Baby Steps Season 2 – 18

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Like its hero, Baby Steps is almost unbeatable in the big moments.

I can’t really say much in reaction to that episode, except that it was just about as perfect as it’s possible for a sports anime to be.  The number of levels on which it worked is pretty staggering – hell, it even got the visuals just right.  In the process it revealed why this match is IMHO one of the best in the entire (translated) manga, a few dramatic missteps earlier on in the story notwithstanding.  And it’s absolutely one of the most important in Ei-chan’s personal development, arguably as much as any match he’s played so far.

It sounds funny to say it, but one of the most remarkable things about Baby Steps is the way it makes me feel the same way I do watching a crucial tennis match I’m really invested in.  All sports animanga should be able to do that but of course, in practice very, very few do.  I love watching most sports but there’s a special kind of agonizing, gut-wrenching tension you get with tennis that’s unlike any other sport, at least for me.  The gladiator aspect of it, the sheer weight of the moment being so obvious on the faces of the players, and the way watching two warriors slug it out with power and finesse is an incredibly personal experience.  And that’s what watching (or even reading) the best matches in Baby Steps feels like.

Just as amazingly, this series is equally as adept at portraying what it feels like to be one of the combatants.  The sheer level of pressure one feels when playing a really tight, important tennis match is hard to describe.  I can’t describe it, in fact – I lack sufficient eloquence to do so – except to say, it feels like what you saw here.  It’s lonely, it’s isolated – but it’s a loneliness where you feel every eye fixed on you, waiting for a mistake.  And you feel the pressure of your opponent bearing down on you, desperately searching for any weakness to exploit.  And in the endgame, when every point is crucial, there’s a constant awareness that any mistake can cost you everything.  Now that’s pressure.

Ultimately, two things stand out above all else in making this episode one of the best sports anime has produced – the way it works equally well both emotionally and intellectually.  Great matchups make great matches – it’s true in tennis, and it’s true in anime about tennis.  Ide and Maruo are superbly opposite in every way, and they make perfect foils for each other.  My admiration for the way Katsuki Hikaru and Murata Masahiko depict the way each of them attempts to deal with the pressure is boundless, because it’s just that good.  Ide literally says “Help me, Guys” in the big moment – what he needs is the energy of the crowd to feed his own.  It’s a kind of feedback loop – the louder they are the better he is, and the better he is the louder they get.  Guys like that are very tough to play against, believe me.

But Ei-chan’s method is quintessentially Ei-chan – to the point where if you asked me to show you a sequence that explained who this boy was, this is probably the episode I’d choose.  What we’re seeing here is nothing less than a systematic attempt by a remarkable mind to take what’s definitionally intangible and make it tangible.  What an amazing kid he is – he feels the impact of indescribable pressure in his gut, but he conquers it by making it something real, concrete.  He literally writes down on paper what’s making him crumble, then keeps that paper in his mind’s eye.  First, he claws back some lost ground simply by acknowledging what’s stressing him out rather than trying to ignore it.  But not content there, he soon realizes that even better is to figuratively erase those stress points – though not completely.

If you’ve played or watched a lot of sports, you know that this is an epiphany of great importance.  Pressure is both a good and bad thing, a necessary component of great performance in the clutch.  Some, like Ide, can turn it to their advantage by instinct.  For Ei-chan, he must make pressure a rational and measurable thing, understanding how it effects his body in both positive and negative ways.  And only then can he do what Ide does, use stress to his advantage instead of being controlled by it.  Very few athletes can do what Ide does, but even fewer can (or would even try) to do what Ei-chan does.

In the end, though, it’s the emotions of the moment that carry the episode across the finish line.  When Natchan shows up and shouts out her support, it’s like a dam has broken – Kageyama and Iinchou finally find their voices, and a few others in the crowd even chime in to support the unseeded player with the iron will.  That massive tension one feels in watching a match like this demands an emotional release when the final moments arrive, and Ei-chan finds the inspiration to go beyond his own limitations (including with an amazing tweener) to win the day.  When he falls down 0-30 at 5-all, it feels as if the world is about to come crashing down – when he survives and claws out a 0-30 lead on Ide’s serve, any future seems possible.

Indeed, it’s that intoxicating sense of possibility that momentarily knocks Ei-chan out of the zone – by allowing himself to think too far ahead, he momentarily loses his edge.  Fortunately, his self-awareness again asserts itself as possibly his most remarkable attribute, and Ei-chan is able to force himself back into the moment.  It’s an incredible relief and elation when he puts away that crosscourt volley to finally close the door, and it’s evident in Ei-chan’s face that even he can’t quite take in the significance of it all – but Ide-kun shows his true colors in the way he reacts to having the emotional tables turned on him for once.  It’s a fantastic ending to a fantastic match – but like every ending in Baby Steps it’s not really an ending at all but a single step on a long journey, and the start of a new and even more exciting stage of that journey.

