First Impressions – Baby Steps

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It’s hard to out into words what writing this post means to me as a fan.

OP: “Believe in Yourself” by Mao Abe

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Years from now, anime fans may look back at this as a golden age of sports series.  On Sundays alone we have Diamond no Ace, Haikyuu (I’m still not using all those exclamation points) and Baby Steps – and Yowamushi Pedal follows up two days later.  There’s also sumo and ping pong.  Variety and quality is something we’ve rarely had in sports anime, especially recently as the genre is something of a relic – that is, until sports anime that appeal to female fans changed the way the industry thought about sports anime as commercial entities, which is certainly the biggest reason why the current schedule is as loaded as it is.

Among all those series, without the remotest doubt Baby Steps is the one that’s closest to my heart.  It’s not going to be a commercial hit with the fans of Yowapeda, Haikyuu, Free and KuroBas, and it’s not a throwback like Daiya no A or Matsutarou.  No, Baby Steps isn’t like any other sports manga – it’s like Baby Steps.  It, and its main character, are unique – and it’s fair to say that I love this manga enough to rank it in my all-time top ten.  That’s why it feels a little surreal to be sitting here writing a post about a Baby Steps anime.

Expectations can be a terrible burden, especially when you love a source material this much.  I worry not just about whether the anime will live up to my hopes, but how it will be received by others.  And here’s the truth – Baby Steps is not a series that blows you away out of the starting gate, even in manga form.  It was never going to spawn a lights-out premiere like Haikyuu did, because it doesn’t aspire to do the same things that show did (wonderfully) out of the gate.  This is more a series that gets under your skin, intrigues you, and slowly draws you in until you’re completely hooked.  That’s a harder sell in anime form, and I hope Pierrot and director Murata Masahiko are able to close the sale.

Those of us who love Baby Steps were of course worried when it was announced as a 25-episode series, even if slightly less so because it was also announced that mangaka Katsuki Hikaru would be writing for the anime.  The presumption is that Pierrot is going to attempt to tell a complete story (the manga is currently at 30 volumes and ongoing) in that time, and the fact that the OP shows the main character at Centre Court Wimbledon does nothing to dissuade one from that perception.  I’ll be disappointed that so much of the manga I love is never animated if that happens, but I also worry because this seems to me a series that won’t take well to short-cuts and hurrying things along.  When the hero is all about the process and doing things a certain way, haste may be the opponent we most need to worry about.

We’ll see – all we can do is take it one episode at a time.  What I can so far is that the anime adapted the first couple of chapters relatively unscathed – the only major change being the pre-open flash forward to hero Maruo Eichirou (Murata Taichi) playing at a local junior tennis tournament (which worked well, I thought).  The tennis sequences themselves are excellent – clearly, Murata-sensei is using rotoscoping here (tennis is a tough sport to animate, so I think this is a good choice) – while the traditionally animated sequences are only average (but happily there’s nary a drop of CGI in sight).  It’s always an adjustment when you hear characters you know so well on the page speak for the first time, but the casting seems fine – Murata sounds pretty close to what I expected Ei-chan to sound like, and Kotobuki Minako is in the ballpark as main heroine Takasaki Natsu.

One of the first things you notice about Baby Steps is that, unlike most sports anime, it features male and female characters prominently right off the bat.  I get the sense that Na-chan’s role is going to be even bigger in the anime version, almost a co-lead – though that’s just my hunch.  It’s also plain that Ei-chan – so nicknamed because he gets straight As – is quite unlike traditional sports shounen leads.  He’s not an honor student because he’s a genius but because he’s recognized the weakness in himself that forces him to be much more meticulous in his studies than most people, and turned it to his advantage.  That’s a very crucial (and consistent) part of Ei-chan’s character, and it’s one of many things that makes him one of the most interesting and likeable leads in manga.  It’s also impossible not to notice that he’s not an athlete in any way – in fact he starts playing tennis because he’s looking for something he can do one day a week (all the free time he has from studying) to stay in shape (not for the last time, this prompts his friends to note that he sounds like an old man).

As someone who played tennis in high school and loves the sport, I recognized immediately that tennis was the perfect sport for Ei-chan – and why – and I loved Baby Steps for illustrating that so beautifully.  I can only hope the anime is able to do so as well, and so far it seems on-point – though to be honest, tennis isn’t a huge part of the story yet so it’s too early to tell.  What we’re mostly doing now is getting to know Ei-chan – seeing his quirks, how he thinks, what his buttons are and what pushes them.  It’s no coincidence that “Believe in yourself” is the OP because it’s also the tagline of the manga and intrinsically central to everything Baby Steps is about.

