Baby Steps – 10

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You can skip the well drinks – that was top-shelf stuff right there, the good stuff.

This episode of Baby Steps was awesome every day and twice on Sundays, and since it’s Sunday that means it was even more awesome.  As I said last week, it was very obvious that things were kicking into another gear – that Ei-chan had reached a critical time in his development, and that things were about to change in a significant way.  And this episode did a fantastic job of bringing that to life, really capturing the same inspirational tone these chapters in the manga bring to the table.

Am I biased?  Of course – we’re always biased in favor of the shows we love.  But for me, this ep represents everything that’s exceptional about Baby Steps specifically and sports series generally, and you can’t ask for more out of an episode of a sports anime than that.  It was character-driven, with an interesting opponent and action sequences that were highly realistic.  It perfectly captures the essence of why Maruo is the character he is (and for me, why I love him so much as a main character) and what makes tennis such a unique sport.  And as someone who played tennis, it completely transported me to those moments on the court where you’re in the position Maruo was in against Miyagawa, to an almost eerie degree.

Of course, most of that praise is actually praise for the writing, which is basically the manga – what really pleases me is that the execution of the episode itself was excellent.  The animation was quite decent by this show’s modest (let’s just leave it there) standards, the acting was spot-on, and the music placement and shot composition during the match were excellent.  Tennis is a dynamic sport and thus both very difficult and potentially very exciting as a subject for anime, and in this instance I actually liked the match sequence better in the anime version than the manga (which is high praise).

One of the things you notice in Baby Steps is that people tend to be drawn to watching Ei-chan play tennis, despite his seemingly rather orthodox and not remotely flamboyant style.  Part of that is simply that this is his show, of course, and the camera goes where he goes, but there’s something about his dogged, relentless tenacity that’s really compelling.  Even Takuma, while he never stops putting down Ei-chan’s talent, can’t help but watch him. But there are limits to how far that can take you, and this is what Ei-chan has been learning in his last few tournaments.  As Miura-kantoku says, he lacks a specialty, a winning stroke – jack of all trades, master of none.  You can do things the way you’re comfortable doing them and improve consistently, up to a point – and for Ei-chan that’s repetition, analysis, and being competent in every stroke.  But sooner or later you always run into someone against whom that’s just not enough.

For many reasons this match is really Ei-chan’s crucible, and his arrival.  Miyagawa is a perfect opponent, both strategically and narratively.  He’s not an enemy for us to hate – he’s a genuinely nice guy and a very good player who himself has gotten as far as he has through hard work, and a spirited match against a worthy opponent makes great dramatic fodder.  He’s also a guy who’s clearly better than Ei-chan but not so overpowering as to make the cause hopeless – he too relies on control and consistency, but he supplements it with considerably more power and spin than Ei-chan is able to generate.  He doesn’t give Maruo any easy targets to shoot at and he doesn’t bail him out with a lot of unforced errors.  He’s in effect a better version of Maruo himself – which forces Maruo to evolve or face another third-round defeat.  And as we see, the frustration at those defeats has been building in him to the point where he’s willing to go against his instincts, and start doing some reckless things.

As his friends and coach watch (I LOL’d at Shimono Hiro doing triple-duty here as Yukichi – very secure in his masculinity in a pink t-shirt with a heart on it – the chair umpire and Miyagawa’s dad) Maruo manages to hold serve repeatedly to take the match to 3-4, mostly through sheer persistence and by the skin of his teeth.  But he’s scraping by and Miyagawa is cruising, and Maruo sees an oddity in his notes he can’t explain – his opponent is using every stroke in equal measure in his return games.  The answer is obvious to the experienced players watching – Miyagawa, veteran that he is, is using his return games to take chances and analyze his opponent’s (who he’s never played) strengths and limitations – both for use in this match and potential future matches (as we see, Maruo is generating a bit of buzz by now).  But Maruo being the exceptionally smart boy he is finally puts the pieces together, and realizes that he’s staring at his Waterloo with Miyagawa likely ready to move in for the kill.

Maruo takes a time violation warning here (very much in-character for this obsessively analytical kid) but crafts a desperation strategy in the heat of the moment – if he can’t beat Miyagawa off the ground, change the pace up and serve-and-volley.  It’s born out of frustration at continually hitting his head on this glass ceiling and wanting to break it any way he can, and it takes guts to adopt a style he’s not comfortable with.  But it’s the right thing to do, and it does something very important – it forces Miyagawa to react to him, rather than the other way around.  And while there are hiccups, the same sharp eyes Ei-chan can use in rallies serve him well as he studies where his opponent is likely to try and pass him.  For a game at least, he manages to throw Miyagawa off his rhythm and holds at 30 to level the match at 4-4.