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  1. e

    It was great and it felt like you were there watching them play :D.
    Everyone was looking pretty good – including a non CG shot of the crowd. SRS BSNSS time clue – and they saved the animation for the crucial exchanges too.
    Plus we got Maruo chibi – aw yeah -, his telling racket twirl – hell yeah yeah yeahhhh – >D, Natsu appearing *cue Here Comes The Sun* and ofc providing&rousing cheering power straight ahead. And one last smile at Ide's gesture of celebrating his opponent's victory (Rocky, anyone? ). Dramatic by nature indeed. Wooohooo.
    The cut to the ED felt really abrupt but the preview put a patch on that. There's a coda in store ^^.

  2. J

    That might just be the greatest episode of anime I'll watch this year, and after the emotional intensity of Death Parade E9 and the significance of E10, that's saying something.

    I'm glad that pressure wasn't seen as an all-encompassing negative and that completely removing it had a detrimental effect on Maruo's performance. I didn't learn it in exactly this manner, rather we were taught about maintaining the ideal level of motivation (inverted bell curve, anyone?) Too much and you tense up, overthink things, fatigue quicker and waste energy excessively. Too little and you can't get your body moving quickly, react slowly and watch your opponent seemingly breeze past you. There's nothing like getting just the right (i.e. controllable) amount of adrenaline to enhance your prowess.

    When was this chapter published? I wonder if the 2009 US Open was on at same time…

  3. You mean the Federer Gran Willy in the Djokovic match? It's certainly the tweener most people remember (though that shot has been around a lot longer), but I don't know if the timing matches up exactly.

  4. J

    Yeah the shot has been around for a long time and has been televised/popularised since the days of Vilas but as you say the first example that comes to mind is Federer's. It didn't really match the criticality (and therefore risk) of Maruo's but in both cases it was an amazing shot to pull off in such an important match.

    I've not got much more to say, this really was the perfect episode of sports anime, until Maruo's next big match at least. Actually, it was a nice touch to see Araya fighting Maruo's corner (and standing off with Okada as a result).

  5. J

    Hey Enzo, this may be an odd question for you, but since you're such a hardcore Baby Steps fan, I figure I'd ask here: do you know what the best place/method is to import the Baby Steps manga volumes from Japan to Canada? I really want to support the author of what has become my favourite manga, but Japan's Amazon doesn't seem to do international shipping and I'd prefer to avoid places with ridiculous shipping costs since I'm not rich.

  6. e

    @Joshua Astray: have you tried the LiA Amazon US link already (it's on the top right corner of the blog home page in desktop mode, if you're on a smartphone you might need to switch visualization to see it) ?
    I'm seeing vol#1 being sold&shipped for cheap for instance

  7. J

    @elianthos80 Right now I'm mainly for the newer releases. The LiA store only has the first 5 volumes.

  8. I'm not sure about Canada, but in the States I might try Kinokuniya – if you don't have one in your city, their website. I would imagine the ship to Canada.

  9. N

    Maruo is a budding master of metacognition. If Ide is fueled by a formidable subconscious, you could say Ei-chan is fueled by hyperconsciousness. Metacognition is a technique anyone would benefit from practicing – it's great for athletes, the business world, and overcoming certain psychological problems ie. anger or anxiety.

  10. E

    They may be opposites playing against each other in a close match, but Eichan is operating on completely different plane from Ide.

  11. N

    Well, that was awesome. But I actually want to point out something that I think the anime didn't handle all that well, in contrast to the manga. No actual spoilers, only past events, but reader discretion is advised.

    Back in the America training camp arc, I was irked that Ei-chan was seemingly fluent in English all of a sudden (or that everyone in America became fluent in Japanese for some reason). After venting about it, some kind souls assured me the manga handled that properly (the other Japanese guy there assuming translation duties for our protagonist), so I went and read the relevant chapters. and then read just a few more, not being able to stop myself. And soon after Ei-chan's return from America, he had a practice session devoted to hitting the ball between the legs, backwards. Such a tiny thing, but when he nailed that shot against Ide, it was doubly rewarding. By omitting that bit of training from the story, the anime made it seemed as if Ei-chan pulled that move on the fly, which goes against the basic theme of baby steps. At that moment, I felt really lucky that I incidentally read that chapter, and also wondered what other small things I may have missed, or will in the future.

    I know I'm being petty, but this show is so good, that when it does something less than absolutely brilliant, it really bothers me 😀

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