Baby Steps – 04

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Baby Steps really is a series of paradoxes, and I’m not sure that will serve it well (no pun intended) in  reaching its audience.

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.

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  1. R

    I think it is a fascinating season so far, in which the sports anime's are so vastly different from one another that they represent, sort of, the archetypes of "successful" anime. When you compare Haikyuu!! and Baby Steps, it's clear that they employ drastically different methods of telling their story. For one, the characters in Baby Steps are bland, for lack of a better word. I don't think I mean this in a negative way, but there's definitely not an immediate emotional hurdle that these characters are trying to overcome, unlike in Haikyuu where its very obvious (Hinata's height, Kageyama's personality). In comparison, Eiichiro just seems empty.

    But that's the main the difference in the two styles. Whereas Haikyuu is more of the mainstream, immediate and exciting type of anime / manga, Baby Steps is the unorthodox approach. I think it's definitely true when I say that Baby Steps gets better (exponentially so) as the story progresses. Eiichiro becomes less of an empty shell and his goals become compelling. Reading hundreds of chapters of Baby Steps makes you forget that the series starts off quite slow. And that's really the fear with the anime, is 25 episodes enough for people to fully understand why the series is great?

  2. Z

    One doesn't simply shrug off that easily a 170+kph serve hitting the face… LOL.

    Also, Nat-chan's reaction to Ei-chan's inquiry about her being anxious gives us a peek on a top-ranked professional player's mentality entering large tournaments (e.g. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic) and how it is when they actually lose to a lower or non-seeded player; whereas there's no such pressure if you're just relatively a nobody and you have nothing to lose.

    About the audience, I believe it's those who have read the manga (me included) who will be the ones to really appreciate the Baby Steps anime. I just hope it doesn't throw us off too much when the anime-original material starts to kick in.

  3. Well, to be fair the court was what absorbed that speed – Eichan just got the rebound. Still hard, but not enough to do serious damage, I shouldn't think.

  4. S

    Dibs on the blonde guy at the end being the one he'll actually face on the tournament.

    Anywyay, Enzo, I say you should be less worried about how the series will do and just enjoy the ride while it lasts. It'll go how it'll go, but honestly, it speaks for itself and it's pretty good even for a general public imho – not everyone loves only flashy sports shows. I'm no Ei-chan – well, I DO like splitting problems in their logical elements and understanding everything, but I'm not the grindy type, more the intuitive one. I never took notes during lessons and rather spent my time drawing random stuff on my notebook. I was more Seki-kun than Ei-chan in school. But I absolutely can appreciate what's going on here.

    On another note, I'm pretty sure that serve to the face was worse than an actual punch. So they're even anyway.

  5. S

    Agreed, you should be less concerned about the reception by the audience. Even though it has high quality in story and characters, it’s not going to appeal to the majority of anime viewers nowadays, who tend to go for escapist fantasy shows. It’s about sports, that’s strike 1, it takes a realistic, slow approach, that’s strike 2, it has romance in it, though I consider it as ball 1, and the characters aren’t very eye-catching, which is strike 3. Baby Steps is not going to create a legacy like Slam Dunk, Prince of Tennis, Touch or Hajime no Ippo, in a few years it’s probably a forgotten sports show like Giant Killing, Eyeshield 21 or Major.
    The show doesn’t deserve it, but I don’t think anything can be done about it, so just enjoy it along with the small number of sports anime fans.

  6. G

    I do love this show, maybe not as much as pong pong, but on the same level as haikyuu, It's very down-to-earth, which I'm.completely fine with cos the series provides distinct and interesting characters to drive the series forward. Also, tennis is pretty interesting, though i'm nowhere close to understanding Ei-chan's diagrams

  7. G

    i mean ping pong** lol

  8. t

    I don't know if it's totally Yin and Yang as you described.
    sure, HQ is more flashier and have better production values thanks to experienced IG (and no, HnG was over a decade ago by pierrot. that's too long). despite that, as I see it, it doesn't bad at all. so yeah, it's not flashier. but it's pretty good for now. whether they will be able to deliver the real goods?we'll see, maybe next time since there is match and I do wonder how sports will be there.
    more importantly, the thing is that baby steps is different. it's not like HQ or YP or ping pong. it's truly classic sports that starts from the very bottom. although it hasn't the team play value (like the duo in HQ or KuroBas) because…you play by yourselves after all, but with lots of friends and rivals along the way and everything is indeed different since they build it one step at the time. that's why it reminds me Hajime no Ippo so strongly. and I believe sports anime fans see it even if they aren't hardcore veterans.

    so for me, so far baby steps anime is doing really really well. even if it's not flashy like HQ or others, it's very good. but time will come when they have to provide sports moments and scenes – will they handle the "sport emotional" in the right touch?how will the animation be during game when ball passes quickly from one side to another (the intro in ep #1 looked weird if I am not mistaken) and will they be able to make it intense and thrilling?
    there are challenges for baby steps anime. but as I see it, they can handle it because that's how it seems from 4 eps so far. and I really hope it will succeed. when there are other sports anime it a bit more difficult to be prominent, but from the current line-up of sports anime right now, even if baby steps isn't the very best, it's not that it's falling from behind..I don't think so.

