Baby Steps – 05

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Watching Baby Steps, I really understand how Hanashima-san felt at this moment.

I want to play…

If there’s anything I can say against Baby Steps, it’s that watching or reading Ei-chan experience the game of tennis fills me with the overwhelming desire to go out and play it myself right then and there (and unlike Ei-chan, I never found hitting against a wall all that much fun).  For those who play or used to play tennis at all seriously this series is like Christmas morning, and the gifts just keep on coming.  I wish the animation was better (it was actually pretty decent for most of the actual match this week, the rotoscoped bits especially) but in terms of the substance, it’s absolutely spot-on (right down to the time warning when Ei-chan spends too much time in thought between points).

I don’t know for how long the anime is going to continue to honor the truth-in-advertising title, but I’m treasuring every moment it does.  It’s such a fascinating journey for me to watch unfold, because tennis is a fascinating sport and Ei-chan is a fascinating young man.  As I mentioned last week, one of the things I really love about Baby Steps is that it captures the way tennis tends to attract idiosyncratic, individualistic people – not always the most likeable, but hardly ever boring.  And that’s a happy happenstance for a manga and anime about the sport.  Ei-chan is certainly the most interesting person in this series, but the ones surrounding him are not “mass produced models” as Midousuji would say.  Coaches and players alike, the way they interact with Ei-chan is as important to his development as the game of tennis itself.

As the Kanagawa Junior Circuit is about to begin, it’s been four months since Ei-chan picked up a racket (I actually remembered it being less, but still found his progress quite realistic).  He’s naturally pretty agitated – not only is this his first tennis match but his first real athletic endeavor outside of school.  All the things an experienced player would take for granted – where to register, what kind of warm-up to do – are a mystery.  And the things the experienced player would take in stride, like last-minute scheduling changes, are a nerve-shattering trauma.  And it doesn’t help that as a member of a top-tier club like STC, he’s a natural point of curiosity and a magnet for attention.

I’ve already pointed out that Ei-chan is like a sponge, the positives of which are obvious, but there are negatives as well.  Naturally everyone has well-meaning advice, most of it contradictory, but Ei-chan doesn’t have the built-in filter than most people do – when someone tells him something, he assumes it’s important and takes it seriously.  It’s Takuma’s brusque and direct admonishment that breaks through the haze – just worry about what you can do.  Fortunately that’s something Eichirou is very good at, but the reality is that as a new player, there are only so many things he knows how to do.

Eichirou’s opponent, Oobayashi-kun, is obviously a very good player – the #5 seed, albeit at a 4th-tier prefectural event.  In fact he’s a very lucky matchup for Maruo, at least at first, because he’s a serve-and-volley player (yes, a few still exist, like California Condors) who relies on power.  Ei-chan’s tennis vocabulary at this point is basically one word at a time, but after his “match” with Takuma facing a fast serve is one of the words he knows.  Again, it all goes back to Ei-chan’s nature – when something stymies him, he wants to understand it.  So he forces himself to deconstruct the return of a fast serve and learn how to execute it, and as Miura-coachie points out Maruo also has excellent “dynamic vision” – the ability to follow fast-moving objects and react to them.  And after facing Takuma as his first live opponent, against Oobayashi he’s like a high-school hitter who’s been practicing against a 150 KMH pitching machine.

The results of the first game – a break at-love against Oobayashi’s serve – may seem like a shock (they certainly are to Oobayashi – and Ei-chan).  But while dramatized, the essential notion makes sense, for the very reasons Miura-san points out.  Ei-chan doesn’t have to generate power himself to return Oobayashi’s serves (fast, but nearly as much so as Takuma’s) with powerful returns, and in his understandable initial shock Oobayashi plays right into his hands.  It’s only when Ei-chan serves that the truth of the matter becomes clear, and Oobayashi deserves credit for seeing it and making the simple adjustment necessary to exploit Ei-chan’s inexperience.  Ei-chan is only able to muster a lollipop serve because he hasn’t been practicing it that much, and he can’t generate any pace on Oobayashi’s change-up serves.  The next five games are a whitewash in the experienced player’s favor.

