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Watch this series on Crunchyroll: http://www.crunchyroll.com/baby-steps
2014 was an excellent year for sports anime. Production IG pulled incredible feats of animation with the volleyball action in Haikyuu, Kyoto Animation brought their usual thunder to a fan-favorite sequel with the second season of Free, bl shippers and my brother alike had a blast watching two seasons of the biking show, Yowapeda, and while I sadly didn’t get to watch either of these, I’ve heard that the second half of Hajime no Ippo season three was among the best of what the show has had to offer, and the long-awaited second season of Saki finally came to air. But one of the two sports shows which captivated me this year, in spite of far more humble production values than all of what I’ve named so far, was the tennis anime Baby Steps.
Any fan of sports anime can tell you that while being interested in the sport portrayed in the show can boost your enjoyment of it if said sport is portrayed well, the fundamental appeal of these shows is in the characters and their dramatic struggles; and Ei-chan, the protagonist of Baby Steps, may have been my outright favorite anime character of 2014.
Like most shounen protagonists, Ei-chan has a straightforward personality and single-minded determination to do his best; but what sets him apart from most is how this determination manifests itself in constant studying and note-taking. At the start of the show, Ei-chan has the best grades in school–not because he’s smarter than everyone else, but because he actually has difficulty understanding most things, and so he constantly studies and takes extensive notes to reinforce his knowledge.
Whereas a lot of sports anime characters have some unique talent which applies explicitly to their sport of choice, there’s a very real sense that Ei-chan could’ve been pretty successful no matter what he decided to do, based on his attitude alone. The naturally grown talents which end up being his specialties on the tennis court are his extremely keen eyesight and his capacity for memorization and calculations, which, while good tools to have, are neither specific to this sport, nor do they automatically give him an advantage over other players. Most of the matches in Baby Steps are about exploring the unique strengths and weaknesses of each opponent.
What Ei-chan has in mental fortitude, he lacks in physical strength, which makes the early part of the show interesting as he gradually becomes invested in a sport which he is physically incapable of playing on even the most basic level. We watch Ei-chan completely transform his body and gradually shift his focus and mindset as the series goes along until he’s converted himself into a machine built for tennis–and by the end of the first season, he isn’t even playing at the professional level yet.
Watching Baby Steps remains exciting through its excellent sense of pacing and realistic portrayal of time. Whereas a lot of sports anime focus on each individual game, with matches lasting for several episodes, and even sometimes having episodes worth of setup, Baby Steps instead focuses on showing a large number of shorter games, which never last more than an episode and a half or so. The show makes liberal use of time skips, so that Ei-chan’s progress feels natural and consistent, and every single match has him learning something new about himself or about the nature of tennis, so no match ever feels like a waste of time.
Baby Steps is definitely not the most dramatic sports anime out there, and that has a lot to do with what I like about it. In this series, each individual match really is just a baby step on the way of Ei-chan’s progress, and there is never much in the way of stakes for whether Ei-chan wins or loses–which is cool because it keeps the matches unpredictable. Unlike most sports anime protagonists, Ei-chan loses a hell of a lot more times than he wins–but because he has the good fortune to battle with such superior players, he is always able to make progress.
The series also puts just enough focus on Ei-chan’s off-the-court life and relationships to keep us following his changes and relating to him as a person. There are plenty of moments that I could point to and say, “this is why I love Ei-chan,” but the one that got to me the most was towards the end of the series. Ei-chan is trying to propose to his parents that he be allowed to pursue a professional career as a tennis player, so he types out an entire six-page business proposal and presents it to both of them over the dinner table.
This scene got to me not only because it was such a thoroughly Ei-chan thing to do, but also because it was something I’ve literally done myself a few times in the past. I always found it difficult to talk to my parents when I was a teenager, and in general to express things verbally at all, so at times when I wanted to say something really important to my parents, I would write it out on paper and leave it on the coffee table before going to school in the morning so they’d be able to read it before I got home. My version is less responsible than Ei-chan’s, but there were times when those letters were about as important as the one that Ei-chan writes here, so seeing that method of communication represented in art was pretty fantastic.
Ei-chan would just about be enough to carry the show by himself, but luckily he doesn’t have to, and the supporting cast is rife with gems as well. Most interesting among them is Natsu, Ei-chan’s love interest who gets him involved in tennis at the start. Perhaps the most unique thing about Natsu is that she’s actually leagues better than Ei-chan at the sport, and is on the way to going pro right from the start. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a love interest character in a sports anime who was not only playing the same sport, but far superior to the main character at playing it–and that alone would make Natsu a fascinating character. The fact that she’s an imminently likable and adorable genki girl who gradually shows herself to be a perfect match for Ei-chan is just the icing on the cake.
Most the the players whom Ei-chan faces are more interesting for their tennis techniques than for their personalities, although in a lot of cases those two things are highly interconnected. His rival, Takuma, stands way outside of Ei-chan’s league, providing a sort of moving goalpost for Ei-chan to chase as he makes his way up the ranks of tennis professionalism.
It would be remiss of me not to comment on the actual tennis playing as well. Baby Steps is easily among the most realistic sports anime that I’ve seen, even if some of the characters have overly specific and unique skillsets–and I think a lot of that rises out of tennis being one of the coolest sports out there. Not only is it a one-on-one test of skill with a huge number of variables in what each player can do, but different players have their own strengths and weaknesses. It’s like a perfect combination of strategy and technical skill, which in my opinion makes it one of the most interesting sports out there to analyze, and in turn makes it a sport which can easily be made into a long-running anime series that never stops being fun to watch.
Baby Steps is the kind of show that I could go on watching forever, which is why I’m stoked to know that there’s a second season on the way next year. My friend ghostlightning has been reading the manga and saying that it only gets better and better as it goes, so I’ve definitely got something to be excited about. He also says, however, that the manga is better than the anime, and this is what brings me finally to the one big point against Baby Steps, which is probably keeping it from reaching the status of a classic in mine and many others’ books.
The Baby Steps anime kiiiiinda looks like ass. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the entire thing is shitty-looking, since the animation quality definitely ramps up during tennis matches and places where it counts the most, but on the whole, the quality is wildly inconsistent, and often outright awful. On the whole, the character designs are definitely uglier than they were in the manga, and while the color palette isn’t all that bad, it’s also very basic. There are persistent off-model shots and horrible CGI spectators, which can drag down scenes that would otherwise look decent because the show is actually pretty well directed, even if it probably just cribs a lot of its shots straight from the manga. The soundtrack is also bland, obviously utilizing sample loops that are built into whatever music-making program the composer used, which means that the music doesn’t really add anything to any of the scenes.
Obviously I was able to enjoy this show a lot in spite of its lackluster production, but if it had looked even a little bit better, then it could have been so much more memorable. As it stands, while I think Baby Steps holds up as an anime series, it is more likely the manga which will go down as a classic sports series, while the anime is easily overshadowed by stuff like Hajime no Ippo, wherein the music and artwork elevate the emotional context of the series by a ton. Nonetheless, I still recommend Baby Steps, and you can find the entire series legally for free over on Crunchyroll.
So, what did you think of Baby Steps? Let me know in the comments below, and in case you missed them, check out my videos on #9, Inari Konkon, and #10, Nozaki-kun, and stick around on my channel to see what my seventh-favorite anime of the year will be tomorrow!