We’re also seeing how those elements tie in with Na-chan, the adorable and blunt classmate of Ei-chan who happens to play at the same STC (Southern Tennis Club) that Eichirou follows a coupon for a free trial to visit.  While Na-chan does represent a sort of feminine ideal and it’s obvious that Ei-chan will develop feelings for her, she’s no plot device – she’s a fully developed character with a story of her own to tell.  It’s also refreshing to see Ei-chan’s reactions to her in the premiere, because this is clearly not a stereotypical anime crush.  He’s not comically shy around her, but he clearly notices how attractive she is.  It’s just that thinking about girls that way hasn’t entered his equation yet – he doesn’t have notes on it.

In the end, then, we have a first episode that seems to be in no hurry to blow past what makes Baby Steps a great series – yet it only has 25 eps to condense the essence of 300 chapters.  So I can only say again, wait and see – because there’s just no way to know exactly what we’re going to get here.  There are things I wish were better – the BGM is pretty plain and a bit too obtrusive for starters, and I wish this were getting the luxury treatment at the hands of a glamor studio like Haikyuu is.  But the big things, so far, are being gotten right.  I want desperately for the anime to capture what makes Baby Steps one of the best sports manga ever, and for it to find an audience receptive to that.  But on both fronts, I’m going to be on pins and needles for a while longer.

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ED: “Baby Steps” by Shota Horie

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31 comments

  1. s

    Aaaaahhh…. that feeling of anxiousness when you want the thing you love so much to receive the best treatment possible and that others may appreciate the brilliance of the material and see what you see in it….i feel sorry for you for the next few weeks; make sure those pins and needles dont stick right through you

  2. S

    Finally! I love the manga, so the anime is a guaranteed watch and it seems perfect for a marathon. I’m not a fan of his playing style (reminds me too much of Andy Murray’s boring strategy), but I like Ei-chan personality and his development in the sport. Too bad it’s only 25 episodes but I do hope they animate the America arc.

  3. S

    I've never read the manga but loved this first premiere. It had endearing characters and a nice atmosphere to it; it really does feel like a more character-driven kind of story. I'll probably end up trying to read the manga after the series finishes, so I guess this anime is probably going to do at least that one job (which I suppose is what it really aims at, more than selling BDs).

  4. If "character-driven" ever fit a sports anime, it's Baby Steps.

    Indeed, I really don't see this being an Ikebukuro-driven hit like KuroBas or Haikyuu. Moving manga is going to be critical to whether it's considered a commercial success.

  5. t

    indeed, we have a great line-up of sports series in this season (actually also before and after this season, but now it's like sort of a peak. at least for now). and when we'll advance to those..moments, the money time moments in sports (like where YP is now)..it's going to explode!
    although so far the sumo anime seems too blunt and the relation to sports is only by the opening or synopsis of the series, I am sure it was just an exposition (or just call it "ep #0"), and the series will advance and take itself as more series (sports including).

    for now, we have baby steps.
    I really really like the manga. ever since you published here the news of the anime I started to show interest in this series, finally I had time to start reading it. and it's really good. and trust when I said that this series is made of different material than most sports anime today. seriously, when I started reading it, it gave me vibes of Hajime no Ippo (which is a living legend classic in sports even those days!).

    anyway, the first episode was quite good. baby steps anime is looking good – characters and their VA, pace, story of course..it's all give the right and the same feeling of the first chapter when I read it.

    but (and it's a big but..sorry) there are things I am afraid of in the next phases. first only 2cour with new plots? seriously? when you have an established manga running with over 30 volumes, giving it anime for 2cours, not to mention with new plots, it's kinda like….slapping in the face.
    a series like that should be run for a long time, especially if it's on prime-time. and I don't know..maybe Pierrot are checking whether baby steps can become a hit?maybe they are just..wanna try something new (adapting sports or animation or something) and testing it via baby steps..I don't know. but the bottom line is..that it's quite sad (especially if he really gets to some..wimbeldon lol, I doubt it will happen, but it will be something not in the rightful pace the manga is). however, as Enzo said, let's take it one episode at the time. and so far, first episode did it right. we'll see.
    secondly, well, we had the..prologue in which E-chan played against someone (I didn't see if they mentioned his name, so I won't spoil here). it's nice to give a prologue that induces you to see how E-chan will really get to this position when he is..nerd (let's admit it..c'mon). but what bothered me is the game itself. the "sports action". it was OK..but looked weird in some parts of it… I hope when will get to full-time play, it will really induce a "sport atmosphere" and with real action and all. I am not sure I really felt it as I wished. but, we'll see.

    all in all, so far so good. there is a lot of good material to work with in baby steps. I love how they animated the characters and the humor stuff. it's working in the right tone. and I really look forward to it (despite some "Dark clouds" in the horizon).

    p.s
    are you constantly following baby steps manga right now? I hope to catch up asap

  6. As far as it's translated, yes.

  7. t

    I guess that for the time being you are not gonna cover the newly manga episodes like you do with 'Mix', 'a bride's story' and chihayafuru?