My favorite part of this moment is Miyagawa’s reaction – he’s clearly surprised, but rather than get angry he smiles, and it’s not a fake smile.  This is the first time in the match something genuinely surprising has happened, and Miyagawa realizes a new and interesting player has made a statement that he’s someone that bears watching.  As a competitor this is welcome news, and clearly Miyagawa isn’t worried that he’s actually going to lose – it just means he has to make an adjustment now to reassert his dominance.  It’s the cat-and-mouse nature of tennis, and it means Ei-chan has genuinely leveled up – the best kind of level-up, not accomplished through a “special move” but through his own persistence, cleverness and self-belief.  It’s a perfect illustration of why when it comes to sports series that actually care about the sports, Baby Steps and Ei-chan are about as good as it gets.

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  1. m

    This really was the episode I was waiting for. I've loved the adaptation so far, but having read the manga as many times as I have, the beginning parts lose a lot of the intrigue. But you said it perfectly that "it was very obvious that things were kicking into another gear – that Ei-chan had reached a critical time in his development". It's finally hitting the stride of Ei0chans true decent into tennis, and that really is the best Baby Steps has to offer (not that any part is don't less than perfect IMHO). Aside from all the qualities that make Ei-chan a flat out decent and lovable human being, I've always personally identified in the way he approaches tennis. I never played the game seriously, but his approach to tennis was my approach to baseball. I'd call him the Greg Maddux of tennis. He isn't going to overpower you or intimidate you with his power or skill at one specific thing, but he has this calm analytical approach to the game, and the control necessary to succeed with that style of play. There's something so likable about someone that has talent, but not in that typical Lebron James freak of nature sort of way, working to be the best even though they aren't naturally gifted. Naturally gifted people have to work their asses off too, in order to succeed at sports (which is another reason sports are so amazing), but it's always great to see the "everyman" find a way to win out of sheer desire, determination, and realistic hard work. Not from some level jump or from naturally being skilled, but from using the parts they were born with, Intelligent players always seem easier to connect with. Randy Johnson was a lefty with an obscenely fast fastball, (and other incredible pitches) but Maddux just worked batters over with control and pitch types. He couldn't overpower anyone, if he had those pitches maybe he would never have been the pitcher he was, but he used his intelligence and hard work to gain the control and the variation that allowed him to fool hitters so consistently. Naturally gifted athletes rarely turn out to be the type to specialize in the strategy aspects of sports. Ei-chan isn't Takuma, but he uses what he does have to gain things Takuma never will. Takuma will never have the strategic sense and analytical ability Ei-chan has, not because he can't, but because he will never need to. It's Ei-chan's lack of physical gifts that make him so interesting, and require him to work as hard as he does.

  2. I like the Maddux comparison, but for a slightly different reason. Maddux was so smart and so cagey that he was often shortchanged on his sheer talent – which was considerable. He could hit 95 his first few years in the league and he was a fantastic hitter and baserunner as well. Ei-chan is likewise shortchanged (if I had a dollar for every moronic "he has no talent" comment I've seen about him) because he too is so smart and diligent.

  3. m

    Yeah that's dumb when people say Ei-chan is talentless. It would defeat the purpose of a realistic sports manga if the MC had no talent. But it's not the athletic gift that Takuma and some others who haven't shown up yet have. His eyesight, for one, is a high level natural gift, but his lack of size or speed makes him have to rely on his high level analytical and strategic abilities. Which is the type of player I've always personally liked best, and a huge part of what makes Ei-chan more relatable than say a Hinata from Haikyuu. Hinata is tiny, but has absurd athletic skills. So much so that they had to make him short or it would be boring story about the best volleyball player in Japanese history.

  4. Z

    I know this is an anime (of a manga) so definitely not everything is realistic, but I can't help but point out Miyagawa's two-handed slice. Hahahaha, it's an awkward and quite difficult stroke to accomplish.

  5. But by no means impossible or unheard of. And for a guy who spend his whole life training to succeed on a "rainbow" of different groundies, not unrealistic.

  6. Z

    Yep, I'm quite aware that it's not impossible, though I haven't really seen someone do it yet (just read about it somewhere).

    Actually one thing (if not the most) that makes me like Baby Steps so much is how it manages to stay so entertaining without getting too far out from the borders of realism, being a shounen sports manga and all.

  7. R

    To me, episode 8 is still the best. I like Baby Steps more when the focus is on Ei-chan. I like it when it's focusing on Ei-chan's journey. I like this episode better than the last. The best part, to me, is when Ei-chan cried — just a couple of tears made Ei-chan more human than he's ever presented. I find that pretty neat. I would be a little surprised if Ei-chan wins, to be honest. Yes, he worked hard for the past year, but so did other players for not only the past year but many years. For Ei-chan to win, there needs to be some sort of a believable miracle, and I'm wanting and waiting to see that.

