Baby Steps – 08

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I know I’ve said it before, but this is one series where the title is absolutely truth in advertising.

I feel like a parent sometimes when I’m dealing with adaptations of manga that I especially love.  When my kid goes out into the world I want everybody to love them, but it doesn’t always work that way.  And I know that with Baby Steps there are going to be episodes that seem like a hard sell to a cynical audience, and this is one.  The animation and art quality is subpar.  And it ventures into ground that Baby Steps does better than any sports series I know, but isn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser – the reality that development in a sport is just as much about the setbacks as the triumphs.  And not the spectacular, sentimental kind either – heartbreaking, tear-filled losses in the big game – just spirit-sapping, exhausting struggles to break through walls that stubbornly refuse to be breached.

This is the reality of Baby Steps – in sports manga terms, it epitomizes the notion that what’s important is the journey, not the destination.  That’s why the pacing of the manga is such a critical component to its success and, by extension, why I was so worried when it was announced as 25 episodes.  But so far the anime is adapting the manga with fundamentalist fervor – two chapters per episode, like clockwork, with almost no changes.  And next week’s episode is guaranteed (trust me, it’s a lock based on the premise) to continue this trend, taking the series past the 1/3 mark in the process.  I’m beginning to suspect that we’re going to get a faithful adaptation for as much of the manga as the anime can squeeze in, followed by a time-skip (and maybe a big one) before the final couple of episodes, which will be original (though written by the mangaka) material.  It’s only a guess, but I’m struggling to find any other scenario that makes sense.

In real-world terms what Maruo-kun has accomplished is actually quite exceptional – in only a year from picking up a tennis racquet, he’s already winning a couple of matches in most of the prefectural tournaments he enters.  But that still leaves us with episodes like this one, where we see him lose over and over.  Where are our miracles?  Well, already winning matches at all at this level is pretty much a miracle, but sooner or later you run into seeded players – that’s how it works.  And one of the lessons of Baby Steps is that there are limits to how far you can progress via any one path – be it filling out notebooks or hitting against a wall.

Likewise (and this is more obvious to me now as I’m seeing it play out on-screen) the personal side of the story is about baby steps too, and in fact I think Katsuki-sensei is in fact drawing an intentional parallel.  We see a lot of seemingly inconsequential things in this episode – Ei-chan calling Natsu “Nat-chan” for the first time, or admitting that he wanted to invite her to Hatsumode – just as the triumphs on the tennis court seem small.  But the people who know Ei-chan well – Kageyama-kun and the Kaichou, Sasaki-san (who obviously has a crush on him) see this things and note how much he’s changed in the last year.  Kageyama, in fact, even directly connects these changes – and he’s right.  The changes off the court are a direct result of the role tennis has assumed in Ei-chan’s life.

In fact, I would even point to Ei-chan’s “decline” in class rank as a sign of growth.  He’s fallen to sixth place, but that’s out of his entire grade, and he’s managed to do that while prioritizing tennis and studying on his own instead of going to cram school.  He’s grown up enough to confront his mother’s skepticism (that’s a recurring theme) and fight for the path he’s chosen, and fortunately she’s a reasonable enough parent to realize that as teenage children go, she’s still far ahead of the game with this one.  Tennis especially is a sport that’s notorious for nightmarish parents who push their kids relentlessly, but the danger in her case is the other extreme – the notion of any child pursuing athletics as a career is foreign to her, most especially her model-student son.  But if any kid ever earned the right to say “I’m responsible enough to make all this work”, Ei-chan is that kid.

All this leads us to the title of the episode, “One Year and Twenty Notebooks”.  Nat-chan beams like a proud parent as she watches Maruo practice relentlessly, and tells Takuma “If he keeps that up he could be a threat to you soon” (pretty much impossible not to read a little extra into that one).  Nat-chan is now “Nat-chan” on a full-time basis (though not without a hiccup or two along the way).  And Ei-chan is winning matches – but usually the third round (and the seeded player usually waiting there) is the wall.  He’s well on his way to becoming a player whose strength, in Miura’s words, “is that he has no weaknesses”.  That’s all good – but there’s something missing, yet.

The next episode does indeed mark an important one-year anniversary, the return of the Kanagawa Circuit.  All of the big names are waiting there, and the gap still seems wide.  For Ei-chan there’s new muscles, new confidence in talking to people (even girls, even ones he likes), new fitness (5K every morning before school) even a bit of respect (“Be careful with that guy – he’s relentless”) as a developing pusher.  But if athletic success is like genius 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, it still needs that 1% – like the catalyst in a chemical reaction.  Looking for it is a big part of the story of Baby Steps, and it’s one that we haven’t focused on much so far – but that’s about to change.