    I wonder why sports manga aren't getting license?because there aren't enough fans?because they are too long? only eyeshield 21 (which already out of print), slam dunk and cross game, made it to have a license. it's a bit surprising to me…when we have so much great sports manga (especially if followed by anime) and still I feel like aren't getting enough attention…

  8. K

    I think we have similar tastes in sports anime so I am watching this based on your recommendation & enthusiasm for the manga. The first episode was nice but didn't blow me away but I think it is fine for a series to start slow. In fact that tend to work better for this genre.

    Who knows if I like this enough I might even start reading the manga.

  9. w

    Okay, so I'll admit I wasn't as impressed as with Haikyuu, but this doesn't have half the production that''s getting and I still liked this well enough. Very little actual sport in the first episode, but the tennis sequence at the start was great and I liked how it portrayed the warmups. I'll leave the kettle on here, it looks like a slow burner

  10. Yin and yang, really. I loved the HiQ premiere for what it was – basic, emotional, rousing and magnificently staged. I can't speak to the manga as I haven't read it, but I can't imagine it's as thoughtful and subtle as Baby Steps because in honesty, there really aren't any sports manga that are. Adachi is subtle about relationships, but this series is subtle about the sports (it attacks it from so many directions I can only hope we'll see adapted).

    Of course I wish this was getting the Four Seasons treatment like HiQ is, but I don't begrudge that – it was a great premiere and every bit deserving of the production values.

  11. w

    I don't think this episode was designed to grab you from the get go. It's all set up and introductions to gently ease you the series and its charms. Like the title, taking Baby Steps here. Nothing wrong with that. I find it usually means the reward is greater later on.

  12. M

    "I can't speak to the manga as I haven't read it, but I can't imagine it's as thoughtful and subtle as Baby Steps because in honesty, there really aren't any sports manga that are. Adachi is subtle about relationships, but this series is subtle about the sports"

    I can get behind that. May end up depending on how deep I'm willing to get into tennis.

  13. m

    That's the only thing that makes me nervous about the anime. It started slow, and should continue to do so just like the manga did. But theres no way to fit it all into 2 cours. Going by the typical 3 manga ch per ep it should get about 70 eps, and that's just for the English translated chapters, and the manga isn't anywhere close to what would be a good ending point.
    As for anyone who doesn't care about tennis,, i'm 100% with you on that. I've never once liked tennis outside of playing it casually here and there. But while it does focus a lot on the Tennis, making it a true sports anime, it doesn't do so in a way that you would need to be a tennis fan to enjoy it. I can't think of one manga/anime/movie/show that really captures the essence of what it means to dedicate yourself to sports the way that baby steps does. And Ei-chan is hands down the perfect MC for that. He isn't overly strong or of genius ability, (though as you saw in the notes he was taking he is able to memorize the trajectory of every shot which is genius level photographic memory) but he also isn't weak of character or riddled with anime MC tropes. He is so very realistic and so very likeable that it really makes you feel like you're on the journey with him ad makes you want to root for him more than your favorite real life sports team. Without being boring or drug out to extend the series it's perfectly paced to set up for a much bigger reward like you said Whemleh.

  14. M

    Gotta be honest, the HiQ opener didn't grab me at all. It was painstakingly presented, but by diving straight into a match the initial drive was lost and resulting character motivations felt rigid. It came off like a formula underdog story so I really struggled to care for the main dude and the even blander side characters. Sensitive boy drama is understandable, but dialled up too high for me.

    Baby Steps (the real underdog) scores much higher in its narrative set up. The character focused episode admittedly wouldn't have gelled quite as well without the genuinely refreshing oddball in Maruo Eichirou. His superior characterisation made it all the more engaging for me. Further improved with the introduction of a (charmingly dense) main heroine who ACTUALLY plays the sport and has purpose to boot. Good! I also appreciated that they held back on any pretence of drama and stripped it right down to the key elements of the show. BMG was okay, but nothing spectacular I suppose.

    Not a considerable fan of either sports I have to say, but I was pleasantly surprised by BS to give it a solid chance. Just wish Ei-chan would trim off that irritating bit of hair…

  15. w

    Yes to the hair. It is quite simply the silliest piece of hair I have seen.

  16. Z

    "and I wish this were getting the luxury treatment at the hands of a glamor studio like Haikyuu is."

    Don't we all wish the series of our dreams get the most deluxe treatment? Although in recent years I think people have lost sight of the concept of limited animation.

  17. G

    To be fair….I feel that Pierrot has regressed on the animation front. They really didn't allocate a big budget for Baby Step, it's modest at best even comparing to some older shows.

