Well, this was a pretty sad day for Baby Steps fans. In my case it wasn’t the result of Ei-chan’s match with Nabae, because of course I knew that was coming. But the lack of an announcement at the end of the episode seems like a pretty definitive signal that the anime is finished, since this season was announced immediately at the end of the last one. As well, the episode concluded on a very “coda” note, much differently than the way this arc of the manga ended. This is it, I fear.
I’ve always told myself I’d be grateful that the anime got 50 episodes no matter what happened – this is obviously not an especially commercial series. And I am happy about that, but it’s hard to fight an overall feeling of desolation right now. The manga has seen enough of a sales bump that I couldn’t resist being hopeful, and knowing how the series just keeps getting better and better, it’s agonizing that we won’t get to see the rest of it on screen. As if that weren’t enough, the manga translations have ground to a virtual halt (at Chapter 248 – the anime covered roughly 180) and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever pick back up.
The agony of being a manga and anime fan, of course, is that in most cases when we see the manga we love animated, the story stops right in the middle. And this series isn’t called “Baby Steps” for no reason, so that’s even more pronounced. There’s no resolution here – not in terms of Ei-chan’s struggle to win over his parents, not in terms of his relationship with Nat-chan (though all is well there), and not in terms of his quest to summit Mt. Nabae. No, the Kanto Junior is instead another baby step – bigger than most, for certain, but very much a stop along the way.
The matchup with Nabae is a good one to end on, at least, even if it would’ve been nice to see Ei-chan finish the anime with a victory. The first two episodes focused on this match were mostly about showing us how these two junior players were similar, and why that posed such a challenge for Ei-chan. But this one upped the ante by showing us how Nabae and Maruo are different (which they are in subtle but profound ways), and perhaps even why those differences might make Ei-chan the more dangerous player in the long-term.
I’ve talked in the past about risk-taking, and about how crucial that is in sports and especially tennis. Having spent a lifetime watching professional tennis, I’m resolutely convinced that players are temperamentally inclined to do one of two things on key points – tighten up or go for it – and that while playing conservatively may help you up to a certain point, the gap between the very good and the truly great often comes down to the willingness to go for more in the clutch, not less.
What we see in Maruo-kun and Nabae are two young players who share a great deal. Both are incredibly smart and rely on keen observational and analytical skills to carry them through a match. But the key difference, I think, is this: Nabae’s strategy ultimately comes down to minimizing risk. He’s all about figuring out what’s facing him on the other side of the net and doing exactly what he needs to do to maximize his chances of victory, and no more. He tries to stay within himself at all times, on the assumption that going off his personal template brings risks potentially greater than rewards.
Ei-chan is very different, and we see that in this match. Ei-chan’s strategy comes down to re-inventing himself as the situation calls for it. He has a willingness to try new things, even in the middle of a match – tactics and shots he’s never used in a match before. Rather than using data to figure out the safest pattern to use (which is essentially Nabae’s approach) Ei-chan uses data to extrapolate how to evolve – figuring out what the situation demands from him and then how to deliver it. Part of that comes from his very limited experience, true, but I think it’s more a matter of that simply being who he is.
Ei-chan’s approach is fundamentally more risky that Nabae’s, and we see evidence of it in this match in the errors Ei-chan makes trying to execute his strategy. But I would argue that Ei-chan’s approach gives him a better chance than simply falling back on his proven tactics would, because right now Ei-chan doesn’t have the arsenal to beat Nabe-kun via conventional methods. If Ei-chan had tried to use Nabae’s approach, the third set would have been a whitewash rather than the war of attrition it was. Ei-chan gambled and lost, but in doing so he came closer to winning than he would have had he not gambled. In Nabae’s own words, Maruo transcended himself – and sent a message that he’s not someone to be taken lightly in the future.
I think the two players’ way of processing their own emotions is very much reflective of this line of thinking. Nabae tries to divorce himself from his emotions, quite literally – he visualizes them forming into a tennis ball, and then his opponent swatting them away. Ei-chan goes a level beyond this – he tries to understand the way his emotions impact his performance, and then to find a way to use them to his advantage. Again I think Ei-chan’s way is more risky, but potentially more rewarding, because there’s great power in emotions on the tennis court if they’r channeled correctly.
This is what Nabae sees in Ei-chan, and it’s unnerving to him – this newbie is effectively trying to find a way to combine the best of Nabae’s style with that of Ike Souji, and he’s come amazingly far in less than three years playing. It’s this that prompts Nabae to try and change his own style against Araya in the final – he’s effectively prepared to sacrifice the match in order to learn more about himself as a player. One could argue that Ei-chan is the first player since Ike to force Nabae out of his comfort zone, and while I’m sure that’d be small consolation for him in the wake of this defeat, it’s no mean achievement.
The future seems bright for Maruo, no question about it. I find it incredibly touching that he’s so concerned with reaching a level where he can pursue tennis without his parents having to worry about him, but that’s Ei-chan – the role of his family in his career has never been far from his mind. His dream is far from achieved, but Kanto was a big step – and it nets him a testing deal with his racket company. This is important for financial reasons when your family is decidedly middle-class, but I think it’s also a huge hurdle for Ei-chan in terms of self-belief – this is confirmation that he really belongs among the elites of Japanese junior tennis.
I think we leave the story in as good a place as we could realistically hope to, given the sad fact that it’s ending in the middle of the series. Ei-chan is growing as a player, and so is Nat-chan – she wins the girl’s side without dropping a set in the entire tournament. And while the anime doesn’t include the utterly charming sequence between Ei-chan and Nat-chan that immediately follows the Kanto Junior (read that much if you read nothing else), it’s clear that these two are closer than they’ve ever been – even to the point where they’re coming to understand the other as a player as well as a person (and incorporate the best of the other into their own style).
Still, there’s no glossing over the fact that Baby Steps the anime is ending before both the tennis and romance storylines get to the best part. Despite that, though, I’d call the anime a success. It introduced a lot of fans to a series they probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and it’s almost doubled the manga’s sales. And while Pierrot obviously broke no new ground in terms of production values, they delivered a faithful take on a fantastic manga (their specialty). As great as Baby Steps is, Murata-sensei and Pierrot still had to capture the brilliance of it on-screen – and they did. And they delivered when they had to in terms of animation, saving their limited budget for the big matches. The writing gives you a sense of what it’s like to be involved in a big tennis match, but this visuals had to do the work of closing the sale – and they did.
I love Baby Steps. I love, love, love Baby Steps. I consider it arguably the greatest sports manga of all-time (in terms of accuracy and being a nuanced character study, I don’t think it’s even very arguable), and I’m thrilled that it had the chance to make the jump to anime, even if it was only for 50 episodes. This is a sad day for Baby Steps fans, but it’s not a tragic one – all of us who love manga have been through this many times before, and we’ll go through it again. We got an anime that respected the letter and spirit of the manga we adore, and to ask for more than that might be a little too greedy. Baby Steps is true to its title – it’s about the journey Maruo Eichirou is on, not about the destination. And if you look at the anime in that context, it’s easier to celebrate it as being a part of that journey.