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  1. S

    One thing that bothered me about this episode however was the many off-model shots. I guess that was an effect of budget cutting for the sake of future, more animation intensive episodes ( = matches) but really, it wasn't pretty at all.

  2. Well, that's why I said "animation and art was subpar" so I hardly think I was glossing over it. It was a rough week visually, no question – the budget for this series is obviously pretty small (like Kingdom) so the margin for error is effectively nil.

    It really makes you wonder if Pierrot is basically getting shows by underbidding everyone in the industry. They still do stuff that looks pretty good (Soredemo is right up their alley, and fine) but they sure don't produce stuff with the same standard they once did.

  3. S

    Never said you were glossing over it, just stating the one thing that struck me the most ^^. Actually, while watching I thought they were doing something like compressing many manga chapters in a single episode for the sake of jumping back to the action again, it was all so fast it felt like a timeskip. I was afraid they were cutting material, luckily it seems that wasn't the case.

  4. m

    It really is a shame that something as popular as Baby Steps manga couldn't get a big name studio to produce it. I undertand why, but it just feels like the mangaka or whoever has final say in it waited the perfect amount of time to start the anime adaptation. At least in terms of if they wanted to adapt the whole thing in one go. I imagine since the anime is paced properly, that the manga would end almost simultaneously with the anime. I feel like Tennis might be the best sport to have high quality animation for the game scenes. The fact that it's so much more fast paced than other sports, and the many different types of shots would lend itself perfectly to this format. Since you won't be seeing any hockey anime ever, Tennis feels like the one that should get the big budget.Volleyball is working nicely in Haikyuu, but I think Tennis would make the best action scenes. Soccer and baseball don't fit the bill as well, though they dove have their moments.

  5. S

    I'm a fencer and would love to see an anime devoted to that sport, which I think can be pretty spectacular too if seen from up close and with due slo-mo applied (if you're outside the match it's much harder to understand wth is going on). But the only anime I remember seeing fencers in is Revolutionary Girl Utena, and that wasn't exactly *sports*.

  6. m

    You know what, that would make a really awesome anime. It's a completely different fighting style than Kendo, and you don't see it often in anime. I don't know if there's ever been a true Kendo sports anime, not just an anime that includes Kendo. Plus the fencing matches (are they called matches?) would make for great action scenes. Though the risk is that they go off on some supernatural flips and stuff to make it "more interesting". I don't think you need superpowers to make a fight interesting, when choreographed well, a realistic sword fight scene is great to watch.

  7. S

    We call them "bouts" usually :). But yeah, there's definitely lots of potential – it is, in fact, a rather brainy sport, though someone has a more "brute force" approach (that is, hammer you with his sword so hard your hand simply loses the proper grip on the handle and then go in for the kill). But I could totally see it as being slowed down, HunterXHunter style, with the two fencers thinking about the respective tactics and trying to deceive each other, because that's basically what it all is about – lure the adversary in, discover his flaws or his bad habits and exploit them, and surprise him. I guess it's just not a very popular sport in Japan though.

  8. There was some fencing in Sankarea…

  9. m

    I think fencing isn't relevant in Japan bc of Kendo. Japanese swords and swordfighting styles are much different than European ones, so I don't think that ever was really picked up there. You can't really fence with a katana. I don't even know if Japan has any hockey at all. I know there's American football, but no hockey on any significant scale anyways. And that'll mean none of it in anime anytime soon. Not sports anime anyway, you're best bet is like Enzo mentioned: a random scene in a non sports anime.

  10. m

    I can't go to any other site to discuss Baby Steps. This is the only anime where I've taken it personally when people have bashed it. It's like I took part in making it. I avoid getting into discussions about Baby Steps other places, but here I know the only people commenting, (for the most part)and writing the entry are fans of the show.
    It sucks knowing that it likely will end at cour 2, and it's likely that it'll have an anime original ending. One that was rushed ahead so they can get an ending of sorts. I guess Pierrot would be to blame, due to not putting enough cash into the adaptation? Though I think that, even with a big enough budget, the show would've had trouble pulling people in because of the pacing of the material. Maybe I should blame the anime fans with no attention span, and no appreciation for things with true subtlety and depth (silver spoon comes to mind). Or really, at it's core, the one I should blame is you Enzo. You went and used up all of your luck to make Hoozuki no Reitetsu a big seller despite being one of your season to picks, and now Baby Steps goes on the long list of Anime you love that for whatever reason don't sell very well.

