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Baby Steps – 01

OP Sequence

OP: (Believe in Yourself) by (Abe Mao)

「 テニスとノート」 (Tenisu to Nooto)
“Tennis and Notebook”

It’s hard to out into words what writing this post means to me as a fan.

Years from now, anime fans may look back at this as a golden age of sports series. On Sundays alone we have Diamond no Ace, Haikyuu (I’m still not using all those exclamation points) and Baby Steps – and Yowamushi Pedal follows up two days later. There’s also sumo and ping pong. Variety and quality is something we’ve rarely had in sports anime, especially recently as the genre is something of a relic – that is, until sports anime that appeal to female fans changed the way the industry thought about sports anime as commercial entities, which is certainly the biggest reason why the current schedule is as loaded as it is.

Among all those series, without the remotest doubt Baby Steps is the one that’s closest to my heart. It’s not going to be a commercial hit with the fans of Yowapeda, Haikyuu, Free and KuroBas, and it’s not a throwback like Daiya no A or Matsutarou. No, Baby Steps isn’t like any other sports manga – it’s like Baby Steps. It, and its main character, are unique – and it’s fair to say that I love this manga enough to rank it in my all-time top ten. That’s why it feels a little surreal to be sitting here writing a post about a Baby Steps anime.

Expectations can be a terrible burden, especially when you love a source material this much. I worry not just about whether the anime will live up to my hopes, but how it will be received by others. And here’s the truth - Baby Steps is not a series that blows you away out of the starting gate, even in manga form. It was never going to spawn a lights-out premiere like Haikyuu did, because it doesn’t aspire to do the same things that show did (wonderfully) out of the gate. This is more a series that gets under your skin, intrigues you, and slowly draws you in until you’re completely hooked. That’s a harder sell in anime form, and I hope Pierrot and director Murata Masahiko are able to close the sale.

Those of us who love Baby Steps were of course worried when it was announced as a 25-episode series, even if slightly less so because it was also announced that mangaka Katsuki Hikaru would be writing for the anime. The presumption is that Pierrot is going to attempt to tell a complete story (the manga is currently at 30 volumes and ongoing) in that time, and the fact that the OP shows the main character at Centre Court Wimbledon does nothing to dissuade one from that perception. I’ll be disappointed that so much of the manga I love is never animated if that happens, but I also worry because this seems to me a series that won’t take well to short-cuts and hurrying things along. When the hero is all about the process and doing things a certain way, haste may be the opponent we most need to worry about.

We’ll see – all we can do is take it one episode at a time. What I can so far is that the anime adapted the first couple of chapters relatively unscathed – the only major change being the pre-open flash forward to hero Maruo Eichirou (Murata Taichi) playing at a local junior tennis tournament (which worked well, I thought). The tennis sequences themselves are excellent – clearly, Murata-sensei is using rotoscoping here (tennis is a tough sport to animate, so I think this is a good choice) – while the traditionally animated sequences are only average (but happily there’s nary a drop of CGI in sight). It’s always an adjustment when you hear characters you know so well on the page speak for the first time, but the casting seems fine – Murata sounds pretty close to what I expected Ei-chan to sound like, and Kotobuki Minako is in the ballpark as main heroine Takasaki Natsu.

One of the first things you notice about Baby Steps is that, unlike most sports anime, it features male and female characters prominently right off the bat. I get the sense that Na-chan’s role is going to be even bigger in the anime version, almost a co-lead – though that’s just my hunch. It’s also plain that Ei-chan – so nicknamed because he gets straight As – is quite unlike traditional sports shounen leads. He’s not an honor student because he’s a genius but because he’s recognized the weakness in himself that forces him to be much more meticulous in his studies than most people, and turned it to his advantage. That’s a very crucial (and consistent) part of Ei-chan’s character, and it’s one of many things that makes him one of the most interesting and likeable leads in manga. It’s also impossible not to notice that he’s not an athlete in any way – in fact he starts playing tennis because he’s looking for something he can do one day a week (all the free time he has from studying) to stay in shape (not for the last time, this prompts his friends to note that he sounds like an old man).

