Baby Steps Season 2 – 04

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Warning: incoming raves.

Sorry to say (well, not all that sorry) this is one of those Baby Stepisodes that just make me want to gush.  When the series is this good (and it’s this good more and more as the manga goes on) it brings out the fanboy in me, and I cheer for the it the same way I do for the Cubs or the Bulls – I’m a fan in every sense of the word.  It’s such a beautifully constructed work of fiction – from a character (and sports) sense, almost “more real than real” in the same way the art of Shinkai Makoto is in the visual sense.  It’s not a documentary, just like a Makoto background isn’t a photograph – but they’re like a distilled essence of reality, the important truth of it freed of the bonds of the literal.

It all starts with Ei-chan of course, and I’m honestly not sure how you could come up with a better sports protagonist.  I just don’t know how you can not root for the guy, because he’s all about integrity and grit and respect, and completely lacking in ego and pettiness.  Stubbornness can be a flaw, certainly, but Ei-chan illustrates all the positive aspects of that trait.  He simply refuses to accept an unfavorable situation – his restless mind is always looking for some solution, and always believing there’s a solution for every challenge.  It’s not conceit – the kid is clearly aware of his own limitations – but a simple overabundance of doggedness and sheer will.

The other remarkable aspect of Maruo is of course that preternatural self-awareness – and Baby Steps really builds around it as the central pillar of the series.  What we’re seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg, but I think that makes sense because Maruo is still a kid, and a veritable toddler when it comes to tennis.  Yet I think it’s that which makes sports such a natural fit for him – it’s a perfect outlet for his never-ending drive for self-analysis and problem solving.  And tennis perhaps most of all (I’m biased, I admit) is the perfect sport to test one’s limits and force oneself to dig deep for answers.  In that respect Maruo truly is a tennis genius, but not in the Shounen Jump sense of having secret moves and special powers – he’s simply got the perfect mind to deconstruct both the game and his place in it.

That makes Ei-chan a very dangerous opponent for “better” players, especially at the levels he’s playing at now.  But as I said last week, if I were a struggling up-and-coming pro he’s exactly the opponent I would want to face, and I think we see Alex coming to the same conclusion.  You can see elements of a lot of other things in tennis – the chess match, where each side must counter the moves of the other, and consider what impact they’ll have several moves ahead.  The boxing ring, where you have to trade blows with an opponent and face a choice of whether to try and dominate with sheer power, or rely on tactics and dexterity.  Ultimately this sport is mental as much as physical (though the physical side of it is sure critical, as we’re reminded at the close of Ei-chan’s match with Alex).

Both sides certainly learned a lot from this one – not just the young amateur, but the pro too.  Both adjusted to stay a step ahead of the other during the match, but it seems to me as if it was always Ei-chan starting the next cycle – Alex forced to react to what Ei-chan did.  By deconstructing Alex’ weak backhand Ei-chan forced the pro to go outside his comfort zone – but to his credit, Alex did do that, and with enough skill to seize the upper hand.  That running-around-the-backhand routine is something you see the pros do, all the way up to Federer himself – yes it leaves your forehand side open, but in effect it dares your opponent to try and hit there.  What Alex was doing during that second set was, effectively, going off-model – giving Ei-chan looks that weren’t in his notebooks.  He’s a pro – he’s got enough skills to do that.

Where what Ei-chan does becomes remarkable is the third set, where he relies not on what he’s written down, but on what it suggests might be coming next.  The boy who couldn’t stop looking at his racket when he hit is now realizing that he has to watch his opponent and react, trust his instincts.  It’s not shutting off his brain, bur rather trusting it – his thoughts and research are still telling him what to do, but it’s happening in real-time.  Yes, it’s another of those baby steps (I believe Alex’ note is the first time the narrative itself has used the term) but an important realization.