    I'm going to say something that you probably don't like…please don't hate me. I'm disappointed at Natchan as a character. When Baby Steps was announced, I was pretty excited to see that there's a female player. She probably was way better presented in the manga but not so much in the adaptation. I have been patience, but all that she has been presented is just another cute and genki girl that Baby Steps is as great without. This episode is pretty obvious. She's supposed to be a top-seeded player, but all she did was asking the questions like she didn't know tennis — pretty much like the little girl that Yuuki-kun brought along. I know that she's more of a feeling and intuitive type of player, but an intuitive person is better at sensing the non-verbal hints and the flow of the game than asking those dumbed-down questions. It's such a lost opportunity character-wise. The worst part, to me, is the soulless performance of her seiyuu — or Kotobuki-san is probably given the cue to make Natchan like another cute and genki girl, and that's it. I probably will be bashed by fans of the show, but Natchan, to me, is a distraction — on the verge of destruction — to my overall appreciation of the show. Sorry that this is not something that pleases, and I wish that I can share some honest thoughts…

  8. m

    I don't think she's been that way so far, but I will say she hasn't had much screen time yet. Her story gets more in depth, but she remains basically the same person she is now. If you feel that way you prob won't change that opinion. She isn't the intuitive type, but more the instinctual type. Like most natural gifted athletes she can dominate with her athleticism and therefor never focuses too much on developing a strategy that changes in match or even between shots. More of a my body knows where to hit it. Imagine trying to understand how Lebron James does what he does. Not on a "hes athletic" level, but on a specific basketball skills and mindset level. You can't unless you're like him. She struggles equally to imagine how Ei–chan plays the way he does.

    I agree that seeing Eiichiro cry after losing really is the first stand out moment where you really get on his side with tennis. It's the first time you see him start to care so much about it, and it makes you start to care too. If you prefer the in between match stuff (I do many times as well) don't worry bc that never goes away. It's not like now all you'll see is matches, but that now there's more time devoted to serious matches. Even the manga skipped through most of the meaningless first 2 rounds in this tourney.

  9. p

    I completely agree with you, Ronbb, Natchan is a really disappointing character, and she's really annoying in this episode. "Huh?" seemed to be her most frequent comment. It's nothing to do with her being an "instinctual" type; you would have no idea that she's as good a player as she is from her sideline comments. So far even when we see her playing tennis, it's for the purpose of hearing the males around her say how good and cute she is. Maybe later on they'll involve other female tennis players or describe one of her opponents in detail, but right now she seems to be there as the perky, supportive female. Her voice actor is also really annoying I agree. But why do you have to be so apologetic in your comment? From reading around online, I know Enzo has the reputation of having blinders on when it comes to his favorite series and almost never saying anything critical about them, but surely commenters on the blog can say reasonably critical things without fear of getting bashed.
    By the way, I finally started the manga to see why people like this show so much since I really haven't been impressed with the anime, and actually I love it. I can see why you think it's great though I think these last 2 episodes are where it's finally getting into the interesting stuff. Calling it "Baby Steps" seems a bit of a misnomer really. It's done a year of time in about 5 episodes when most sports anime go much slower. I was thinking this series was going to show someone learning tennis in Baby Steps, but it's more like "Leaping Strides." Something like Slam Dunk went much slower with learning the sport itself, and for every step forward there was a step back (not that I like that anime). And frankly, I think I prefer the genre of the manga for the strengths of this type of story. It kind of matches the way Eichan works to be able to have full page charts of his notebooks that you can study, and all the information about the various characters that he plays. I think I'll just read the manga since Natchan is a little less annoying in it although she is often shown in super cutesy poses and on her knees with her mouth open.

  10. Well, let me carefully wade in on Nat-chan a bit. I disagree with Maverick that you've seen everything she has to offer – I think she actually changes a lot, and her role does grow. I also think her seiyuu is fine. Maruo is the main character – it never stops being his story. But she's very important.

    The thing is, I think there's a lot more to her than the detractors say, and I think the anime has done enough to suggest that. But it may be that's because I've read the manga, so it worries me that if I get into a discussion on that, it's spoiling. So I'd better not.

    The mangaka here is a fan of the Meyers-Briggs test I'd bet – very interested in the four personality indicators. Eichan and Natchan are a sort of living example of this idea. I'll leave it at that. I think if people dismiss her as just another dumb anime girl, it's because being inundated with them has made jaded viewers expect them by default.

  11. m

    I guess I shouldn't have said that you've seen everything of Natsu, but that she doesn't change in regards to her general disposition and the type of person she is. She is realisticly nice. She, like everyone in Baby Steps, is a realistic person. I don't think she's "genki" or any of the other things people have said about her. She's definitely not another dumb anime girl. But if you don't like her personality now, I don't think you'll change your opinion when you see her story fleshed out bc she doesn't become meaner.

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