As someone who played tennis in high school and loves the sport, I recognized immediately that tennis was the perfect sport for Ei-chan – and why – and I loved Baby Steps for illustrating that so beautifully. I can only hope the anime is able to do so as well, and so far it seems on-point – though to be honest, tennis isn’t a huge part of the story yet so it’s too early to tell. What we’re mostly doing now is getting to know Ei-chan – seeing his quirks, how he thinks, what his buttons are and what pushes them. It’s no coincidence that “Believe in yourself” is the OP because it’s also the tagline of the manga and intrinsically central to everything Baby Steps is about.

We’re also seeing how those elements tie in with Na-chan, the adorable and blunt classmate of Ei-chan who happens to play at the same STC (Southern Tennis Club) that Eichirou follows a coupon for a free trial to visit. While Na-chan does represent a sort of feminine ideal and it’s obvious that Ei-chan will develop feelings for her, she’s no plot device – she’s a fully developed character with a story of her own to tell. It’s also refreshing to see Ei-chan’s reactions to her in the premiere, because this is clearly not a stereotypical anime crush. He’s not comically shy around her, but he clearly notices how attractive she is. It’s just that thinking about girls that way hasn’t entered his equation yet – he doesn’t have notes on it.

In the end, then, we have a first episode that seems to be in no hurry to blow past what makes Baby Steps a great series – yet it only has 25 eps to condense the essence of 300 chapters. So I can only say again, wait and see – because there’s just no way to know exactly what we’re going to get here. There are things I wish were better – the BGM is pretty plain and a bit too obtrusive for starters, and I wish this were getting the luxury treatment at the hands of a glamor studio like Haikyuu is. But the big things, so far, are being gotten right. I want desperately for the anime to capture what makes Baby Steps one of the best sports manga ever, and for it to find an audience receptive to that. But on both fronts, I’m going to be on pins and needles for a while longer.

 

ED Sequence

ED: 「ベイビーステップ」 (Baby Steps) by (Horie Shota)

Preview

April 7, 2014 at 1:28 am
42 comments »
  • April 7, 2014 at 1:54 amZhinvu

    Haven’t read the manga, but I am enjoying this pilot episode. It might be just me but Natsu reminded me of Ichigo 100%’s Nishino Tsukasa. It’s gotta be the hair.

    • April 7, 2014 at 4:41 pmSaske00000

      I thought the same when i saw her :D

  • April 7, 2014 at 2:34 amShirocat

    Didn’t plan to watch it, but just by your post about admiring this serie, you changed my mind Enzo. It’s shame that many people can miss this show, because it wasn’t promoted enough.

  • April 7, 2014 at 2:56 amZerix

    One thing that I think shines in Ei-chan is his objectivity (mostly from his developed nature). It separates him from most MCs, and even from the other characters (in the manga). TBH though, I’m kinda weird out by the eyes of the characters, and I believe it’s because Pierrot is the studio animating it. (I’ve read opinions that Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii, which is also done by Pierrot, gives off a 90′s or 00′s feel.)

    • April 7, 2014 at 2:59 amGuardian Enzo

      I’ve seen that eye comment before – honestly, I don’t quite get it. I mean – they’re eyes.

      I think your observation about Ei-chan is on-point, though I won’t get too specific. Let’s just say there’s a certain type of objectivity that’s hardest of all to have, and the fact that he has it is one of his greatest strengths.

      • April 7, 2014 at 3:30 amZerix

        I guess I’m just getting used to how most eyes are drawn nowadays. Seldom do I watch anime that has eyes drawn like this.

        BTW…
        Show Spoiler ▼

      • April 7, 2014 at 3:51 amGuardian Enzo

        Show Spoiler ▼

      • April 7, 2014 at 4:30 amZerix

        Fair enough…

        Show Spoiler ▼

  • April 7, 2014 at 3:13 amAmiluhur

    I’ve no idea if it’s because of difference in taste or anything, but it seems to me Baby Steps did everything right in what Haikyuu! did wrong. While the first episode of Haikyuu! instantly jumps into the meat of things, Baby Steps takes things a bit slowly and develop the protagonist from the ground. Both are equally entertaining though, but in terms of believability and relatibility, Baby Steps clearly wins.

