Baby Steps – 25 (Season Finale)

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Never have I been happier to fill in the title line.

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…

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End Card:

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  1. J

    Hey Enzo, I know you want more people to watch/read HxH, but I'm not sure that warrants shoving it into the middle of a Baby Steps review.

    Having said that, I am very glad [and rather shocked] that we're going to get more of this. Between Baby Steps and YowaPeda it feels like the right time to be a sports anime fan.

  2. t

    baby steps get a 2nd season in half year from now. these are certainly wonderful news.
    baby steps anime did great, really great. even though there is a lot to improve in terms of animation and art, the overall here is way above that. a real fascinating sports anime which is so realistic and "breath" tennis like oxygen, and as you said yourself, it shows us not only the sports side but also a different approaches in life.
    I once said that baby steps so much reminds me of Hajime no ippo, and indeed as we progressed we see Ei-chan struggles in matches or within himself what to do, how much he left to learn and improve..I really think it's rare for sports anime to handle it so well and easy. this is exactly baby steps.

  3. I probably need to give Hajime no Ippo another chance from the beginning, just to try and understand what so many people see in it…

  4. A
  5. H

    HnI is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to material to adapt. It only took 6 years for it to get back on air, and then another 4 after that. Guess you could take faith from that for Baby Steps seeing a full adaptation (and any contemporary sports series at that).

  6. D

    Combine the technical focus and slow rise of Baby Steps, the emotion of Uchuu Kyoudai, and the fight scenes of Dragonball Z, you've got Hajime no Ippo. One of the greatest anime of all time. It's definitely right up there with Hunter X Hunter on that list of all time greats.

  7. D

    As soon as I saw that S02 announcement, my first thought was, "Somewhere in Japan, Enzo is dancing." As happy as I am for it, I think I'm actually happier for *you* than I am for myself. ^^

    I was on the fence about this series at the midway point – not that I ever thought it was bad, just that I wasn't sure it was my cup of tea. So glad I stuck with it. I've been fully invested pretty much since the match with Araya, and I'm excited to see where the story goes next. Ei-chan and Natchan are such great characters to follow, too – unique, layered individuals who are incredibly likable to boot.

    You know, for all that I've grumbled about the animation quality, between this, Tokyo Ghoul, and the recent shoujo fantasies (first "Soredemo" and now "Akatsuki"), I'm starting to kinda love Studio Pierrot again. They seem to use shoestring budgets in order to tell good stories, and I'll take substance over style any day of the week.

  8. Pierrot has brought some of it on themselves, I admit, but they receive a highly disproportionate amount of hate.

    I was on the edge of tears for a good few moments when the news came through. I can't even imagine my reaction if I'd found out from the omake, but I'm guessing the neighbors would have heard it.

  9. a

    So glad for a second season! This was rare…

    Although one of the things that surprised me (When it really shouldn't have) was that they replaced Obama with Lincoln where Ei-chan first here's America.

  10. m

    This is officially the best anime news ever! I can't believe we get to see another season of Baby Steps. The best part is that now it's going to start getting into the truly great parts of the manga, and the popularity should only rise. If they are willing to go with a season two, I think they might be willing to go the distance with the source material. This is the perfect spot for the season to end as well. The florida arc will be a great jump off point as it really is the start of Ei-chan getting truly serious about tennis. I think there's 280ish chapters out in Japan to the 223 or so in English. Considering that it prob has awhile to go it would easily need 150eps to cover it all (which is prob never going to happen) but even going to 52 is amazing. So excited for the spring season now.

  11. H

    It's nice to see a small, albeit gracefully compassionate, fanbase rewarded with more of what they truly love.

    Don't you think the rise of profiling for sports anime encouraged NHK's decision? Seems the industry is drunk on the stuff.

  12. I honestly don't know why NHK is doing this, except that they do tend to offer longer runs for non-commercial series. If I were involved in any way with the franchise, I would try to get some sort of cross-promotion with Nishikori Kei going on. It would be good for tennis in Japan, and Nishikori would presumably consider that a good thing.

  13. R

    After I learned about the news this morning, I kinda expected a fireworks gif in this blog's background, because that's just how I imagined you would be.
    Like Dee said, even though I'm happy about this getting a second season, I'm probably happier for you. The amount of love you have for this series is contagious.

  14. Guilty as charged.

  15. m

    Enzo, of all the amazing shows this blog has introduced me to (Ginga e Kickoff, Yowamushi Pedal, a lot of sports anime for some reason…), I want to thank you for initiating me into Baby Steps' modest fandom. At your enthusiastic recommendation, I marathoned the manga a while back before the anime was announced. And I've relished every episode for the hope, warmth, and determination it teaches me.

    I didn't think it was possible, after what happened with Giant Killing. But a second season couldn't be more deserved.

  16. That's great to hear. The manga following isn't all that modest – it does pretty decently – but it's definitely no powerhouse like Daiya or crossover hit with females like Kurobas or Haikyuu.