  18. Z

    Does Pierrot expect a decent return on Baby Steps though?

  19. m

    There really have been a pretty serious number of sports anime recently. Though I admit sumo wrestling and ping pong (not a sport) are where my interest fades. At this point with baby steps, I'd rather them do 100 chapters of the manga in 25 eps, and have it not get another season than to ruin it by cramming all 300 in. The whole basic premise of Ei-chan's Tennis life is that he is the type who doesn't make big long goals, he makes shorter small ones (baby steps), and you can't force them all into such a small episode count.

  20. h

    I dont think there were any rotoscoping in this episode

  21. S

    I have'nt read the manga (yet) but I really really liked this episode. (And I'm not a fan of tennis) What I enjoyed most, was how Ei-kun and his quirks were introduced in such an amiable way, that makes you feel like you know this character since a long time already. I'm going to wait until the anime finishes and then start the manga.

  22. G

    Considering Hikaru no Go is also produced by Pierrot and it's one of my favourite anime (top 5) of all time, I have every reason to watch Baby Step. Great first episode, really excited to watch the rest.
    Sports anime is sort of my gateway drug to anime (Slum Dunk to be precise, yeah…it's pretty old hehh..), which is pretty ironic because I'm like the least athletic person I know. I don't really know, but it just makes me so nostalgic ya know?

  23. m

    Haha I hear ya on the nostalgia that sports anime gives. That's what's so great about sports though, even if you are the least athletic person it doesn't matter. I know for me personally (and most people I've played with) I'd always rather be on a bad team with people who work themselves to the bone and give it their all than a good team with people who don't try hard and don't care if we win as long as they play well. Plus there's always rec leagues so you don't have to be good to keep playing. I have played sports competitively since college, but I still play a ton of different sports throughout the year. I can't think of any other format (show/movie/book) that has displayed sports better than anime. Friday night lights was good, but arguably was more about the lifestyle of Texas football than football itself. When it's done right you don't need to be a fan of that particular sport, or even of sports in general to like it.

  24. m

    haven't played competitively since college**

  25. S

    Not sold by the premiere. Slow pacing and awkward character styles. It's in the "maybe" pile, but at least the MC is unique. I'll give it a couple more episodes to decide

  26. 1

    When coming here, my main question was whether as a manga reader the show is worth watching. After merely watching the OP, I think I can be left with the satisfaction that the show is in good hands. I'll be watching this for sure. 🙂

    –Proto

  27. m

    I'm with you on that, it's a seemingly impossible task to have the anime come anywhere close to matching the manga with only 2 cours. Unless the only cover about 100 chapters and hope for another 4 cours after.

  28. m

    This is one of the rare shows, manga, comics, movies, books, or any other form of entertainment that I get mad when people don't like it. The list would include Baseball in general, Baby Steps, Fight Club (only movie better than its book), and maybe one or two more things. Anything else I never care at all if people like it. Though I hope popularity can give the show extra seasons….though I won't hold my breath there.

  29. C

    The tennis aspect drew me to this anime, but its character development has me hooked and looking forward to the fifth episode this Sunday. The tennis form in this show is Really good and modern. Eiichiro's serve is model, his open stance forehand suits current styles of play, even the ball tosses are perfect with no spin. That says a lot about how much the producers must have researched the sport to get every bit just right.
    I tried to watch another tennis anime, which I shall leave unnamed…I couldn't get past the first 10minutes, and everyone has different tastes so, maybe I didnt give it a fair enough chance…(its title is also the name of a racquet company…Prin..ahemm…yeah)… Baby Steps really was nice to watch off the bat…. racquet.

    Guardian Enzo's high praise of the manga has me interested, I'll have to read it whether or not they finish the anime.
    As for the slow start several mentioned, I agree that it can quickly ramp up into some seriously addictive stuff (Skip Beat). When I first saw the comical manga style facial expressions in other anime, I was a bit unsure if I liked that. Gradually I appreciated it conveys emotion effectively and also is adds to the hilarity with the caricatures. I like how they put that to good use here and keep it light.
    I also like the music, the outro is charming and mellow. The school scenes have nice familiar melodies reminding me of Kanon and Chuunibyou.

    I guess it's been a while since anyone commented, and only one episode was released back in mid April, but I enjoyed reading your article and comments. I hope the anime will continue to deliver…and continue.

  30. Fans of that unnamed series are very loyal, so you always need to be careful what you say. As a tennis fan, I think the charitable answer is, I don't really see tennis as the point of that series.

    Baby Steps indeed gets the details right – I think it stems from the mangaka being serious about the sport and really understanding it.

  31. C

    Guardian Enzo, thanks for the perspective. My apologies to everyone.

    I too found Baby Steps an enjoyable read. Thanks again for your posts.

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