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.