Here again we see Ei-chan displaying a quality that serves him well as an athlete – not some WSJ superpower or level-up triggered by a childhood memory, but simple, ordinary perseverance.  Vision, persistence, resourcefulness, self-awareness – individually they’re unremarkable, but together – and to the degree this boy has them – they’re a powerful force both in the classroom and on the court.  The drive to understand never stops – and when it’s clear that the status quo offers no hope, Ei-chan looks for some way to at least change the dynamic enough to stay in points.  Notebook in-hand at the change-overs he breaks down his break-down and comes up with a very sensible strategy to make the best of things – aim for the middle of the court to give himself the widest margin for error (there’s another reason why this is a wise choice, but whether Ei-chan instinctively realizes it or is simply lucky is impossible to say), and just try and stay in the point for as long as he can.

Along the way, Ei-chan also realizes that his best hope is to rely on what he knows he can do well – observe and analyze – and discovers that his strengths can be used in a very specific and critical way on the tennis court.  But then, this is exactly why Miura suggested that Ei-chan play a tournament match before he was seemingly ready – not to worry about the result, but to put him in a position where he was forced to adapt and strategize, and see whether the spark of possibility he saw in Maruo was the real thing (obviously it is, or we wouldn’t have a series).  The real journey to becoming good at a sport is just as the title says, one of baby steps – but it’s incredibly rare that we see it depicted that way.  To whatever extent that survives the transition from manga to anime, it’s going to be one of the most fascinating we’ve seen in any sports series.

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15 comments

  1. M

    This was a telling episode. It mostly delivered, but it felt a bit contrived having Eiichiro take 5 loses before coming up with his bail out strategy (why not sooner?). Either way it should be interesting to see how it plays out. I'm not in too much opposition with general consensus about the side characters though. They are fine supporting – but have yet to show spark.

    Sad that Pierrot felt the need to install static Sims spectators, but at least the match itself looked good.

  2. M

    Enzo, do you use any tools to write your posts and upload images? I'm trying to upload a pack of images (3 per line like in your posts) but it's not working very well using bloggers official editor.

  3. I use Windows Live Writer for image manipulation. I've never found anything else that comes close, including anything that's available for Mac.

  4. S

    I have to say I am loving this series to far. Your first impressions post in RandomC gave me the nudge to try the first episode Enzo. For some reason, the opening moments of the first episode did it for me; that tense soundtrack, the look on Ei-chan's face… I knew I was looking at something special. It was the same feeling I got with Ginga e Kickock!! (although not on the very first moment I admit). Then came the lovely OP. Everything is clicking just perfectly for me so far. Thanks a lot Enzo for introducing me to such a great series – it's certainly shaping up to be one!

  5. Heh, interesting autocorrect moment there.

    Baby Steps is special, plain and simple. I was worried, but it's now plain that the direction and writing here is highly competent and that's making all the difference in making the adaptation work as a representation of the original.

  6. S

    Rofl, I just saw the autocorrect, hahah! It's clearly KickOFF!

  7. G

    I thought the animation is very well-done too. It'd be great if they continue to focus their budget on matches. A really exciting match. And i love that self-awareness when Ei-chan thought to himself, "I want to stay on the court for as long as possible."

  8. S

    I must only point out that when he was overcome by contradictory suggestions, Ei-chan underwent the phenomenon known as the "Gon brain explosion", with puff of smoke and all XD.

