Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 16th 2014
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
Ace student Eiichiro Maruo is renowned for his painstaking ways. His class notes are famous for their precision and usefulness, and he's well known never to be late or lazy. Fearing that he's getting out of shape, Eiichiro focuses his mildly obsessive eye on getting fit. He happens to have a ticket for a free lesson at the local tennis gym, and figures that's as good a place to start as any. What he cannot know is that that ticket is the opening of a new chapter in his life. Because it's at that gym that he befriends aspiring pro (and class cutie) Natsu, who ushers him into the world of competitive tennis. A world Eiichiro sinks wholeheartedly into, attacking the sport with his usual mixture of fastidious study, copious note-taking, and dogged determination.
Truth be told, Baby Steps isn't big on thrills, or on being arrestingly cool. (With a name like that, how could it?) It's interested in quieter, less immediate pleasures: The pleasures of watching good-hearted, hard-working types grow into their potential; the simple pleasures of good characters and good relationships moving slowly but surely in good directions. It's not flashy to be sure, but it is satisfying in a way that many sports anime aren't.
It's Eiichiro of course who dictates the show's tone. He's not a prodigy or a firebrand or a win-obsessed tennis warrior. He's just a meticulous (one might say OCD) boy who wants to do well at whatever he does and is willing to put in the work to do it. So when he finds something he can truly get into, that he honestly loves, he approaches it with his usual detail-oriented thoroughness and plain, unassuming work ethic (fueled, though, by an uncustomary enthusiasm). The series that results is informative (you don't follow an obsessive learner like Eiichiro and not learn a thing or two yourself) and deliberately-paced—less about competition and sporting action than about Eiichiro's step-by-step growth as an athlete.
Which makes its tennis matches oddly stress-free. It's natural to root for the hero, and to sweat the possibility that he'll lose. And we do root. But we don't really sweat. And that's because Eiichiro doesn't sweat. Oh, he wants to win. He wouldn't be a competitor if he didn't. But he has the right perspective about losing. He knows a loss is as much an opportunity for growth as a win, and he doesn't mope or wallow in desperation while getting his butt kicked. Instead he thinks. He plans and ponders and adjusts his game to stop the butt-kicking and turn the tables. And if it doesn't work, well, so be it. He's learned something and next time he'll be that much more prepared.
It's a refreshingly healthy mindset, and it makes Eiichiro an immensely likeable, immensely cheerable lead. It also means that by the end of each match, while still curious to see where it's headed, we've genuinely stopped caring who wins or loses. Which is a curious if pleasant state to find oneself in.
Baby Steps takes the Fighting Spirit approach to the spaces between matches. Which is to say, it has spaces between matches, and that those spaces are used to build an actual life around its lead. The truism is that great sports series aren't about sports but about life, and by that measure Baby Steps is at the very least capable of greatness. If it doesn't make it—and honestly, it's chances are slim—that's because it's too ordinary in its depiction of adolescence, too broad and shallow in its characterization and non-tennis plotting, to play in the big leagues (with, for instance, Fighting Spirit).
That doesn't mean, though, that the life the series builds around Eiichiro isn't fun or full of sharp little romantic/dramatic hooks. On and off the court the series has a winningly underplayed sense of humor and an enjoyably light touch with romance. Watching romantic rival Himeko emerge almost unnoticed from the pack of extras, becoming an amusingly shy force of her own, is a minor joy. The unhurried strengthening of Eiichiro and Natsu's friendship is lovely and just the right touch funny. The way the series touches on both the costs (weakening grades, worried parents, uncertain job prospects) as well as the benefits (strength of character, personal fulfillment) of heedlessly pursuing what you love is also nice. It's heartening that it gives play to Eiichiro's mom without turning her into a parental stereotype, wonderful that it allows Natsu to be unapologetically strong-minded and driven. If has nothing new or nuanced to say—either about being young, being in love, having dreams, or looking to the future—well, we can live with that.
As you might expect given its disinterest in action and excitement, Baby Steps isn't a very impressive series visually. It's drawn with utility in mind—each illustration sufficient to its purpose, be that communicating a tennis move or establishing the setting for a match, and no more. Characters are pretty much anime-standard—maybe a little cartoonier where supporting characters are concerned—and are under somewhat lax quality control. Eyes are allowed to get too buggy, foreheads to fluctuate in length, and faces to change slightly as they shift angle.
In motion the series is no abler. Athletes have suitably distinct playing styles, but are uniformly blah in their animation. Matches are governed more by editing and sideline-commentary than by thrilling fluidity or eye-pleasing moves. Actions are pedestrian in their framing, games stoically competent in their unfolding. The show handles a handful of things nicely—Eiichiro's slowly ratcheting athleticism, Natsu's believably strong physique—but they're generally zeroed out by the show's more egregious artistic missteps. Like the cockatoo crest of hair in the middle of Eiichiro's head, or the audiences of creepy CG mannequins at the tournaments.
Yoichiro Yoshikawa's score is forgettable and forgettably deployed, but it doesn't grate. It's generally light and pleasant, with a summery flavor that matches the show's chosen sport. It gets heavier and more guitar-laden during the matches, but not overbearingly so.
The ultimate test of any sports anime is, of course, its addictability index. You might think that a show with enjoyably low-tension sports action would have trouble kindling a hardcore addiction, and you'd be at least partially right. Baby Steps hasn't the unstoppable thrust of the true sports juggernaut. It does however fly by with surprising swiftness. You check in at the beginning, get comfortably entangled in the likeable evolution of its likeable cast, and before you know it you're all out of episodes. Hopefully there're plenty more to come.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : C
Music : C+
+ Intensely likeable main character; strong female lead; interesting approach to athletic growth; hearteningly healthy attitude about losing; acknowledges life outside of tennis.
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