Baby Steps – 06

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Baby Steps is still Baby Steps, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Before we begin, this seems like the right post to pass along congratulations to Nishikori Kei, who this week achieved a major milestone – he became the first Japanese man to break into the Top 10 in the ATP rankings.  Nishikori-san is 24 but broke onto the pro scene very early, winning his first tournament and making the Round of 16 at the U.S. Open at just 17 years old before bowing out to Juan Martin del Potro (who stands almost a foot taller).  It’s been, to coin a phrase, a journey of baby steps for “Project 45” (his nickname based on achieving what would be the then best-ever ranking for a Japanese male), who’s one of the smallest players on the men’s tour.  Omedettou gozaimasu on making history, Kei-san.

It’s been suggested by some that Nishikori was a model for Ei-chan (and also for another player we’ll presumably meet later), though mangaka Katsuki Hikaru (who’s obviously a huge tennis geek) denies he’s primarily based on any one player.  There are some broad similarities, most keenly that both are players renowned for their intelligence and work ethic and not gifted with great natural size or strength.  I tend to think of all of the major tennis characters in Baby Steps as broad archetypes rather than modeled on individuals, as I believe that’s how they’re written – but even in that context Eichirou is a pretty unique specimen.  He’s his own archetype.

It’s an unusual problem for me to have with any series, but avoiding giddiness is a major issue for me with Baby Steps right now.  The adaptation continues to be almost 100% on-point with the manga (six episodes, thirteen chapters) and I’m ecstatic for every moment that’s the case.  It’s a quandary – I neither want to focus on what seem to be inevitable future departures in order to conform to a 25-episode schedule or be falsely confident based on a lack of them, but simply to enjoy the faithfulness for as long as it lasts.  As much as I love this series (and that’s an awful lot) it isn’t an easy balance to maintain.

As it stands, it’s all good.  And as a former tennis player and a huge fan of sports anime, I’m re-living the experience of being stunned by just how good Baby Steps is.  I feel very much as if the audience is experiencing the tennis awakening right along with Ei-chan, and it’s a slow and deliberate process (fittingly so, given the title).  There are no miracles in his match with Oobayashi – he loses 6-1 (after breaking at love in the first game).  But as they say, the score doesn’t reflect how close the match was.  It ends up lasting 67 minutes because of Ei-chan’s ability to read Oobayashi’s shots, and he cements a reputation early on as a “pusher” – no, not someone peddling dope in the park, but a guy who acts as a “human backboard” getting everything back without trying for winners (for what it’s worth Brad Gilbert, who coached Nishikori for a year and helped him learn English with his endless yammering, was known as perhaps the greatest professional pusher ever on the men’s side).

This experience is very revealing both for Ei-chan, and about him.  He lacks the experience and understanding of the game to realize that he’s achieved something remarkable despite losing, but those around him – Nat-chan, Takuma (yes), Oobayashi and certainly Coach Miura realize it.  And Ei-chan also lacks the repertoire of skills to make good use of what he’s been able to achieve – he can read his opponent’s intentions, but not hit the ball back with any authority.  He’s extending the match, but he can’t actually string points together to win games.  But – and this is the critical reveal here – Ei-chan realizes this is what’s happening.  I’ve said it before, but Maruo’s self-awareness may be his most valuable ability.  He recognizes where the gap is – and knowing, as they say, is half the battle (in this case I’d argue even more).  And being who he is, this knowledge makes him want to figure out how to overcome the obstacle – so much so that he drags his tired body out to hit against the wall on the night of his loss despite the lure of steamed squash on the table and his Dad on the next train home.

I don’t want to wax poetic here, but I think there’s something truly profound and heartwarming in this element of Baby Steps.  Ei-chan isn’t a superman, but just a kid who has several traits which individually would mean little in a sport like tennis, but taken as a whole give him great ability.  He has the great dynamic vision that allowed him to spot his Dad on the train every night as he patiently waited for his return.  He has the patience and attention for detail to remember every stroke he hits and make a note of it.  He has the will and determination not to be crushed by losing – only disappointed – but rather to use it as motivation to get better.  And the self-awareness and intellectual curiosity to see his own strengths and weaknesses, and want to work on them both.  The most powerful moment of the episode in many ways is when Ei-chan sheepishly admits “I had fun” to his coach, because it says so much about who he is and what he’s experiencing for the first time.

Fortunately for Ei-chan (and almost all young athletes who achieve great success, I think) he has a very smart and insightful coach on hand for the start of his journey.  Miura has the eye to recognize Maruo’s great potential, sure, but I also love the way he talks to his pupil. He’s absolutely no BS – he tells Eichirou exactly what he thinks, encourages him and compliments him (Japanese coaches in general are way too spare with praise for child athletes, premised on their worry about their “ego” getting too big), without sparing him the harsh reality of just how much work will be required if Maruo wants to really get better.  “Good eyes don’t make you a good tennis player” he chides the boy when Ei-chan tries to attribute his surprising progress to that – and he’s right.  What Ei-chan has been doing via his note-taking, without realizing it, is making sure his practice isn’t simply repetition – it’s actually focused work that’s forcing him to get better (just as his dedicated study of the passing trains looking for his Dad was training his dynamic vision without his realizing it).

