There’s definitely a Yin and Yang quality to the two Sunday supper sports anime this season, and it’s one reason that I worry about Baby Steps. Not only does Haikyuu have far better production values, but it also has a much flashier and more shamelessly endearing style – which it executes very effectively. Baby Steps doesn’t go out of it’s way to try and sell itself with instant gratification. It’s a shame it doesn’t have glitzy art and animation because that’s a way it could be more “grabby” without sacrificing its essential nature. But to try and ingratiate itself narratively in ways that are inconsistent with the story it’s trying to tell would be impossible.
My concern here more than anything is whether that sort of story can find an audience in anime, especially when the art and animation are garden variety. It struck me in watching this episode (which I thought was excellent, along with #2 the best so far) that the ideal audience member for Baby Steps would actually be Ei-chan himself. It’s a series (even in manga form) that really rewards audience participation. If you’re the type of person that really wants to get under the hood and understand the workings of something rather than just shrug and accept it, this is the sports series for you. Buy-in increases as you go along and more fully understand the game of tennis and the mind (and soul) of the hero, and there’s plenty of emotional development along the way, but there are no short-cuts in getting you there – you just have to read or watch. But how many Maruos are out there to make up an audience?
In any event, what we have on-screen is, thus far, an anime that thankfully seems intent on trusting its audience as much as the manga does. Changes have been minimal (the class ranking scene about the only noticeable one this week), and the pacing brisk but not rushed. We’re continuing to see Maruo’s journey play out in pretty realistic fashion, and some things are becoming clearer. The contest with Takuma is very revealing in many ways, and not just about Ei-chan himself, and it’s an important moment in his development especially given who was in the audience.
It’s tempting to simply look at Maruo as a non-athlete who’s trying to get ahead in tennis strictly because of studying hard, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler any longer to say that’s clearly not the case. He is exceptional – just not in the way most sports manga heroes (or great athletes) are. To start with he was exceptional before he ever picked up a racquet, as evidenced by his academic success. What’ now clear is that the qualities Ei-chan brings to the table – open-mindedness, curiosity, determination, analytical ability and most importantly great self-awareness – offer him tremendous potential as an athlete as well as a scholar. And that tennis is a game peculiarly suited to utilizing those talents (a fact which is a big part of the genius of the manga).
In truth Ei-chan has other gifts that serve (pun intended) him well as a tennis player, and the Takuma battle illustrates some of those. He starts out terrified, but rather quickly gets past that – though no closer to successfully returning Takuma’s now suddenly even faster serve. He understands immediately that his mindset is wrong – the two-second swing he spent a month learning can’t possibly work against one of the best serves in Japan. But he lacks the context to find an answer until Natchan nudges him in the right direction with one of her typically obscure analogies (“Welcome the ball!”) . Because Ei-chan doesn’t discriminate in his sources of information – he’s willing to learn from anyone or anything even if he doesn’t understand it at first – he’e eventually able to grasp the essence of what she means.
There’s a lot more going on here, both tennis-wise and not – we can obviously see Takuma’s irritation that Natchan is helping Ei-chan. There’s Ei-chan revealing that he’s actually able to follow the flight of the ball and physically react to it quickly, even if he lacks the experience to successfully return Takuma’s serves (what he really needs now is not to “swing” at all, but just block it back letting the serve provide all the pace – but he doesn’t get that yet). Coach Miura definitely notices Maruo’s surprising growth curve, and by the 49th ball he’s just missed getting several serves back in play. Takuma puts an end to the contest by using a slice serve on the final ball, which a baffled Maruo obviously has no hope to return (think of a baseball player who’s only ever practiced against pitching machines facing a big-leaguer’s curve for the first time) but the mere fact that Takuma is forced to pull out a slice against a newbie (never mind that Takuma hates spin serves to begin with) is a tacit admission of defeat. If he ever intended to punch Ei-chan (I don’t think he did) that’s reason enough to simply walk away.
Tennis is a strange game, and it tends to favor quirky and unusual individuals with strong personalities. One of the joys of Baby Steps is the way it presents the full rainbow of quirky young people who love (or excel at, and they don’t always overlap) the sport. We’ve already met a few of them and it’s interesting to see how different the likes of Ei-chan, Natchan and Takuma are. Takuma is a pure athlete, tall and rangy and powerful but not the most dedicated. Natchan – in tennis and life – is an instinctive person, a “feel” player (instructive to see is when she and Ei-chan meet an American looking for directions at STC, and the top English student struggles while bottom-feeder Natchan happily gets the fellow where he needs to go). And Ei-chan is a grinder, an analytical bulldog for whom breaking everything down into manageable parts is the key to success. None of those things are enough to make you a great tennis player on your own – that requires getting better at what doesn’t come naturally and not just focusing on what you’re good at. And it’s a lonely game, too, as Natchan gives Eichan a lesson in when he marvels that a #1-seeded player like her should be nervous before matches. She has the unique pressure of being expected to win, and if she has an off day there are no teammates to pick her up – falter, and she can lose to anyone at any time. In tennis, no matter how good you are there’s nowhere to hide.
The upshot of the Takuma match is that Miura was intrigued enough by what he saw to suggest that Maruo give it a go in the upcoming Kanagama junior circuit – the local satellite tour for U-18s. Ei-chan is naturally nervous, but strangely psyched up to get out on the court for his first real match (another new emotion for him to process). Along the way he meets one of his fellow STC competitors, Fukazawa Yukichi (Shimono Hiro), who’s so impressed by the way Ei-chan stood in against Takuma that he’s forever “Aniki” to him now, and who gives his new big bro a quick lesson in tournament draws and his first opponent , the #5 seed Oobayashi Ryou (we also briefly meet another significant character but since she doesn’t say anything, I’ll save her introduction for another time). It’s a big moment, but with this show it’s good to always remember that the title isn’t just there for giggles – it’s 100% truth in advertising, and that’s one of the reasons I love it. I only hope enough other folks feel the same way.