    • April 7, 2014 at 8:27 amMeleeFighter

      That’s because Haikyuu is in Shonen Jump and Baby Steps is in shonen magazine. In jump if you start slow it may get cancelled very fast.

  • April 7, 2014 at 3:27 amdxb_blackwolf

    I’m looking forward to this. Both Pedal and Ace of Diamond dropped their pace significantly and dropped in quality at some point, even though their first episodes looked promising. Baby Steps has a great manga and isn’t lacking in content, so I hope it doesn’t suffer the same way the other sport animes did. I was a bit worried, but the first episode impressed me.

  • April 7, 2014 at 3:36 ambolton

    what sports anime does well is hyping the audience up and introducing (and exaggerating) aspects of the featured sport. however, i’m actually more interested in picking up some study skills from eiichiro, as silly as that sounds.

    i hate to be an echo, but the character design is a little off-putting as well. it’s not a deal-breaker by any means for me, but i can definitely see some of my friends who are very picky on the aesthetics to be uninterested simply because of it. i have a feeling it’ll grow on me, already i can see that eiichiro is a very easy character to relate to. couple that with his unique ability of being able to study really well (i love how he says that he has to prepare more than others and that’s why he’s such a good student) and watching how it’ll apply to a physical sport; baby steps has a very interesting premise.

    i really hope people will pick this up. i was going to anyway since i like sports anime, and i was a fan of prince of tennis (i know this show will probably be nothing like it); so hopefully people will at least give it a shot.

    • April 7, 2014 at 2:00 pmChromeNova

      I totally understand what you mean, I’ve tried recommending my friends to read this manga but some said they were just thrown off by the art style and so they didn’t want to read it. The artwork isn’t as stylized or well drawn as some other manga, it’s definitely not one of the manga’s selling points (some characters look nice though :D). Once you get used to it though, it’s going to be a fun ride.

  • April 7, 2014 at 3:36 ambelatkuro

    Ei-chan’s seiyuu sounded awfully similar to Fukuyama Jun that I was surprised that it wasn’t him. Also didn’t get to recognize Kotobuki Minako, though her saying ‘Ei-chan’ is a bit grating to the ears with that high pitch.

    For this show/manga to be regarded highly by Enzo is already a big reason for me to watch it. Though even without that I would still have watched it. And so far so good. The main characters are pretty likable and the approach to the sport is typical and yet not so typical. As someone who’s also lacking in stamina and not into sports like Ei-chan, I can relate more than usual to him and I’m interested to see how he will survive and grow to like tennis.
    As with most sports manga, it’s probably futile to expect some romance but I like the chemistry of the two.

    Will definitely continue to watch and I’m glad for the variety and amount of sports anime airing this season.

  • April 7, 2014 at 4:15 amRBFullmetal

    Finally… :’)
    I was browsing for new sports manga after prince of tennis (what a bad aftertaste ><) when I first found baby steps. Since then, it has been a very pleasant journey. Watching Ei-chan struggle, being insecure, and even then pushing forward is very inspiring. Now it's just wait to see if we will get to see the high-level matches in this animation, with the quality and polishment they deserve.

  • April 7, 2014 at 5:54 amstarss

    Moral of the story: study THE PEOPLE who make these, NOT the studio. Do not always used the studios’ name to comment on the work all the time! …because guess what. …. this is animated by..

    GAINAX.

    GAINAX.

    MY. GOD.

    • April 7, 2014 at 7:13 amGuardian Enzo

      Huh?

    • April 7, 2014 at 7:22 amkoge

      lol. It was inevitable that too much anime in one week would eventually make someone crazy.

  • April 7, 2014 at 7:19 ams_w

    I was stoked to hear the announcement of an anime version to one of my favorite mangas, and definitely my favorite sports manga. I don’t have any complaints about the animated version at all.

