I hardly know where to begin, really. I’m stunned, for starters. Flabbergasted. Elated. Grateful. Never happier to be wrong. When something you want very badly but seems so unlikely you don’t even allow yourself to hope for it happens, it’s hard to describe the elation that brings. It truly is a glorious day for me, for fans of Baby Steps, for people who love tennis and for people who love good anime. Baby Steps is coming back in the Spring.
Thank goodness for NHK, I suppose – this certainly wouldn’t have happened if Baby Steps were airing anywhere else. But even in that context, I’m pretty shocked by this news. Baby Steps not even charting on DVD wasn’t a huge shock, since disc sales were likely never a big part of the strategy. But while the manga did receive a decent sales bump, it’s not the sort you’d expect to drive a second season on its own. It seems more likely than not that this was planned from the beginning, and the announcement saved for the end of the first season. Maybe Nishikori Kei’s stunning run at the U.S. Open got the production committee thinking about some synergistic marketing, who knows.
Any way you slice (or topspin) it, this is a very rare day in anime – one where we see a series that’s all substance and no flash, and one that’s not a commercial hit, rewarded with a sequel. Whatever the reasons, it’s fantastic news – it would be hard to overstate how much that piece of information changed my mindset in watching this episode (it would have been even better to be surprised, but I’m not complaining). What would have been very mournful was instead celebratory, for the first time looking ahead to all the greatness that’s to come with relish rather than regret. Maybe the fact that the anime was so resolutely faithful to the manga should have been a clue that there was more to come – turns out there was a good reason why it wasn’t in such a hurry that it skipped over important phases of the story.
Make no mistake, this series was admirably faithful to the source material. There were bits and pieces added here and there, generally for the better. In fact this episode gained one scene – the one where Ei-chan head-fakes confessing to Natsu on the morning of his departure – and lost one, where he sells his parents on going to Florida (which will cost ¥380000, about $4500 at the time it was written). It wasn’t a good trade-off in my view, especially losing that scene with Mom & Dad, but it would be ungracious to complain much when there’s so much faithfulness everywhere you look. And besides – second season!
The finale was part and parcel of what Baby Steps is – there aren’t any asspulls or plotquakes in this series. We got a little taste of Coach Aoi’s unusual personality and his cleverness, too. To say he’s different from Miura would be an understatement, but Miura knows what he’s doing – and he knows what Maruo-kun needs at this stage in his development. Aoi-san educates Maruo on the dual nature of the human animal – reason and instinct, and what happens when they disagree. Maruo is certainly an atypical teenager in the degree to which he listens to his reason side, which has mostly been a strength up to this point. But he’s reached a stage where inspiration needs to be an equal partner with perspiration, and both Miura and Aoi-kantoku know this. Aoi explains to Maruo that sometimes his instinct will tell him not to practice even when his reason says otherwise, and Maruo asks “Is that a bad thing?” “It’s not a bad thing,” Aoi responds, “but it’s not a good thing either. It’s just a thing – one you have to be aware of and understand.”
This is really the essence of Baby Steps – that it’s a story of a kid learning about himself, not a kid learning how to be a tennis player. Aoi understands this part of his role very well, and Ei-chan’s activities on his “want to” days are a big part of this. The headline here is course the date with Natsuo, though neither of them are calling it that. “I want to do what you want to do” Ei-chan tells her, and it’s absolutely in accordance with his instructions because it’s true. Shopping, movie, sweets, tennis shop, karaoke – where Ei-chan sings the OP (and well, thanks to Kageyama coming through yet again) and Nat-chan the ED – if that’s not a date, I don’t know what is.
The thing about Ei-chan and Nat-chan is that – like the tennis side of the story – it’s not a manga thing, it’s a life thing. There are no relationship power-ups here, just baby steps. It’s a little awkward, sometimes exhilarating, and takes a long time to get where it’s going, and that sometimes makes viewers used to anime relationships think it’s unrealistic (when in fact it’s just the opposite). First they become friends, sharing a little more bit by bit, and things start to change. Both are aware of it, and neither wants to be the first to say so.
When Nat-chan complains “That’s cheating!” when Ei-chan asks her how she feels about him, she’s right – even though the meaning behind his question is inescapable, it’s a hedge against having to state it outright. But for a 16 year-old in their first romance, it’s quite a normal thing to want to avoid taking that risk, being the first one to commit. I could watch these two all day – they’re as natural as any high school couple in anime or manga, and when those big moments do come (like at the culture festival) they’re that more rewarding because they were earned the hard way. Perhaps a theme is starting to emerge here…
The next big phase in the story, of course – and one I was gutted over thinking I was never going to see – is America. Nishikori Kei studied at Nick Bollettieri’s camp in Florida, as did Ike Souji (er, sort of) and many of the world’s top players. Florida Tennis Academy is not the Bollettierei Tennis Academy per se, and not everyone in tennis is a fan of Bollettieri and his approach (though Nishikori is), but the connection is one mangaka Katsuki Hikaru makes little attempt to hide. This is a comprehensive story of one boy’s journey through tennis and life, and going to America to push yourself is a very important element to address. As I’ve said repeatedly Baby Steps is comprehensive – it looks at all factors great and small, leaving very few stones unturned. Baby Steps just keeps getting better, and the Florida arc should be a spectacular thing to see.
All in all this has been a very successful adaptation of a superlative manga. It sounds dismissive to say that’s mostly because it adapted the source material faithfully, but if it were so easy to do that every anime would do it – and most of them don’t. I give credit to director Murata Masahiko and writer Chiba Katsuhiko for knowing what they had here and trusting both the material and the audience – they’re very experienced and skilled (Chiba-sensei adapted Outlaw Star for crying out loud) and that shows. There wasn’t a lot of budget, clearly, but they saved it for when they really needed it. The cast has been excellent, and the OP and ED (the OP is one of my favorites of the year) are first-rate. I wish the visuals were consistently on a higher level – apart from that, I can’t really find a flaw here.
At this point we don’t know how long the second season is going to be, though two cours again sounds a reasonable guess. The manga is ongoing in any event so it’s not as if a truly comprehensive adaptation could happen yet, and it would take about 100 episodes to cover most of what’s currently out there. If you’d told me four cours going in I’d have taken that, because a one-year commitment is nothing to be sneezed at and it’s enough time to give viewers a real sense of just how incredible a series Baby Steps is. It’s a great thing that NHK is backing Baby Steps the way it is, because it’s a non-traditional anime even more than it’s a non-traditional sports manga. Even in anime quality does sometimes get rewarded, and Baby Steps is the proof – I’m grateful to everyone involved in making it happen. It’s almost enough to give a person hope for the future of the industry…