  9. t

    one thing that really bugs me is the coach's nose. why everytime it's in different bizarre shape…? S:

  10. m

    Maybe it's bc I'm not a great judge of these things, but the production value doesn't seem so bad that I could imagine people being turned off by it. I could see people not falling into a show that can take a little while to hit it's stride as far as the main plot is concerned. For me I was hooked by the first chapter. Maybe that's bc I've loved sports my whole life, and Baby Steps captures the essence of what it is to play a sport seriously in such a realistic way that I was hooked so early on. But I've read the manga (English trans chapters) 5 times (on the 6th now) and the first 2 times I read it all in one long sitting. I can't find many other things I've enjoyed so much that I just marathoned them. All I can come up with is Baby Steps, Lost (seasons1-3), and The Winter of Our Discontent. Granted my opinion doesn't mean anything as far as other people enjoying things goes, but I can't think of another pure sports book/show/movie etc that is, in so many ways, more entertaining than watching actual sports themselves.

  11. S

    For me, it isn't so much the low budget as it is being typical Studio Pierrot fare – i.e. characters being off model so often that you don't even know what on model looks like, with a glimmer of greatness every blue moon. The inconsistency really hinders my enjoyment of this adaptation, and it airing alongside HQ sorta magnifies its art/animation problems.

  12. m

    It's not that I don't understand that rationale, and there have been plenty of shows I couldn't really get into, if at all, bc of that very same reason. But being in the possession of the info any manga reader has my point is that the content is so good that even if it was the worst animation ever, it would still be a good show. That's how good the content is. I really dislike Adachi's character designs, but Cross Game (and every other of his works I've read or watched the adaptation of) was so good that it didn't even lower my opinion of it by the slightest degree. So what I'm saying is if you watch it in spite of any qualms you have about the animation quality, you will be glad that you did.

  13. M

    I don't have a problem with the art/animation, people complaining about characters being off model here clearly haven't much anime. I do agree that the eyes can look especially fish like at times.

    Better episode than last week. Ei-chan recording all those trajectories seemed a bit far-fetched and a few niggles put "realism" into doubt, but I was absorbed when Natsu's advice hit him.
    I really don't mind if they start picking up the pace a little from now on though – watching Ei-chan scribble in his notebook every five minutes could get very tedious.

    Count me out as one who cares about HiQ. High production values mean diddly squat when the result is a bore. I think Ping Pong can vouch for me.

  14. N

    You've said Ei-chan is a unique protagonist, and that probably is so, but he does remind me some of the original Tireless Terrier in the sense that they are both physically unimpressive and don't seem to possess a natural athletic talent, their true power being analytical in essence.
    Of course, Ei-chan seems to be progressing in a rate that poor Shuu would have envied, and he seems capable of working it out mostly on his own (with the occasional vague tip thrown in), whereas Shuu was dependent on Hanashima kouchi to make his first signs of progress.

  15. The most obvious difference is that Shou-chan adores soccer with every fiber of his being from the moment we meet him, and Ei-chan is completely illiterate about sports in general and tennis in specific.

    I think it would be fair to say that there's a very fundamental difference in the way Shou and Ei-chan use their heads to succeed, but it might be the edge of spoilery if I get too deeply into that so I'll leave it there.

  16. D

    It's kind of unrealistic though. They had a good example why in the show itself, with Ei-chan's english and the foreigner; Ei-chan can write a mean set of notes for English, but when push comes to shove he can't speak it, and he's probably been practicing English as a subject for far longer than tennis. You can diagram and do things abstractly like he does all you wan't, but that doesn't mean you have things like the stamina, perception, and muscle memory to do it. Developing those takes a different approach.

    They are kind of short-selling that. Or rather they acknowledge it in one hand, but to progress the plot they have to go back to his amazing gifts of perception to overcome things he would have to spend too much time on otherwise by his own method. He just intuits what he had to do to break out of the rut, often with the help of his love interest (who caused this twice so far; she just says something rather banal and bam! his synapses connect.)

    It works, but it's edging back into standard superpower fare. I kind of wish he spent time on the outside courts playing games some; he's being advanced far too quickly to avoid it becoming about his gifts.

  17. K

    What was different about the class ranking scene? Not sure if it dips into spoilers and I certainly don't want to be spoiled on a series, especially one structured like Baby Steps is (and for how much I'm enjoying it) but I'm kinda curious.

    If it wasn't for Ping Pong, this would easily be my favorite new show of the season.

  18. It didn't exist at all in the manga as far as I remember.

  19. R

    Well, You know… maybe, maybe… baby steps isn't that good. I was "relativelly" interesting after 3 episodes but 4 lack some rhythm (and haikyuu episode 4 was also a non impressive episode). Anyway, sports series will always grab my attention and i have confidence in baby steps.

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