  9. t

    maybe with a more experienced and a better studio like IG or madhouse, animation during the game could've been better, well that's almost a given. but I am not complaining, it was fair enough for better or worse. and actually, the point in baby steps isn't showing some exhibition sports game or create tension only, but really take you one step at the time along with Ei-chan, develop the love of the game and feel what's this sports is really like – it's toughness, but why it's also feels so good. whether if you hit the perfect stroke that just clicked or perfect return, or even if you failed and trying to grasp what's going wrong. that's exactly baby steps. and they are doing it more than right can be.

    as for the time dimension. indeed 4 months passed by (in the manga). and Ei-chan progress is very realistic considering he starting really from 0 a few months ago and we can still see how he is struggling with stamina and endurance. unlike other sports shonen when this amount of time makes the characters extremely monsters. after all, Ei-chan isn't the type that just learn something after one time, he is sorta perfectionist, that's how it is if you wanna hit the ball precisely over and over again in a match. so, I really liked that, though 4 months period is a lot of time for practice, I'd be more happy if they were to show glimpses of the time, but nevermind much, really.

  10. H

    If I end up loving Tennis after this, I'll know the show has gone beyond and above it's duty to entertain. I feel shite I don't already, it runs very deep in the veins of my family but mostly on my mother's side. My grandfather was national championship level.

  11. S

    Good episode overall, and I completely agree with you about this just making me want to go out and play myself. Everything Maruo is going through here is just very relatable and a joy to watch. The only issue I had was just paying more attention to the inconsistent crowd than I should have. Some scenes the crowd behind Maruo would disappear and then be back next scene, and some of them would be clones of the people behind Oobayashi.

  12. N

    The ending theme caught me off guard, I was sure it was only half way through the episode.

  13. K

    lmao, the same. I even jumped up bit and went "that's it? Damn it".Very few shows actually have got me like this one did. This series is just really, really good.

  14. m

    After weeks of reading your posts, and discussing baby steps, I don't think anyone could possibly have put it better than you did at the beginning when you said "watching or reading Ei-chan experience the game of tennis fills me with the overwhelming desire to go out and play it myself right then and there". And I think that that is the true mark of a sports manga/anime/movie or whatever being great. If in watching you get reminded so closely of what it was like to be out there, that you feel the overwhelming urge to play yourself. Even if you don't have memories of playing that or any sport, if it can make you wish you were playing it then it's done it's job perfectly. I've watched shows where characters have fighting powers and thought "that'd be pretty awesome if you had powers", but never once did I have an urge to go fight evil or defend truth and justice. But every great sports manga/anime has always made me want to play THAT sport. Not even my sport, but the one from the material. I took a tennis elective in college, and it was fun and all, but I never have wanted to play tennis competitively so bad as when I read/watch Baby Steps.

  15. p

    I'm having completely the opposite reaction to most of the comments which makes me think it's time to drop this show. I love sports shows mostly for 2 things–lots of good character development/interactions and also the way they teach you about a sport in geeky, interesting ways. Primarily I want to begin to understand why a sport is so loved.
    The character thing is definitely not going to do it for me in Baby Steps. Except for Ei-chan, most of the others are interchangeable balls of blandness.
    But what really annoys me (because I really wanted to like this anime) is the way in which the sport is presented. Granted this comes from someone who just barely knows tennis and has only played a handful of times–but I'm just not getting explanations for the things that seem interesting. They explain the scoring (something even I know about) twice, but they fail to develop some of the most interesting stuff in organic ways. I perked up when the coach starting talking about having good eyes for different kind of movement, but they just didn't go anywhere with it, and they tend to "tell" things rather than show them. Also I wouldn't mind a bit more geekiness about the sport. When I think about a lot of the sports animes I've loved, I recall that they gave me all sorts of jargon and knowledge I didn't quite get, but it was fascinating. In Baby Steps, they give you glimpses and then don't seem to do much with it. It's fine to learn how many seconds you have before you have to start playing, but that's not really an interesting/unique part of the sport.
    Frankly, I find your recap and analysis of the show far more interesting than the show itself which is definitely a compliment to your writing, but it's not how I want to choose anime. Mostly I want to understand why people love the sport, and I'm not getting it from this show. Maybe I'll check out what you think at the end of the season since I generally agree quite a bit with your tastes, but there are so many interesting sports series out now, I can happily drop this one.

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