Another important realization – maybe even a wake-up call – for Ei-chan is the cramp he suffers on match point (his) in the third-set tiebreaker.  If you watch enough tennis you’ll see guys suffer terrible cramps late in matches, and it can make agonizing yet thrilling viewing (famously, Michael Chang won the French Open final over Ivan Lendl – at 17 – while crippled by leg cramps).  Ei-chan did exactly what you have to do when that happens – try and hit an immediate winner, then limp to the net.  And of course he knew the coach would kill the match as soon as he realized what was happening, but as rational as he is Ei-chan didn’t want to see a great battle end that way.  And by forcing his opponent to try and hit a winner under pressure, Ei-chan won the match – and his coach’s ire.

This may have been a practice match, but it was an important one.  Ei-chan played his “best tennis ever” playing against a pro, a stronger opponent who forced him to level-up to survive.  As always, there are lessons to be learned, and this boy doesn’t forget.  The Florida arc thus ends, a brief one, but one where Baby Steps itself leveled-up I think.  This is really where we see Ei-chan begin to see tennis as not just a sport, a challenge, but – potentially – a life.  And though it was only a month’s worth of episodes, it was kind of emotional seeing hm say goodbye to this group of friends (Marcia even shed a few dere tears for him).  Fortunately for Ei-chan – and for us – this journey has really just gotten started.

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  1. G

    After one different view of another review I will agree all the way ! I cant add too much but one thing was the animation quality was great The on court shots were just amazing! I am reading the manga too1 a very good adaption! I watch tennis now and then but this is just a great look how to get there!

  2. M

    It seems Baby Steps posts don't get many comments, but I imagine it's because there's not much else to say. I can't think of a single episode of this show where I had anything overly negative to say and you usually cover the positives pretty extensively. Probably the worst thing about this show is Maruo's stupid hair lol (I eventually got used to it!).

    One really great thing I can say for this show is it actually got me playing tennis last year! And I wasn't someone who played back in school or anything. I had to go out and buy a rackets (to force my non-racket owning friends into playing) and balls! I completely suck compared to Maruo, but it's a lot of fun. The last time I had an anime actually inspire me try something new was Hikaru no Go years ago, so way to go Baby Steps!

  3. That's a comparison I've made myself…

    Baby Steps doesn't draw many views, and even fewer comments. I was encouraged to cover it over at RC too, but that would have been just too depressing.

  4. C

    Ugh I wrote this long post and I lost it all… going to try and rewrite my thoughts.

    Here's my two cents in why I feel Baby Steps doesn't get as much 'hype' comments than, say, Haikyu. (I'm a huge fan of both)

    For one thing, Katsuki-sensei's paneling, writing and art style, is pretty dry. Smart, but dry especially in the magazine it's published in. There's not much excitement either in a chapter-by-chapter basis and the series takes a fairly metronome-like rhythm throughout. I think it's telling that a lot of comments under manga chapters tend to be filled with people who want a match to end faster just to get to the next (or just more natsuXmaruo). The artist himself is almost like Maruo as well: his progression from chapter 1 to the latest chapter is very consistent but not terribly different.

    He has his charismatic 'hype' moments artistically (the ide match comes to mind) but sometimes I feel like it's not enough. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if Katsuki-sensei would late his 'instinct's as an artist kick in more and I'm hoping we'll see more of it as the series progresses. Unfortunately, I personally don't feel like anyone at Pierrot is capable of the job of channeling the best points of Katsuki's restrained style but I'd like to be proven horribly wrong. Certainly the guys at Production IG 'gets' what makes Haikyu click.

  5. I don't think dry is the word I'd choose, but that's a personal thing. Clean, restrained maybe.

    Listen, I like Haikyuu a lot but I don't think it's any mystery why it's so much more popular. Setting aside the fact that the anime is light-years ahead on production values, the series itself is simply much more approachable. It gives enough substance and accuracy to keep traditional sports manga fans somewhat interested, but offers a tabihoudai buffet for doujin writers. I don't know how much of it is consciously done that way, and in the end it doesn't really matter – Haikyuu is simply built for a much broader audience than Baby Steps.

