Baby Steps – 24

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It’s just too cruel, really.  Baby Steps ending now is just so very, very wrong.

For a series that’s ending next week, Baby Steps sure isn’t acting like a series that’s ending next week.  Not only does it remain resolutely – one could almost say “eerily” – faithful to the manga, it didn’t even have a “The Final Episode!” addendum in the next episode preview for what will, presumably, be the final episode.  If there’s any sign of Katsuki Hikaru’s new material by way of an original ending or otherwise, apart from the OP I’ve yet to see any evidence of it.

I’m really agonized over this because as great as the story is already, everything about it is about to get even greater (and once that’s finished, the cycle will repeat).  The training, both physical and mental, gets more interesting.  The tennis gets more gripping and nerve-wracking.  And the relationship between Ei-chan and Natchan continues to develop in a manner so alarmingly natural that because it’s manga, almost fees unnatural.

Integral to that process in ways both expected and unexpected is Aoi Ryouhei Toriumi Kousuke).  We (and Maruo) first meet him suspiciously lurking outside STC while Maruo is doing laps after practice ends – or rather, after after-practice ends, as he’s already forced Yukichi to stay behind for an hour feeding him balls to practice his 64-square control.  Maruo has just watched Nat-chan rely on her experience and mental fortitude to outlast the middle-school phenom Megumi-chan.  Maruo’s answer to this, as to everything else, is “I must work harder if I want to catch up!”

Shady as he looks (he did everything but offer Ei-chan a candy) Aoi-san earns some credibility by dropping Miura-kantoku’s name, though he largely fritters it away by saying it’s because he’s borrowed money from him.  He earns even more by stopping Ei-chan’s running and pointing out that his style is flawed – he’s leaning forward, which Aoi speculates is because he’s strained his lower back.  He then proceeds to tell Ei-chan to lie down, hikes up his shirt and presses on his lower back until he screams in pain – an action to which Ei-chan’s response seems entirely appropriate.  When Ei-chan shows up for practice the next day, one of the two new coaches that Miura introduces is none other than former pro player Aoi-san himself – and Miura pronounces that because he’s going to be busy with Takuma full-time for a while, Aoi is going to be in charge of the other boys in A-Court.

It’s hard to know how much to talk about Aoi-kantoku, like all the other crucial characters dropping into Baby Steps like paratroopers.  I don’t want to spoil the experience for all of you that will be picking up the manga, but he’s a great character and vital in a number of ways.  The phone conversation between Miura and Aoi is an important one in establishing Aoi’s role in the story, and he makes it clear right from the beginning that he has a somewhat different approach than Ei-chan is used to.  “Working harder isn’t always the best way to get where you want to go” he tells him, before unceremoniously kicking him out of practice early and sending him home.  His instructions – no practice for the next two days.  And Ei-chan is only allowed to do what he wants to do, not what he needs to do.  And that goes all the way down to when and how much he eats and sleeps.

By now even anime-only viewers know Ei-chan well enough to know that’s not going to be an easy order for him to follow.  This is a boy who always – even before taking up tennis – does what he needs to do.  Forbidden from that he’s lost, but fortunately Kageyama proves what a true bro he is once more.  He stops Ei-chan from practicing in secret because “I want to practice” and promises to hang out with him – then surreptitiously sets up a one-on-one with Natchan.  Sure he has ulterior motives – he can’t put the moves on the Prez till Ei-chan is officially off the market – but Kageyama is just the connection to normalcy Ei-chan needs here.  Natchan shows up, Kageayama takes off (but not out of sight) and Ei-chan somehow works up the nerve to stop Natchan from going home, and suggests they do something together.

It’s all so natural, so flowing, so faithful to the source that it feels strange to think the series is really ending next week.  There’s no good place to end an adaptation that should go on for 100+ episodes if there was any justice in the world, though I suppose where we seem to be headed is about as good as anywhere.  As gutted as I’m going to feel next Sunday night, if Baby Steps has managed to convert a few anime viewers into manga readers, then this series will certainly have been worth it.

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14 comments

  1. e

    I've caught up at last (eps. #3 – #23 last week). It's definitely a series that grows on you. The title is truth in advertising in this sense as well I guess.
    Also Maruo is such a good decent kid it would be so deeply rewarding to witness his growth a bit more on screen – – how far ahead is the final OP sequence in the manga btw? – . Fingers crossed (and go go go Rabu Rabu Rooster :p) …
    On this episode itself Aoi-sensei actually made me blink a couple of times as he appeared. Mutta with a straight perm, is that you?
    His training approach seems to be just Maruo needs right now. I think he's pushing the guy to listen to both to what he wants and to his own body at large. And if that comes with some sweet romance with such a young lady hey I'm not complaining.

    Thanks for blogging this series ^_^.

  2. I can't possible answer your question about the OP here, and please, no one else do so either.

    Aoi is a gem of a character – a real oddball, and Miura is a very clever man…

  3. l

    Having an anime adaptation of Baby Steps when the manga is just one long continuous slow and steady narrative is asking for trouble if they don't plan it to have more episodes or even take it to an end. It's a good adaptation of the manga in hewing to it. That said, it just doesn't work as well in anime unless it gets a longer run. As it is now, it just ends abruptly and you're just left hanging as it is now. I always get reminded of the anime adaptation of Adachi's H2 which just stopped after 41 episodes. The anime ending is fairly abrupt and it was barely into 15-20% of the manga. Might as well not adapt it into anime. Less grief.

  4. S

    This scenario reminds me of Giant Killing, a compelling football anime that also suddenly stopped and never got picked up for a continuation. Back then, I think it didn’t had enough source material but there’s plenty now for a second season and the manga sales are impressive.
    I do think, like Enzo said, that these short adaptations of sports series serve a purpose by acquainting people with the series. I never would have discovered the Giant Killing manga if the anime didn’t exist and likewise, other people probably wouldn’t have found out how great Baby Steps is.

