OP: “Believe in Yourself” by Mao Abe
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.
ED: “Baby Steps” by Shota Horie