When Miura invites Maruo to Court 1 the next morning, it’s another baby step – a commitment from the man and the boy that this is a journey they both want to make.  And we meet some of the many faces Ei-chan will encounter along the way – Iwasa-kun, Miyagawa-kun, Araya-kun – all of them are memorable in their own right, but there’s time to discuss them when their spotlight moments come.  Competitive tennis can be a very small world, and the peculiarly individual nature of the game makes these kinds of relationships – and friendships – more intense than they would be in most sports.  And that, too, is a major part of the journey Ei-chan takes in Baby Steps.

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  1. m

    Every time I watch an ep of Baby Steps I keep wanting to watch the whole season of this show in a row. Maybe bc that's how I read the manga the first 2 times, but it's just so interesting that one ep isn't enough. Part of me wishes it had been given enough money to make it top animation quality, but that's mostly bc I wish it would have 100+ eps. My hope is that it somehow gains enough popularity to keep going at the proper pace, and still get the whole manga adapted.

  2. No disagreement here. I can live with the visuals, but I'd give a fair bit to see the whole manga (to date) adapted. Kickstarter?

  3. m


  4. t

    well…on-going sports manga always had it tough with that issue.
    Hajime no ippo is still going on and even the last season isn't close enough for what's going on in the manga and I hope in some point it will be adapted. but that's the problem today with only 2cours (3 at best in YP case or DnA rare case of 52 eps) what will be upon YP is also a mystery to me. and Chihahyfuru (is there enough material already? I really should continue reading it sometime). well, there are tons of others examples.

    I'd love to see a nice batch of episodes adapting the manga (of baby steps of course but other long sports like Ippo) the furthest. one problem is money of course. kickstarter for progressing project has more expenses than one-time kickstarter (LWA2 and Time of Eve). not to mention the problem of.."will this succeed?". and in the end of the day, the purpose here is to raise the manga sells. Hajime no ippo for example become established so we got more seasons and all, but still at some point, ongoing manga is hard to adapt continuously.

    what I'd like to get is a license for this manga. it's too bad that sports manga nowadays aren't getting license. only cross game, slam dunk and eyeshield 21 got (I think…maybe more). obviously all 3 are good and marked their way in sports genre, yet I'd like see some more.

  5. G

    Why do all these sports anime's have high school characters (first years no less) that look like they are in their late 20s to 30's? Ace Of Diamonds is the biggest offender but this series has some as well.Half the guys in AOD look like they are the Coach's age.

  6. Well, I would have said most of the characters in Baby Steps look age-appropriate myself. There is one main exception (we say him briefly this week) but it's even mentioned that he looks way too old to be a first-year high schooler.

    As to why there are in general? I don't really know. I don't think it's universal to all sports anime, and I'm not sure it's any more true than mainstream anime, which likewise has a lot of male characters who look much older than they're supposed to be.

  7. G

    for now, i'm only hoping that they end the anime on an open ended note that hints at a second season (: animation i can deal with

  8. p

    Are the secondary characters any better in the manga? They mostly haven't even reached the level of stereotypes. I find only Ei-chan interesting, and Natsu is particularly blandly presented as the perfect cute and nice girl. I keep thinking that it's primarily those of you who've read the manga who are so enamored of this anime so I'm assuming you're already aware of more of the interesting qualities of the other characters.

  9. If you currently see Natsu as the perfect cute and nice girl, the manga probably wouldn't matter. The anime has already hinted pretty strongly at her particular quirks.

  10. m

    I understand why you think the secondary characters are bland at this point, but understand that that's only because it's so early in the story. You're used to different pacing for 6 eps. Ei-chan just had his first match ever. And lost. The reason the secondary characters "haven't even reached the level of stereotypes" is because they aren't stereotypes. They just haven't had enough screen time to be fleshed out yet.
    If you are finding the pacing too slow I'd say give it a cpl more eps because now that he's reached court 1 you'll start to get to know these other characters better. But if you think it's boring because you don't like the pacing at all then you should just drop the show. Enzo ha said it countless times, but it's called Baby Steps for a reason. If you do stick it out though I guarantee you'll be glad you did. The secondary characters are not only deep, but it's not just about how they are interesting as individuals, but how interacting with them makes Eiichiro reflect on himself, his approach to tennis, and well I'll leave it there bc I don't want to spoil things.
    As far as Natsu is concerned I don't see how you could call her the perfect cute and nice girl. She isn't mean, but she isn't nice in a way that you won't find in real life people. Enzo wasn't exaggerating when he said the manga is one of the best of any genre ever. It's not a great story for those who like tennis or sports stories. It's a great story for people who like great stories that just happens to be about tennis. I said before that I hate tennis, (though I guess that's not accurate seeing as how I love sports so much that I don't hate Tenis as much as people who don't like sports do) but baby Steps is so good that it being about Tennis didn't take anything away from my enjoyment. The only conceivable way someone would dislike this story is if you don't like stories about realistic people. If you want a perfect group of people or an insanely flawed group of people than yeah, this isn't for you.