  6. C

    Oh, I agree that Haikyuu is built for a broader audience. I should've been clearer but I mean to say that most of Baby Steps are very conservative from a comic art standpoint (in a medium where, more than anything else, art IS the writing and writing IS the art) and as a result there isn't very much to work with for animation studios to be creative with… at face value. ie. Yuasa's efforts in storyboarding every single episode of Ping Pong while respecting every single panel in the manga is a testament of the original source's and Taiyo Matsumoto's strengths in the medium. I wouldn't hold Haikyu in the same realm of Ping Pong (or even Baby Steps in some aspects) personally, but from a 'comic art' storytelling standpoint it's the most refreshing and exhilarating that I haven't read in a really really long time. I'm pretty confident that even Pierrot could probably make a pretty decent adaptation with the source material because there is a lot to work with visually.

    You know, I adore Baby Steps, but I adore Haikyuu as well. Each for very different reasons and interestingly enough they all came in a turbulent period of my life at oddly appropriate times. But as a artist who is fairly deconstructionist of the art of comics, I can't help but seeing Baby Steps as falling a little short sometimes. Regardless, I'm crossing fingers that Baby Steps will get more adaptation, because it does get better. I'm also digging the production decisions they're making with the second season so far!

    Lastly, I just want to say I'm probably one of the few who did not see Haikyuu serving the doujin writer crowd. at all. It was only when I stumbled into your blog, discussed with a couple friends and watched the anime that i started seeing it lol

    Hopefully this all reads coherently! I'm pretty harsh on myself when I write in a discussion so sometimes I take an awfully long time writing or nothing at all…

  7. Having seen how popular OoFuri was in the doujin world, there was never any doubt in my mind that Haikyuu would be a boffo hit.

  8. m

    This marks another milestone for Maruo-kun – the first being his decision to go pro. Watching Baby Steps is like seeing a child grow up, and while this series portrays his growth in baby steps, if put in real life, it's pretty miraculous and outstanding (not that it is not realistic).

    I think Alex is developed pretty well as a character, I wish the same goes for the others especially Marcia, but they aren't even the supporting cast so I may be expecting too much. I would have loved to see their playing styles though. Even Nat-chan does not get much attention tennis-wise

  9. E

    I love how Baby Steps always aims to show the thought process of both players playing a match. Other sports series do it too, but Baby Steps does it so realistically another layer of tension is added.

  10. C

    As a tennis player and coach, I can't even begin to say how much I appreciate Baby Steps. I enjoyed Prince of Tennis because it was so cool to have a manga devoted to the sport, but the ridiculousness of the shots and skills was too much. I so much more enjoy this one where hard work, endless practice and an almost obsessive level of dedication is what is required. Although the speed of his improvement may be unrealistic, the basis for his improvement is not.

    As to the Florida arc, we see just how important Alex is to the entire series. He is the source of both "believe in yourself" and "baby steps." When Eichan trusts that the hard work he has put in has provided enough reason for his instinct to act upon he is, in fact, believing in himself. When Eichan reads what Alex wrote about baby steps he wishes he could make giant strides to start with instead, but it lets him know that what he has been doing and the way he has been going about it will lead him to where he wants to be. Add in that his ability to somehow defeat Alex who is already a pro has given him the confidence to know that it is possible for him to be a pro too. While Kageyama got Eichan to question his life and Nacchan helped lead Eichan to tennis, it is Alex who provides the affirmation that will take him to his ultimate goal: the professional level.

  11. T

    Really enjoy this series but would have been even better if we get the monologue of his plan and then watched a couple of proper rallies, to see him attempt to execute the plan, rather than a running monologue and then the last shot in the rally.

    Overall been a super impressive show, hope it will get many more seasons.

  12. e

    I must agree with other commentors about BS being one of those series that are hard to comment about sometimes, because of how balanced it is and how comprehensive your review can get (gushing included). I find myself like just nodding along as I read and taking some notes (exhibit of the week: 'famously, Michael Chang won the French Open final over Ivan Lendl – at 17 – while crippled by leg cramps' gotta look for it, hopefully they have at least some highlights on the Tube).
    One element that stands out for me this season is how much more expressive Maruo is becoming. I can't remember if he was that way in the manga or if it's Pierrot's doing but all those facial expressions of his are a delight to behold ahah.

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