    Ei-chan is a great lead. He’s a lot of fun to watch, mainly because he never whines, he just analyzes and comes up with a new plan. Every time. You see it in this ep: “I’m too weak to complete the warm up. Guess I’ll start running every day.” He’s not a robot, he’s just brutally honest with himeself. (Robots don’t blush or hide from girls looking their way.)

    I think the mangaka does a great job of consistently creating believable characters we can relate to on some level.

    And if there’s more Na-chan in the anime, I’ll be happy.

    I hope they extend this series past 25 eps. (Space Bros got 99!) It would be a shame to rush through it all and waste all of that beautiful attention to detail. >_< That said, economic reality is harsh. I never thought Baby Steps would ever get an anime in the first place. I hope they have a good plan for it!

  • April 7, 2014 at 8:23 amDQN

    I’m drawn to this anime by the unique protagonist and I think I’ll pick up the manga too

    just one thing tho, is it just me that itch to pull out Ei-chan’s weird spike-thingy on his head?

    • April 7, 2014 at 4:34 pmZerix

      Not just you, but as far as I remember, it has been a sort of joking matter at times in the manga.

    • April 7, 2014 at 7:06 pmYukie

      lol, and here I thought I was the only one who couldn’t stand the stegosaurus hair while reading the manga.

  • April 7, 2014 at 8:35 ammagoiichi

    I am completely fine with an anime original version of Baby Steps, skip some of the boring tennis matches and just go with the exciting ones.

    Don’t go too anime original though, there are quite a few matches I’d love to see animated as well as the interesting opponents.

  • April 7, 2014 at 9:10 amFlareKnight

    Certainly having enjoyed the manga I would have loved this series to get that elite visual treatment, but at least it got animated. The first episode was nicely handled and without rushing things. Here’s hoping they can avoid doing something drastic that makes it next to impossible to ever do a continuation. Especially since rushing it would go against what the series is and make it pointless.

    Still think the voice work will take time to get used to. Ei-chan is pretty well in that area that fits. Natsu still doesn’t quite sound right to me. Will just hope for the best and that after a few episodes I’ll just get used to it.

    Solid start and certainly enjoyed the OP they went with. Here’s hoping this adaptation will go well.

  • April 7, 2014 at 9:42 amAlec

    I don’t like Maruo’s voice. It just seems off to me, but that’s only because that’s not the voice I imagined he would have considering how serious of a character he is, especially when he’s on the court.

    I’ll have to get used to it

  • April 7, 2014 at 10:09 amStreamB

    OMG! my favority manga now have an Anime!!? i didn´t know, man this is great but i will wait until i can watch at least 10 episodes.

  • April 7, 2014 at 10:54 amMekem

    Golden Boy meets Prince of Tennis? This is gonna be good.

  • April 7, 2014 at 11:08 amhello

    i never read the manga. but after watching the anime, I started reading and I can’t stop.
    Maruo is really adorable Q w Q. He’s so thrilled to learn more.

  • April 7, 2014 at 12:04 pmSeya-san

    What do you think about adaptation? Is it done well? Previous works of this director (Murata Masahiko) don’t look done well.

  • April 7, 2014 at 1:56 pmChromeNova

    I have mixed feelings about getting an anime version of Baby Steps. Being a big, big fan of the manga, I was a bit worried in how they would pace the show and whether they would do the manga justice. It’s just like you said Enzo, it’s not a show that will make you go “wow” at first sight, it’s something that starts out fairly interesting, and gradually hooks you in to the point where you just can’t stop reading it. You described my main concern perfectly, the little nuances and obstacles that Ei-chan faces and his thought process and action he takes to try and solve it as what makes this a delight to read/watch, so I’m hoping they can capture the highlights of the manga.

    Also, for those who will inevitably compare this title to Prince of Tennis, I’d say Baby Steps is a much more realistic portrayal of Tennis. It definitely gets intense later down the road, but it doesn’t get to the point where the players turn super saiyan and somehow destroy the environment with flaming balls.

    • April 7, 2014 at 4:42 pmZerix

      LOL, I liked PoT before too, but then I learned to play tennis, then I noticed that some rules aren’t being followed in the anime (like ad or deuce court during service). Also Eichiro is no Ryoma in that he hadn’t had any background in tennis when he started, and he got so good in just a short amount of time (compared to other players).

