The Spring 2014 Anime Preview Guide
Baby Steps

Apr 6th 2014

Theron Martin

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
Eiichiro Maruo is a high school honor student with a strong obsessive-compulsive streak, which results in him going spastic when something disorderly happens (such as someone disrupting the orderliness of his lunch even slightly) but also makes him well-known for his top-quality notes. This inadvertently leads to him making a connection with Natsu, the school's cheery, pretty idol, when she comes to his class seeking to borrow notes and his are recommended. When he decides to seek out regular exercise on his one open day a week, he ends up at a tennis club where, to his surprise, Natsu is a highly-dedicated member; she even admits that her ambition is to eventually go pro, though she swears him to secrecy on that point. He considers dropping the idea when he discovers that he does not have enough stamina to even get through the club's rigorous warm-ups and collapses, but Natsu personally delivering an offer of a second free trial from the club coach makes him reconsider. Because, of course, it's hard to turn down offers from girls as cute as she is, and we know from the prologue that he becomes a fierce competitor a year later.

And the award for the season's stupidest hairdo goes to. . . Eiichiro Maruo! Seriously, what was the character designer thinking? That aside, the set-up suggest that the series is primarily going to be about Eiichiro using his obsessive note-taking to learn how to play tennis and gain an edge against his opponents. (In other words, it will be his secret technique.) But given how big a role statistical modeling has started taking in sports over the last couple of decades, this actually isn't a far-fetched idea. Naturally the first episode also sets up some potential for future romantic conflict, too, as well as (sadly) introducing the obligatory Annoying Kid Character.

The technical merits of the show are remarkably uneven. Great effort goes into depicting Natsu – and the camera so carefully ogles her during her tennis moves that it could almost qualify as fan service and Eiichiro, but some secondary characters get character designs so rough that they border on caricature. Tennis match scenes are well-animated but the animation slacks quite a bit elsewhere. Really, though, this all comes down to whether or not sports anime and tennis appeal to you. Natsu may be a charmer, but she isn't quite compelling enough on her own to entice in viewers who otherwise don't like either.

Baby Steps is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Hope Chapman

Rating: 3

Review:
Baby Steps is a pretty accurate title for this tennis-focused sports anime from Studio Pierrot. Not counting the flash-forward opening scene, our hero only begins to show an interest in tennis by the end of the first episode, and his interest does not coincide with any acumen. It seems like the only thing Eiichiro excels in is studying, something he doesn't claim to enjoy. Convinced that his stamina is subpar for his age (must be all that hunching over a desk,) and encouraged by the cutest girl in class, Ei-chan decides to take up tennis, hoping only for a fun, endurance-building diversion. I think we all know his passion for the sport will shoot far past hobby into obsession, but he's not there yet. Y'know. Baby Steps.

This is a nice show. It has fun characters, a solid sense of humor, a clear understanding of and love for its subject sport (an ironclad requirement for any sports anime,) and brings it all home in a way that can appeal to anyone, which is the metric I value most, as I'm not a sports fan in the least, but can hold a select few sports anime dear to my heart. It's the ones with strong characters that can convey the enthusiasm for a game without getting lost in the minutiae that really leave a mark, and Baby Steps seems like it's headed down that path.

That said, it doesn't impress in any regard either, and that's probably because it starts out with such temerity. There are good ideas here, the tone is inviting, and the production values just above standard. (Once again, this is nearly an ironclad requirement for a good sports show, due to the inherently physical nature of the story's content.) At the end of all this pleasantness however, there's not much to say about Baby Steps, any more than there would be to say about a premiere shonen tournament series with all its basics in place and just a few tiny twists on formula to have garnered attention. If anyone's for tennis out there, this anime will definitely do right by you. If the premise doesn't interest you off the racket, though, this first episode isn't going to change your mind.

Baby Steps
is available streaming at Crunchyroll.com.


Bamboo Dong

Rating: 2.75

Review: The second I saw a tennis ball bouncing on the screen, I was intrigued. I am a sucker for sports anime. The more ridiculous the training sessions, the more outlandish the motivational speeches, the better. I love a good underdog story—which most sports shows are—and I love a solid tale about athletes overcoming their weaknesses and becoming the national champion of [insert sports here].

And yet, I found myself a little bored by Baby Steps. Maybe it's because the story reminded me too much of shows I'd seen in the past: the straight-A student who's obsessed with studying (because he's not naturally smart and needs to work at it, duh) who becomes so obsessed with something that he applies all of his note-taking and studying skills to learning it. It's like the scaled-up version of Desktomu from Chihayafuru, and it's virtually the same storyline as the 2005 Disney movie, Ice Princess, starring Michelle Trachtenberg, except with tennis instead of figure skating.

The problem is, I already know how this show is going to play out. Main character Eiichiro is going to get really good at tennis, but he'll reach a point where he realizes that he doesn't have enough talent, and then has a breakdown. He'll fret about it for a few episodes, go sulk in the rain, and then quit for a while, until he walks past some kids playing at the park and realizes that he actually does love tennis after all! And then he'll go win the regional championship or whatever.

