Remember Miura-kantoku too, as he’s a major player in events to come.
The tension between Ei-chan and Takuma comes to a head during one of Ei-chan’s lessons at the club. He’s earned a promotion to Court D with his hard work, and in his first-ever match gets a lesson in how far he still has to go from his pint-sized tormentor. Ei-chan’s work has been towards perfecting his form hitting against a wall, but that long, measured stroke won’t work in live-action – even against the chibi’s serves, it’s too slow. He’s sent to observe Takuma (tall, angular and possessed of a national-quality serve) on Court A, and even gets out the stopwatch to determine how fast Takuma is serving (over 170km/h) and how much time he’d have to react (less than .5 seconds). Takuma is mildly irritated at this intrusion on his practice (Ei-chan – as usual in his own zone when he’s focused – has no idea), but when asked if he too intends to go pro, Takuma loses it entirely and even roughs Ei-chan up a little.
I won’t go too deeply into why Takuma blew up like that – some of it can be deduced from what we’ve seen, but there are spoilers involved. But again it’s an interesting look at Ei-chan’s consistency. He’s startled, naturally, but more than anything he wants to know why Takuma got so pissed off. It’s seeing something that doesn’t make sense and not understanding it that drives Ei-chan – here, to the point where he takes on the challenge of trying to return one of 50 Takuma serves with the stakes being an answer if he’s successful, but a punch if he fails. Unless you’ve stood in and faced a professional-speed serve you can’t imagine how intimidating it is – but that’s a matter for next week, and another valuable lesson in the nature of tennis.