  17. m

    Woah, did not know Daiya was that much of a powerhouse. Then again, that would explain all the wank over Eijun's development as ace.

    I'm honestly excited. What I love about Baby Steps is that it doesn't "throw away" the side characters like most sports mangas. We don't see Ei-chan defeat a player, then walk away, forever untouchable. Instead, we see the other players grow, we see them reevaluate their own playing styles (often after a match with Ei-chan), we see rematches, we see how small the tennis world is and yet how big, and how determined everyone is in their pursuit of their dreams.

    They feel less like characters, more like real people. And a second season will give Baby Steps the chance to show that.

  18. Well, Daiya does around 250-300K per volume, which is about 3-4 times what Baby Steps does. The DVDs are also selling pretty well.

  19. e

    And so one of your great anime wishes has come true – and as for some of the above readers I'm almost gladder for you than myself seing as you have championed this series since the beginning – :D. Now Otoyomegatari anime when?
    I've ended up reading all the available chapters since last week and I'm really pumped for what's to come. S2 is gonna be awesome.
    About this episode I missed the scene with his parents too, but the date (GAH <3) and Aoi sensei's wiggling eyebrows teasing plus seeing chibi Instinct!Maruos&reason!Maruo animated were quite a treat. With that, the omake and the Enzo happiness it's a season finale bringing a lot of big smiles. And that's a good feeling to end with. Thank you Baby Steps, see you soon.

  20. Oddly enough I found myself thinking "Gee – maybe an Otoyomegatari anime really isn't impossible".

  21. B

    If Otoyomegatari ever gets an anime adaptation I will jump and scream like a five year old.

  22. R

    Haha told ya. It's hard to imagine that this brilliant series wouldn't get a multiple cour. 😀

    So, the rumor about the mangaka involvement in the anime is not happening? I heard there was going to be an original ending/storylline.

  23. Maybe she wrote the few original scenes we saw? Or she wrote the ending to the second season, which was in the plans all along?

  24. E

    Or some OVA to be announced? Well, I also almost cried with joy at the news of the second season.

  25. A

    And so I've just finished this first season. Pretty good ride, I enjoyed immensely the gritty/realistic parts – the training, the aches, the warning about not how to destroy your health, the technical details, etc. – though it's not without flaws.
    In fact, I have noticeable criticism to level at Baby Step. I've seen many people wondering about the lack of comment/popularity of the anime, and despite enjoying it overall, it rubbed me the wrong way enough that I can provide at least another point of view about it.

    First and most obviously, of course, the production value. Recognized and acknowledged by pretty much everyone, not a lot to add (and WTF is this hairstyle, seriously ?).

    Second, I feel that this season failed at conveying appropriately the progress and trials of the first year of training. For all intents and purposes, it seemed that his match against Miyagawa was his first match ever, and completely failed at making me internalize that he spent one year and countless practice matches perfecting himself for this. I guess that's why many people talk about his victories being an asspull – it definitely was the FEELING I got from it, despite my head trying to objectively point that the show said one year has passed and that Maruo had a lot of practice matches. I would have prefered much less time spent on tournament matches, and much more on the setup and practice progression.

    Third, and it's somehow related to what is said above, the systematic "the guy in front of me is vastly stronger and more experienced than me and is mopping the floor with me, but I find a strategy and manage to beat him/put up a good fight" just feel too contrived and rather formulaic after a while. Barely managing to get by, and extracting a pseudo-fluke victory, to repeat the same on a much stronger opponent right after that ? Sorry, it's hard to buy it after a while. Hopefully, most of the time it stops pushing before going too far (I was cheering hard for Araya and Nabae just for realism sake), but it still tends to be too close to the limit for comfort.

    And last, a pet peeve : the retarded oblivious and super shy chick magnet routine is just intolerably overused. I do like Nat-chan a lot and I do agree they have a lot of chemistry, but NO their relationship is not even a tiny bit original – this last episode really made me cringe, actually. It's just the same typical same thing over again ("nice guy is so nice every girl he comes into contact falls for him but he doesn't notice !"). A year and a half later, with Natsu being as unsubtle as she is, and nothing happened ? It isn't a realistic relationship at all, it's just the same typical artificial dragging-on to supposedly keep the tension… I died a little inside with the false confession at the end – that was just SO predictable… Only way it can become more cliché is having newly introduced female characters falling for him and being interrupted at the last second when he'll finally manage to try to make a confession.

    All in all, I guess you can see that my annoyance with Baby Step comes from seeing so often the opposite of what his fans claim.
    Realistic setting, progressive improvement step by step, believable use of strategy to win a match ? I see it all, much better done, in Giant Killing (which I find vastly superior).
    Here, I see a disconnect between the qualities praised, and the actual delivery.

    Now, I've spent this (long) post criticizing the show, but again I actually like it. I'm going to start the second season without having to force myself and I do like a lot all of the characters. But I see such a different picture than what I see described in the other comments, I just felt I had to chime in and provide a different opinion ^^

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