Even the character setups are a little on the recycled side—sweet dorky Ei-chan is just some nerd, but he's being befriended by the most popular/prettiest girl in school, because she's super into tennis and wants to go pro (why? that's a secret!). But she's been spending time with this handsome guy who also really likes tennis, which probably means that at some point, that guy is going to confront Eiichiro and say, "This is just a game for you! For the rest of us, it's our lives! But you can't study for this like some test!" and then after he gets beat, he'll begrudgingly accept that Eiichiro is really good at tennis after all.

If there's one saving grace to this first episode (and one speed bump to my wild telegraphy of this show), it's that Eiichiro is pretty likeable. Okay, he's a little on the bland side, but he seems like a nice dude who rarely gets down about anything. It makes you appreciate how hard he tries at the first day of tennis class, and it makes you kind of want to root for him. It's like the archetype of the relentlessly optimistic sports show hero, except he's a lot more grounded, and doesn't exclusively speak in platitudes.

Still, while I appreciate that Baby Steps is trying to go the mass-appeal route by featuring a readily relatable and emotionally accessible hero, instead of some upstart who's always Dreamed of going to whatever the tennis equivalent of Koshien is, I'm a little wary of its cookie-cutter execution. It's possible that I'm way off base and Baby Steps will find a way to tunnel inside my heart, but my hopes aren't high.

Baby Steps is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Carl Kimlinger

Rating: 3.5

Review: In a way, Baby Steps is the show Haikyuu!! should have been. Where Haikyuu!! took the shortcut to sports drama—by stacking prefab blocks of tried-and-true story elements—Baby Steps takes that hard road: building its characters’ lives from the ground up, with sporting action only a vague shadow on the horizon. In the short term they're equally entertaining—Haikyuu!! in its quick, flashy way, and Baby Steps in its more meticulous, personal way—but guess which one has legs?

Which makes Baby Steps a lot like its protagonist. Eiichiro Maruo is an obsessively detail-oriented person. The way he succeeds at anything is with persistence, organization, and copious notes. In his typically pragmatic way Eiichiro has decided that he needs more exercise. He figures he'll give tennis a try—the local tennis gym is having a free membership trial—but he quickly finds out he's in no shape for such an intensive sport. Still, with the encouragement of fledgling tennis pro (and cutest girl in the class) Natsu, he decides to stick with it.

And that is honestly all the further we get into Eiichiro's tennis career: his first day at the gym. The show is definitely playing the long game, and it pays. Eiichiro, with his blatant OCD and meager physical skills, is a far more interesting lead than any dozen sports hotheads, and the prospect of following his incremental path to tennis competition is quite a pleasant one. His nature guarantees that future matches will be strategy-intensive, and the show is clearly as interested in how sports can affect a person's life as it is in straight competition. As Eiichiro's main motivation, Natsu is charming and driven, with her own inner life and outer relations, which says good things for the show's ensemble potential. Steps isn't pretty to look at (Eiichiro's hair… ugh) but if that's the trade-off, I'll take it.

Baby Steps is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Rebecca Silverman

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

Review:

Maruo Eiichiro, called “Ei-chan” by his classmates for his straight A grades, is organized almost to the point of appearing like he has OCD. His notes are deemed better than textbooks, his life is scheduled down to the minute, and heaven help you if you mess up his lunch eating system. But Eiichiro is concerned that all of his studying will end up with him getting out of shape, so he decides to take up an offer of a free trial at a local tennis club. Much to his shock, tennis turns out to be more strenuous than he had anticipated, but either because of the sport, his urge to get in shape, or the popular schoolmate Natsu who goes to the club, Eiichiro decides that maybe he'll give it a shot.

Less engaging than Haikyuu!!, whose first episode aired just before this one, Baby Steps looks like an interesting take on the sports genre. Eiichiro is far from the usual hero. He maps out his tennis plays like math equations (even mid-game, as we see in the beginning of the episode) and his rigid lifestyle sets him apart from a lot of heroes in similar shows. His classmates treat him with a combination of amused tolerance and affection, which is also a nice change – there's not a bully in sight, except for maybe a bratty little kid at the tennis club. That Eiichiro will decide to commit to tennis and become really good at it is a foregone conclusion, but watching his journey there could prove to be interesting.

Unfortunately there's something that feels very off about the characters' designs. They have tiny feet on stocky bodies, faces appear to be off-model so frequently that I began to wonder if there even was a model, and a lot of the tennis shots are just scenes of the ball spinning through the air. The background sounds of a tennis game are good and really help to alleviate the short cuts taken by the animation, so we don't feel it too keenly. Perhaps the most irritating thing, visually, about the show is Eiichiro's hair – he has a sort of mini-mohawk in his bangs, which, given his character, I would have thought would annoy him mightily. Then again, it is dead center, so maybe I'm the only one who wants to smash it flat. Natsu is another slight irritant, not so much in her ever-rearranging facial features, but more in her personality. Presumably she is meant to contrast with Eiichiro's polite rigidity, but she mostly comes off as thoughtless. But this is only the first episode, so maybe she'll improve.

Baby Steps, I feel, is more a show for people who like sports stories than one with a broader appeal. Eiichiro's pending tennis awakening has its quirks, but this first episode is not quite as good at pulling you in as it might have been. If you're looking for a different type of hero, however, this one fits the bill, and it has signs that it might get stronger as it goes on. So if you like tennis and Prince of Tennis has too many characters for you, give this a go.

Baby Steps is available streaming on Crunchyroll.



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