  11. m

    Credit to Haikyuu though for managing to take a sports anime, and mix in enough elements that people outside of sports genre fandom enjoy, to make it popular while being a solid realistic (mostly) story. Maybe baby Steps needs more bishounen, bc somehow KuroBas got 50+eps. I was told that in KuroBas you get in "the zone" by falling underwater and opening a door (all in your mind) that puts you in a literal state called "the zone", and now there's a second zone deeper than the first zone. When I heard that I threw up in my mouth a little. It's really disrespectful (unintentionally obviously) to the game of Basketball, and sports in general, to makes a sports manga all WSJish. And makes it all the more annoying that someone like Hikaru Katsuki, who clearly adores Tennis and treats it with the utmost respect, can't get their works to have the same popularity. When the author of a sports manga loves that sport, you can really tell right away in the writing. It's not even just in the technical knowledge they put in the manga, but just in the way the whole thing is approached. Just like in a good romance you can feel the authors own feelings and experiences being expressed in the writing, you get the same feel from a well written sports manga. Every single page in Baby Steps is just filled with the respect, admiration, and love that Katsuki-sensei has for Tennis. It's a shame that it isn't going to be rewarded as much as it deserves to be in anime format. Hopefully it'll increase the manga sales though, because it's undeniably not only a sports masterpiece, but also one of the (if not the) best/most important fiction sports stories ever told. If you don't know why people like sports, or what the people who dedicate themselves to sports get out of it, and why they devote so much of their life to it Baby Steps has the answer to that.

  12. Yes, appealing to female fans as KuroBas does is the way to succeed with disc sales. Haikyuu appeals to the exact same crowd with a much less ridiculous storyline, and Yowapeda is a nice hybrid. But series like Baby Steps, Daiya no A and Major have nothing to apologize for because they are very successful – they sell lots of manga. They just don't happen to be the sorts of shows that sell a lot of discs when they get adapted.

  13. g

    Well, if there was be a little better animation, it would help. But I don't know what's with these old school sport manga, (and I'm not sure, how will be with the Baby Steps) but an anime of Diamond no Ace can't maintain a tension like the manga counterpart for me.

  14. I can only say I don't have that issue – Daiya, for example, is working great for me. And the animation is quite solid, too.

  15. m

    I think anime works better as a medium for baseball than manga because of the way it adds a sense of realism to the game. Baseball can be slow at times, and watching the characters in motion can have pauses without feeling like unrealistic passages of time. It can give the tension and feeling of a real game's passage of time. Not to mention the fact that nothing compares to watching a pitcher wind up and throw. Drawings can't completely capture the entire essence of that.

  16. I

    Not a big fan of huge timeskips like what happen here, but at least it was not anime only. But yeah, still good.

  17. p

    I'm still hanging in with this anime (despite having not read the manga) mostly because of the comments on this blog. I still am not happy with the characters and the dialogue–bland just is the word that first pops into my mind when I think of this anime. But I do appreciate more the way it is focused on the sport first and foremost and not the drama or the romantic relationships. But even with that, I wasn't too happy with this episode. I'd like it to even go slower if that's going to be its thing. I would have been happy to lose the scene at the shrine and seen more of what he's thinking as he's trying to improve.

  18. R

    Baby Steps isn't going to be for everyone. It never was going to be. I can see how certain people would find the route takes to be bland compared to the action filled process of most other sports anime (not just WSJ ones, but traditional ones like Daiya no Ace as well)

    To be fair, if you don't enjoy it now I'm not sure that you're opinion will change since the series is consistent if nothing else. Its very insistent on building up the journey with tiny blocks and baby steps, which is going to turn some people off of it. I can't say there's anything wrong with that, but just know that its going to probably stay this way for the whole run

  19. I would tend to agree here. The fundamental approach doesn't change much. If someone finds Maruo bland now (which I find unimaginable, but there you go) I think it's very unlikely Baby Steps is ever going to click with them.

  20. g

    I don't know why but something was amiss with this episode. In an episode's form felt… rushed. o_O'

    I have to tell you, thanks to you I couldn't stand it and have to read the manga (I planned it earlier, because I had heard the manga is great but it has been on by-stand). In two days I've red 190+ chapters. It feels great.

  21. Z

    iMangaScans has been releasing chapters quite regularly lately. And seriously, you will really just begin to appreciate the seemingly slow start of Ei-chan's progress when you reach the later parts of the manga.

  22. B

    It's a shame that the animation isn't better considering that the character designer, masayuki kouda, is one of the best animators Pierrot has. Maybe they'll have him animate some scenes further down the line.

  23. N

    I'm surprised at how much everyone seem to be supportive of Ei-chan's awkward courting of Nat-chan.

  24. Z

    He's not really courting Nat-chan though. He hasn't even openly realized yet that he likes her I think.

  25. Why surprised?

    I think romantic feelings are a rare blind spot for Ei-chan, but their development is also an important storyline. And I do think he's aware on some level that he's developed feelings for her.

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