  5. S

    Agreed. After watching Nanana's Buried Treasure, I've learned to accept adaptations of less popular works as advertisements for the source material. Get into that kind of mindset makes it much less disappointing. And yeah, the vocal portion of the Baby Steps fanbase was near non-existent prior to the anime, and now there's actually some activity on sites like tumblr. If the adaptation can get more people to read and discuss the manga online, I'm all for it.

    It's a real shame about Giant Killing though. I was really hoping for an S2 with the next world cup, but it came and gone with no news whatsoever. =/

  6. c

    Aoi-kantoku is one of my favorites, so I was delightfully surprised when he showed up this week. 😀

  7. Well, he is in the OP!

  8. m

    Even though it isn't as big of a focus as say couples in a shoujo manga, the relationship between Natchan and Ei-chan is easily my favorite, and easily argued to be the best, relationship in any manga/anime. I forget where I saw/heard it recently (for some reason Nozaki-kun is coming to mind) but there was something said about the process of couples in manga/anime and how their story goes about. Not only are they in very unrealistic situations, there's unnatural dialogue and build up, and just unnatural in the way characters interact and emotions are built (and held) (in most cases not all), but they also follow such a cookie cutter outline of how the story breaks down. Generally the first love interest is the winner even though the second has had the more meaningful interaction throughout the story. But with Baby Steps their interactions just defy every "rule" of manga/anime romance. It is (like every other interaction) so realistic that it feels like you're rooting for your friends who're dating each other. It also has a great sense of nostalgia for when you were that age and you liked someone for the first time. And it does it all without having to resort to forced dramatic situations or interactions. You really said it perfectly when you said "the relationship between Ei-chan and Natchan continues to develop in a manner so alarmingly natural that because it's manga, almost fees unnatural."

  9. m

    The real problem with Baby Steps ending here, is that no matter how many times you, I, or any other fan of the manga says, "it gets exponentially better from this point" (which it does you could legitimately call everything up until now the prologue. A very in depth prologue, but a prologue nonetheless) there's no way to fully get the point across until someone checks out the rest of the material. I will say that I hope we don't get an anime original ending, and not bc I think it would be less than perfect given the circumstances, but if any show deserved a non ending ending, it would be Baby Steps. At worst you get an exact cut off point at which to jump into the manga, at best you can pick right up where the story ended if it ever gets enough popularity (doubtful but I can dream). After seeing the slew of mediocre at best shows slated to come out in the fall, I find it even more baffling that not enough people got into Baby Steps to keep it going another 26 eps. There are countless shows I like that I can understand why others don't like them(E7 AO), shows I hate that I get why others like them(Bleach), shows that are "best ever" candidates that I wouldn't disagree about that status despite not personally enjoying them(NGE), but with Baby Steps I can't see one thing about it that would make people dislike it. It's too well written for that. Haha I'm way too biased when it comes to Baby Steps, and keep taking it personally that it isn't popular enough to adapt the whole thing.

  10. As much as I revere Baby Steps I feel like I get why it isn't a big hit. There's just no instant gratification. There are no power-ups, there's almost no fanservice and no moe, and nothing happens without the main character earning it. The matches where he loses are just an important (more?) as the ones he wins. It's realistic, patient, and asks more of the audience than the disc-buying anime audience is willing to give.

  11. H

    I think it's also as simple as most fans not caring for Tennis (realist tennis at that). Also, yes, I think something as slow as Baby Steps is better served in manga format, where you read at your own pace. It's probably too much on the slow side for Anime where the pace is set for you.

  12. 7

    Baby Steps isn't a big disc-selling hit because it was never intended to be a big disc-selling hit. It could never be a monster Blu-ray seller because IT’S NOT EVEN SOLD on Blu-ray – you can only buy the show on DVD. Moreover, it's produced by NHK and airs at five-thirty in the afternoon. NHK productions (Log Horizon, Dennou Coil, Hyouge Mono [lol]), or any television station anime productions for that matter, don't usually operate under the same revenue/popularity logic as late-night Aniplex/Pony Canyon shows made specifically to peddle discs. That they're almost always home media failures does not preclude them from being successful or popular.

    I think a good example would be Polar Bear Cafe, which was produced by TV-Tokyo. Polar Bear aired, like Baby Steps, at five-thirty, and was sold basically as a DVD only release. Also like Baby Steps, those DVDs sold terribly. That said, it proved popular enough to warrant getting its own themed restaurant designed to imitate Polar Bear's in-show cafe. The only other two anime I know that have similar dedicated theme restaurants are One Piece and Gundam, so that should speak for itself. By the metric of disc-sales, then, Polar Bear was pretty darn unsuccessful/unpopular. By the metric of having your own anime-themed restaurant (lol), however, Polar Bear was a smashing success.

    As such, I don’t think you should agonize over Baby Steps’ poor disc performance. It could be being just successful/popular enough in ways that we are not privy to convince NHK to dole out the cash to animate more of it.

  13. Actually Shirokuma Cafe had most of its sales through Animate-only special edition DVDs, and they weren't really tracked by Oricon. It reportedly sold surprising well. Log Horizon also sold quite well on disc.

  14. Z

    I'll echo your statement Enzo… Kageyama has been such a good best friend character to Maruo, and a great wingman too (even if he had some ulterior motives for doing it), both in the anime, and still is even in the manga.

    Also, I like how you summed up Ei-chan and Nat-chan's relationship:
    "And the relationship between Ei-chan and Natchan continues to develop in a manner so alarmingly natural that because it's manga, almost fees unnatural."
    It's almost like a paradox.

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