  11. m

    Just in case this is considered a spoiler I'll put it alone so you can delete it, but Natsu is interesting for the ways that she's the opposite of Ei-chan. Notice their approach to studying in the beginning, her reaction to his notes, or how careless and sloppy she was in handling his notebook. And her lack of consideration of what she said to him about his notes isn't mean, but no one that clueless about being rude could be considered overly nice.

  12. p

    Thanks, Maverickmann–that's quite helpful. I'm just kind of trying to figure out what people love about this; I think the last episode was probably my favorite so far so I will stick with it a little longer. I completely don't mind the slow pacing quality. I would be happy with it going much slower, in fact, with more analysis of the game and how Ei-chan's good eyesight or notes are helping him. I know very little about tennis so it's seems a bit unrealistic to me that he would be able to take detailed note of everywhere the ball went. Plus, I don't quite see how that helps him, and I'd love if they'd spend more time on that.
    I'm happy to hear you admit the characters are a bit bland at this point. Then I'll trust they will develop a bit more deeply. I'm probably especially sensitive to the way females are depicted in sports animus since they're so underrepresented, they take on an exaggerated importance. So I will root for Natsu to continue to be a bit inconsiderate! She's obviously a kind of foil for Ei-chan, and I really like the sports animes in which the characters interactions are the focus so I'll stick with it.

  13. m

    The way that his eyes help is in seeing how someone is standing and how they are swinging. This helps tell what kind of shot they will hit. I won't use the terminology but think of it as being able to know if they will hit it left, right, hard, slow, high, curve, or whatever. The notes help the same way pro tennis players will watch game film of their upcoming opponents. You see what type of strategies they employ, and what type of shots they hit most often. It helps come up with a good strategy against them. There's also the fact that bc he's the type of guy who would take intricate notes in class and study hard that makes him well suited for spending countless hours training. I always hated a good portion of practice, and everyone I've ever known who played sports hated at least aspects of it. But you do it bc you have to, and Ei-chan can do repetitive ball hitting without losing focus. That helps a lot when trying to improve. Sports is essentially repetition and body memory. You do these motions countless times until it becomes instinct.
    I think what people love about Baby Steps is the realism. And that the characters are all genuinely likable and realistic as well. You don't get that in very many sports shows/manga/movies.

  14. m

    Enzo, do you ever wish you didn't read the manga first when watching the anime? I haven't yet, but I think when the story progresses to a certain point (I think you know what I mean) that I'll wish I could be watching it without knowing what's going to happen. Which is weird seeing as how much I love the manga.

  15. It's always that way whenever a beloved (fill in blank "A" here) gets adapted into a (fill in blank "B" here). Sure, I do sometimes – I think I enjoyed the first season of GoT in a special way because I hadn't read the book. But there's a different sort of pleasure in seeing what you love come to life on-screen, as long as it's a good adaptation.

  16. m

    That's true, though sometimes I think I would enjoy things more if I hadn't read the orginal material. I grew up reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books. They were the first real books I read, and when they were adapted I ended up not being that big of a fan of them. Same with the Toby Maguire Spider-man movies. I read the comics regularly and that adaptation was off so bad that I thought Sam Rami never read even one issue of Spider-man. Though I think it's not as hard for manga/comics to be adapted bc you basically have the dialogue/storyboards written for you already. Books are tougher because you always have a way you expect the world and characters to look and sound based on how you've imagined it. With manga/comics you get the visuals in advance so that part is always spot on.

  17. Z

    I can't help but to point this out… There is this rift that is caused by the differences of approach when watching new shows when you have/haven't read the source material; like this season, it is prevalent with Mahouka and Mekaku City Actors.

    Though with Baby Steps, I can say you're not missing out on much because the anime has been quite faithful to the manga so far. I just really hope they keep this pace consistent, and not get ruined as it nears the ending.

  18. m

    I stopped watching Mahouka when it went into that weird nonsense of Japanese elitism. That whole "live in a world where everyone is treated equally? that's not right bc the elite are elite for a reason" mentality is just plain retarted. And I found the sister equally annoying.
    I read some of the Mekaku City Actors manga, but stopped when I heard the anime was coming out. Have both of these shows been really different?

  19. Z

    Well, I haven't read any of the source materials of the two anime titles that I mentioned and this is not really the place to discuss that…

    Let's just say that those who have read the original source aren't satisfied with their adaptation counterparts (according to the comments I've read).

  20. Z

    Here's hoping that Nishikori can overcome his injury as he's already shown that he can stand his ground against the top players in the ATP. He's still young and has a very bright future.

    Also, I think it's safe to say that Araya is modeled after a certain "King of Clay", being a baseliner who can chase down balls, and having a strong upper body.

  21. N

    That scene with Maruo watching the train passing was a real throw back to Cross Game, in reverse.

  22. M

    That's all folks. It's an alright show (easily better than BONES' show), but falls short of enjoyment. Maybe in a weaker season I'd stick around, but between joyless exposition and passive execution there's not much gain from a weekly viewing.

    Might say I'll revisit it later if time permits. (;

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