From Baby Steps to the Pinnacle of Sports Anime

When I booted up Yakuza 5 for the first time earlier this week, I expected features that were already widely known. Being able to go into a Club Sega and play Virtua Fighter 2 was one that the game features unlike most other open-world games in the genre. It is also a sad commentary that this might be the last time we see a Virtua Fighter game in a Sega release ever, but that’s a different story for another time. One fact of Yakuza 5 that I certainly wasn’t expecting was it for to have the licenses for numerous popular magazines in Japan. Immediately I was drawn to seeing Weekly Famitsu, the popular video game magazine that was once notorious for the strict reviews it gave games. Another magazine that caught my eye, especially its cover, was of Weekly Shonen Magazine. On the in-game cover is a big feature on Fairy Tail, but in the corner I spied what looked like Baby Steps’ Eiichiro and Natsu. Low and behold, if you move from the magazine section in convenient stores within Yakuza 5, players will find a manga section that features the first chapter of various series like Shingeki no Kyojin, Yamada-kun and the 7 Witches, Fairy Tail, Ghost in the Shell, and the aforementioned Baby Steps.

Baby Steps is a manga and anime about Eiichiro Maruo, an honor student discovering the sport of tennis. The manga premiered in October of 2007, while the first season of the anime began in April 2014. With tennis not necessarily being a glamorous sport, especially in North America, it holds that this might be one reason why it is hard to see people talking about the series. With two anime seasons and 37 volumes of the manga published and the latest volume having sold over 140,000 copies as of early November, it seems that Baby Steps has a reasonable following in Japan. Perhaps the English speaking following of Baby Steps is quieter than most fandoms, but if you are a big fan of sports anime, Baby Steps is a series that should be immediately on your radar.

In the time that Baby Steps’ first anime season premiered, it was in the midst of a few sports anime juggernauts taking off or in their prime. The popular volleyball anime, Haikyuu premiered on the same day as Baby Steps in 2014. Also, Kuroko no Basuke and Yowamushi Pedal had seasons air during times when Baby Steps’ two seasons were also airing. The three shows mentioned have shown to have substantial followings for non-Japanese audiences compared to what is seen for Baby Steps. If anything, hopefully this piece will get fans out of hiding more or at least give newcomers an understanding as to why Baby Steps is special and should be held in the same light as the top current sports anime and manga.

Chapter 1 of  Baby Steps  in  Yakuza 5 . Credit to SEGA.

Chapter 1 of Baby Steps in Yakuza 5. Credit to SEGA.

Tennis is usually an individual sport which means there is not really a team aspect for entertainment purposes to draw from. Baby Steps is able to utilize this well by showcasing how Eiichiro is able to climb from being a newcomer in the sport to holding his own with the top talent in the junior division. Eiichiro’s quick growth might draw criticism for being unrealistic, but having him be a studious note taker in school as well as in matches and using his observational skills are the keys to his success early on. It is not as if he immediately comes onto the scene and starts taking out the top competition he faces. The first season of the anime shows that he struggles constantly when faced with people that are far superior to him in tennis. There are times where he lucks into victory due to his opponent not taking him seriously, getting lucky breaks, or utilizing his practice effectively. Eiichrio is quickly brought down though through his rivalry with fellow club member Takuma and when he faces some of the best in his region. By the end of season one, he is finally starting to build the pieces of what he wants to turn his tennis playing into.

Since Baby Steps follows the progression of Eiichiro’s tennis career mostly, showing how the other characters improve can be tricky since they are not on screen as much. The series compensates this by having matches with Eiichiro be the way for the viewer or reader to get the backstory on his opponent and also see how the person he is facing can improve while playing against Eiichiro. With Eiichrio facing the same players from tournament to tournament, some of his opponents end up becoming friendly rivals with him where they will exchange information on various opponents, which helps everyone grow. It is fun to see how all of these unique characters come together through the sport of tennis when some of the relationships formed would probably have never happened.

If what you are looking for in sports anime is copious amounts of drama, Baby Steps serves it up constantly and consistently throughout the first two seasons. In fact, an episode in the latter half of season two had me on the edge of my seat like an actual sporting event would at a high drama point. No other sports anime has been able to suck me in like that. Matches in the anime can last two to three episodes and sometimes ten chapters in the manga will be devoted to a single match. The anime also utilizes cliffhangers very effectively by sucking the viewer into the match so much that by the time a crucial point comes, it is time to cut to credits and wait until next week. 

Eiichiro and Natsu share a moment.

Eiichiro and Natsu share a moment.

Tennis is certainly the main focal point, but if there is anyone out there that would be turned off by the fact that the series would be just about the sport, don’t worry, there are other facets of Baby Steps that happen outside of matches. Baby Steps as a whole is very goofy and is able to do situational comedy well. There were certain moments throughout reading and watching that had me laughing out loud for a while after the bit had passed. On top of comedy, there is also a romantic subplot running throughout the series featuring main characters Eiichiro and Natsu. It is not a relationship that is slapped together for the sake of including romance, but is a real slow burn that begins from chapter one and is constantly evolving up through the two seasons of the anime and thirty-seven volumes of the manga. The two characters are able to work off each other greatly and complement each other in ways that both would not have seen when the series began. It is also really fun to root for them and for their relationship to succeed.

A third season of Baby Steps is still up in the air as of this writing due to their being no indication when season two ended if the series will continue in the animated format. The manga is still kicking so there is still a wealth of material that can be used before the anime would catch up. Season three could just be about the All-Japan Junior Tournament and could easily get 25 episodes just out of that arc alone. There would certainly be some intense drama to witness within that arc as the manga has shown me. Hopefully while the show is currently on hiatus, it will give more people an opportunity to check it out for the first time. Fans in general of sports anime should not hesitate in checking the series out as it will scratch the itch that other shows in the genre accomplish. Heck, Baby Steps got me thinking of playing tennis again for the first time in ten years after I had a bitter breakup with the sport. Baby Steps is inspiring, fun, dramatic, and well worth anyone’s time, regardless of your experience with the sport of tennis.