We’ve come a pretty long way.
Here we are, 50 episodes in, and the journey’s over. Only Baby Steps has the guts to conclude the series with a loss from our dear protagonist, but manage to pull off an emotionally satisfying end regardless. Yes, we will probably never get any more Baby Steps (as a manga fan, I’m upset but what can you do), but I’m more than happy with where the anime decided to end.
Anyways, on to episodes 24 and 25. I’ll keep this part short so I can gush about the series as a whole a little bit more and what makes it kind of special to me. They were focused on the 3-set match between Ei-chan and Nabae, who has been established across the entire 2 seasons as the One that needs to be beat…or is it? Throughout the match (like many others that came before it) we see Ei-chan struggling to even keep his serve after his zone from episodes 22 and 23 wear off and he suddenly becomes aware of the deficit he needs to make up for. He begins to go ‘reckless’ – as Nabae puts it, but Ei-chan is better than that, and proves why he grows as fast as he does. He takes risks. A lot of them, almost always at the cost of sacrificing a few points for making mistakes along the way. But he isn’t ‘trying his luck’ more so than constantly evolving and re-inventing his own styles of play, refining his strengths along the way. Unlike Nabae, during times of crisis, Ei-chan actually behaves differently. He refuses to go for the route that minimizes risks (which he obviously pays for given the result of the game), aware that he does in fact, have absolutely nothing to lose by going all out, and doing the absolute best he can.
And pay for it, Ei-chan does. This is where the motto of the series shines through again – don’t just look at what’s directly in front of you, but look further ahead, at the big picture, and make small steps forward. If there’s one thing Baby Steps is, it’s truth in advertising. Ei-chan may not have won that final match, but it was of course a satisfying conclusion to his journey (in the anime, anyway) with him realizing how far he’s come in such a short period of time, and how much further he has to go. With him, it’s all about catching up, and that’s not at all difficult given how he’s more than willing to keep going and playing tennis. Yukichi tells him after the match that ‘given one more year, he’ll definitely surpass Nabae’, and there’s obvious truth in that statement.
So what were my thoughts on this understated, realistic (conservative, even) depiction of tennis in anime?
I do still prefer the manga (one of the classics in the genre, up there with Slam Dunk, REAL, anything by Adachi Mitsuru and Ballroom e Youkoso for me as the greatest sports manga there is) – understandable since it’s just one of those stories that get better over time and the manga is over 30 volumes long as of now, but the anime does its job at capturing the appeal of the manga.
In fact, I’d argue that that’s all it is, and it leads me to kind of question the point of the anime being anything OTHER THAN an extended commercial for the manga. I personally believe that anime adaptations need to go beyond capturing the appeal of the manga, they need to do something within its new medium that elevates the original work and gives the anime value. The main problems with the adaptations are obvious – lacklustre animation for majority of its run (although seaosn 2 does look better than season 1, and the animation team ramps the quality up for important scenes accordingly) and music that’s, well, simply put, elevator music. As an adaptation, its serviceable, and could stand to be better.
Good thing Baby Steps has excellent source material. And I mean EXCELLENT source material. As a tennis player myself, I was immediately drawn in to how realistically portrayed the sport was, all down to the minute technical details. They weren’t just there for show either; the work understands the tactical, analytical nature of the sport and this plays out with its characters, in particular of course with our protagonist Ei-chan. In fact, the sport is inseparable from Ei-chan. He has incredible humility (not just modesty) and respect for the sport and the people that play on the courts. He never half-asses anything, even the harsher, blander parts of the sport that definitely isn’t as interesting. In fact, he starts his journey with pure repetition of the basics. That’s not to say he’s mechanistic in his play though – Ei-chan’s play is tactical, but also alive, and very much human.
Unlike other sports anime that seem to focus entirely on emotions running the show (looking at you Ace of Diamond & Haikyuu!!), Baby Steps strikes an ambitious balance between the mind and the heart. In fact, the entire second half of this second season has been focusing on Ei-chan trying to consciously will his subconscious into playing into his most optimal state – the ‘zone’. It sounds almost contradictory, but it works because this is just the kind of person Ei-chan is. He plays with all his mind, but also all his heart. He goes forward, looking straight while dealing with immense pressure, and also bears the full brunt of things when a game doesn’t go his way. He accepts these emotions as an integral part of him (and thus his play), attempts to understand it, and integrate it into his play.
Ei-chan is just a great protagonist, even outside of the court. He inspires the people around him, in fact, it forces them to take good looks at themselves, and think about how much further they have to and can go. This isn’t a one-way street of course, and Ei-chan in turn grows from every single one of his encounters (literally learning from them with his notes) – with special mention to his fantastic relationship with Natsu. I’ve said this a hundred times, but they’re a rare couple in anime that’s completely convincing, and a true power couple in that they really do complement each other perfectly. Ei-chan’s also interesting in that he’s just so conscientious, refreshingly honest and straightforward, yet also faces real problems and responsibilities. How he deals with reconciling his dream of playing professional tennis with his parents’ concerns (without ever blowing his parents’ off!) just shows how he almost overthinks things. He respects and considers the wishes of the people that support him from behind, and also make it a push force for him on the court.
So yes, Baby Steps 2 has been an extremely inspirational story about progress, about passion and about utmost respect for sports. Its story more than packs a punch, even at the hands of a bare bones adaptation. My advice: read the manga!