  • April 7, 2014 at 2:04 pmMentar

    Well well… since GE is throwing such a fastball straight down the center with this one, I guess it’s time to queue the torrent and see for myself…

  • April 7, 2014 at 3:38 pmThe Shizard

    What I like about this show is that it’s enjoyable for me even though they hardly played any tennis yet, meaning it doesn’t solely rely on those “wow raw talent much awesomeness” moments. Good romance, dreams and stuff hopefully prevents the need for meteor tennisballs flying round on my screen.

  • April 7, 2014 at 4:28 pmTadashi

    The sad thing about sports anime is that they are almost always under the radar. They are pretty underrated and written off simple because “they are about sports” which is a shame. Like you said though, recently we’ve been getting a lot of sports anime with variety and I’m loving it. I’m a huge fan of sports anime and glad that they’re slowly getting more spotlight.

    A great pilot episode and already I’m loving it. This, Haikyuu, and Diamond no Ace are all great so far. I just wish more people would give them a chance.

    On a side note, have you seen Major or Cross Game? Both excellent baseball series always fighting for a spot in my top 10 haha. Currently Major is there but every now and then I feel like Cross Game should be up there.

    • April 7, 2014 at 7:28 pmGuardian Enzo

      I adore Cross Game and Major both, though I don’t think of CG as primarily a sports anime. It’s in my all-time top ten for sure. I don’t think Major ever equalled the greatness of the first season, but I always loved Goro as a MC.

  • April 7, 2014 at 7:03 pmYukie

    As a fellow manga reader, I’m delighted to see this series begin to get the attention it deserves. Haven’t watched this pilot yet (got too much last-season anime still on my back burner to finish up)but looking at the screenshots, I’m a little worried about the animation quality…
    Personally, I think we need more anime adaptations of good manga (like this) and less adaptations of cheap, cookie-cutter LNs.

  • April 7, 2014 at 8:01 pmhwighting

    Because I was a big tennis fan, I trudged through all of prince of tennis (‘mada mada Donald’ every episodes for nearly 178 episodes got tired really fast). And after the first episode, Baby steps is already much better.

  • April 7, 2014 at 8:42 pmtsukioniisan

    I took the pleasure of reading the manga after I watched this episode. And I sure am enjoying it right now.

  • April 7, 2014 at 10:14 pmSunny

    Enzo, as I was reading about the synopsis of all the Spring 2014 anime I finally came upon Baby Steps. Frankly upon reading the title and seeing the cover, I thought to myself “A tennis anime, I doubt I’ll watch it.” Then I read how enthusiastic you were in your preview and decided to give it a shot and I must say I am glad I did. I was so into it, I was just like “Damn it! Why do anime episodes have to be roughly 20 minutes with a week waits time!”. I’m really excited to continue watching and see how it all pans out, to say it’s in your top ten manga list, I must say I’ll be sure to enjoy it. When all’s said and done when it’s over I’ll most likely end up picking up the manga, and I hope when your done reviewing the 2 cours how well it adapted the manga. Cheers Enzo, you got someone on board strictly on enthusiasm haha :D

    • April 7, 2014 at 10:57 pmGuardian Enzo

      Thanks, Sunny – that’s absolutely fantastic to hear.

      My recommendation is to do what you’re describing. Since we pretty much know this is going to be a quite abbreviated adaptation, watch the anime and enjoy it with no preconceptions, Then, read the manga from the beginning.

  • April 9, 2014 at 4:25 amSei

    I’m a huge fan of the manga, and those expectations are biting me in the ass. Not too fond of the voices, and there’s something fish-eyed about the anime character design. (A comparison, if I can link an image; http://i.imgur.com/TxH1vTu.png )

  • April 9, 2014 at 12:31 pmRBFullmetal

    I wanted to Baby Steps to have at least the same number of episodes of Eyeshield 21… of course, they can’t compact all the story even with such number (we don’t know for now how long Kachiki-sensei will prolong the series) but this would help to satisfy some of the more avid fans (ME!!!!)