OP: “Believe in Yourself” by Mao Abe (阿部 真央
If you’re not aware of how much I love Baby Steps you must be new around here – I’ve been extolling its virtues since long before the anime was a glint in NHK’s eye. But just for the record, I love Baby Steps – love it passionately, unreservedly, love it to death. I love it as a manga and I love it as an anime, and however much of the latter we get I’ll be grateful for. It may very well be my favorite sports manga of all-time (though that’s a brutal choice, especially if you include Adachi under that umbrella). As a former competitive tennis player it holds an extra-special place in my heart, but my reasons for loving it go far beyond appreciation of just how right it gets the sport.
Getting a Baby Steps adaptation in the first place was a delightful surprise – getting a sequel (announced at the end of the first season finale) a complete shock. Like the first this season this one is scheduled to run 25 episodes, and that will take it nowhere close to the current point in the manga (it won’t even get as far as the most recently translated chapters). Once again whether there will be more in an unknown, but for now let’s just enjoy what we get. S2 starts with an excellent arc (though they pretty much all are) – Ei-chan’s trip to the Florida Tennis Academy (not to be confused in any way with the Bollettieri Tennis Academy – not even a little, now stop thinking it).
It’s startling to think how many of my favorite series of the last couple of years have come from Studio Pierrot, and the first season of Baby Steps constituted what was in many ways a “typical” modern Pierrot adaptation. It was almost obsessively faithful to the manga, and the production values were inconsistent. There were some exceptions, important match episodes that were very detailed and fluid, but generally the visuals were sub-par. I can say with certainty that the premiere of the second season is way better than that of the first in that regard, though not of course whether it will continue. The OP remains Abe Mao’s “Believe in Yourself”, with new animation – while I might otherwise be disappointed not to get a new song, this one is so perfect that I’m happy to keep it around. The ED is new, and likewise seems a good fit for the material.
This season of course is freed from the heavy lifting of setting up the story, so it can dive right into the main course, and it definitely hits the ground running. Eijun’s two-week trip to Florida is a huge step for him (“baby” or not) and indeed it’s a common rite of passage for young Japanese players to go to America and test themselves against the rest of the world. To say that Japanese kids find this experience intimidating would be an understatement – it can’t be forgotten that this remains one of the most self-contained societies in the world, one which forbade contact with the world until barely more than a century ago. And especially in the realm of athletics, where Japanese youngsters often give up a substantial size advantage, the rest of the world can seem very scary.
That context sets up the story perfectly, because among the many things that make Ei-chan a great protagonist are his self-awareness and his determination. And Florida is a big challenge for him, that’s for sure. His just-off-the-plane tennis baptism is a gentle one, a few rallies with junior player Marcia O’Brien (Han Megumi). But after Mike shows him around and introduces him to dorm-mates Taira Atsushi (Eguchi Takuya) and Ramesh Krishna (Hanae Natsuki) who give him the lay of the land and the daily routine, Day 1 brings a harsh reminder of just how big the hill is in the form of Marcia’s brother Alex (Kamiya Hiroshi). While most of the players at FTA are fellow juniors, Alex is a pro – albeit a newly-hatched one (ranked #819 in the world) – and as Atsushi laments, the pros are in a “different world” than the rest of the campers.
It so happens that our old friend Ike Souji is at the camp, too, and Alex would much rather spend his practice time against him than the newbie Maruo. There’s a lot going on here, some of it on the subtextual level. Natchan has asked Ike to help Ei-chan out however he can, and Ike decides on a kind of tough love approach to doing so – but ultimately, like everything else in Baby Steps the opportunity (in this case a chance to play every camper who wants a match against Ike) is only as good as what Ei-chan makes of it. This is the essence of the character – nothing comes easily to him. He’s not immune to being nervous at his situation, and he’s overwhelmed by the heavy ball and sheer pace he faces against Alex. But because Ei-chan is mature enough to understand his own frailties, they become opportunities – not necessarily to win, but to understand why he’s losing and win the next time. Or the time after. A journey of a thousand matches begins with a single step – a baby step, and there are no shortcuts.
Again, it’s hard for me to overstate how much I love this series – and it’s hard to overstate just how brilliant its take on athletics and personal growth is. Baby Steps, like its hero, never stands still, never repeats itself – there are always new challenges, new chances, new experiences and feelings, and we get to experience them right along with Ei-chan. For a boy so gifted at self-analysis, the chance to be at a place like FTA – where every stroke is filmed, awareness of physical and mental fitness obsessively mandated, and a coach for every skill-set is on-staff – is priceless. Because Eijun is who he is, he can get more from two weeks there than most kids could in six months – and that’s why he’s managed to get where he is in only two years. It’s remarkable, but only because Ei-chan himself is remarkable – and it’s mangaka Katsuki Hikaru’s great gift to be able to patiently and slowly, with baby steps, show us just how remarkable he is. For any lover of sports or of great characters, Baby Steps is manna from Heaven – there’s no other sports manga like it, and Pierrot is doing it justice in its transition to the screen.
ED: “Yume no Tsuzuki (夢のつづき)” by Ganbare! Victory