As spectacular a crowd-pleaser as last week’s episode of Baby Steps was, this one was every bit as true a representation of what this series is, and why it’s the equal of any sports manga out there. I suppose its my nature to be greedy, but even getting good news like we got about Diamond no Ace today (and earlier about Yowamushi Pedal) makes me want more – I so desperately want to see this series fully adapted into anime, because my head practically explodes when I think about how much truly great stuff there is to come in Baby Steps. This is not a series of peaks and valleys – it’s a straight-up build, and it moves unidirectionally for its entire run. Baby Steps just never stops getting better, and it still hasn’t.
Make no mistake, I am grateful for a lot here. It’s so rare that any anime I like succeeds well enough to receive a continuation that getting one for Yowapeda and Daiya is fantastic. And I need look no further than Barakamon to understand what it feels like to have a source material you adore materially diminished by changes in adaptation. Baby Steps is tragically short and sadly underbudgeted (though the tennis animation is seriously on the uptick) but it’s resolutely faithful to the story it’s telling. Abbreviated its run may be, it’s taking no short-cuts with the material and I give huge credit to Murata Masahiko and Pierrot for realizing that such cheats would doom the show utterly. No anime has ever been more accurately titled than Baby Steps and if it had been reduced to giant leaps it would have collapsed like a house of cards.
The story of Baby Steps has effectively been building up to this moment from the very beginning – it is indeed the starting line. There’s an episode of Seirei no Moribito called “Chagum’s Resolution” and this one could easily have been called “Ei-chan’s Resolution” because that’s what really matters here – the firm resolve in Ei-chan’s mind that yes, he does indeed want to go pro. And that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Because this is Baby Steps and not a normal sports anime convincing his family isn’t a speed bump on the path to glory, but a very real and crucial part of the story – and it will continue to be.
The catalysts for this are many, of course – the resolve of Araya-kun and the feeling Maruo got from playing him, watching Takuma and Nat-chan every day, and certainly meeting Ike Souji. As a peer who’s already a pro (ranked #252) Ike is both a reminder of what’s possible and of how far away the goal truly is. Because Maruo is the boy he is he understands – there can be no short-cuts in this journey. Complete and total dedication at the expense of all other priorities – that’s the only way he’ll have a chance. But it’s clear his mother isn’t taking him seriously – she’s relieved that Ei-chan has finally lost in the tournament he was training for so now he can go back to studying. Kageyama asks Ei-chan a very valid question: doesn’t he think he could lead a very satisfying life, attending a good college and playing tennis in his spare time? But in the same breath he notes that he’s curious to see just how good Ei-chan could be if he dedicated 3-5 years to being the best player he could be.
There’s a trip with Nat-chan to see Ike win his first match in the Japan Open (he loses his second) that sort of feels like a date, but also not. Then it’s down to the business of convincing parents that a life in tennis is a realistic goal. Ei-chan understands the mountain of skepticism his mother represents, and sets about designing a purezen to convince her – doing the research in secret on Kageyama’s computer. In a way it’s a bit galling to see that Ei-chan hasn’t earned more credibility with his mother than he has – surely he’s a rare teenager in terms of fulfilling his responsibilities and avoiding trouble. Predictably his father is more focused on the rare passion Ei-chan is showing for this dream and what that means, though in truth he shouldn’t have blurted out his accession on his own.
In the end Ei-chan offers a deal – one year. One year of complete and utter dedication to tennis with a goal of winning the All-Japan Junior (which he’s not even close to qualifying for yet), and a promise to quit and focus on entrance exams if he fails. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious goal for a player in Ei-chan’s position, arguably a naive and even unwise one – but this isn’t an ordinary kid. Surely he’s earned that much trust from his parents, though for his mother it’s still a bitter pill to swallow. And, in the end, she claims to be acquiescing more or less to allow her son to get this out of his system so he can realize how unrealistic his dream is and focus on college again. Relationships between parents and children are indeed complicated.
With the official sign-off in-hand – grudging from the mother, enthusiastic from the father – Ei-chan next has to win the full backing of STC for a dramatic ramp-up in his training. And Miura-kantoku gives it, because he knows full well the potential of someone who can accomplish what Ei-chan has accomplished in playing for only a year. And the timing couldn’t be better for Ike Souji to make his promised visit to STC – to push things along between Ei-chan and Nat-chan by “outing” them for dating even if they don’t think they are, and to give Ei-chan a short 10-minute window to see how he stacks up against someone who can win a match in a full ATP event. First with some light practice, and then when the ultra-competitive Ike decides to get serious, something more. Ready your metaphors here – baby steps, the big picture, the starting line – but it’s not always about winning or losing…