If Haikyuu is big and impactful, then Baby Steps could be described small and gradual. Neither of those a bad thing, and small not meaning it’s lacking in strength. Rather, its strengths lie in the details, it’s approach and perspective. Cue Maruo Eiichiro, affectionately called Ei-chan for his straight A’s. Having from a young age recognized that he needs to put in more work to keep up than others, he’s taken that to heart, approaching his studies and future in a detail oriented and organized fashion. Which in turn has led to his understanding that he needs some form of exercise to stay in shape. Not for a specific desire, and not because of liking tennis (a sport he’s never played), but simply preparation for the future because he lacks exercise in his life. This extends to his studying as well, not doing it for his enjoyment of it, but for it being something he should do in order to ensure a realistically solid future. Of course, here in the anime thanks to the in medias res intro, we see Ei-chan playing in a local junior circuit approximately a year after the events of the first episode. To put that in perspective, that should be essentially impossible, let alone with somebody who’s doing it for very basic reasons.
That’s where Takasaki Natsu comes in, an evident and emerging spur to action for Ei-chan. Not in the romantic sense, although Ei-chan does recognize her attractiveness. Rather, this is a force of personality far disconnected from his own life, the type he says he’s not good at dealing with. She’s the type of person who holds a vastly different perspective to her own future than he does, one without direction besides stability. Ei-chan is treated to the question of his future and if he enjoys what he’s doing currently by best friend Kojirou Kageyama, and he doesn’t have much of an answer. But when he goes to check out the STC (Southern Tennis Club) facilities for a free tennis lesson, he’s introduced to a world he wasn’t expecting. While on the outside the center is full of people of all ages practicing tennis and further solidifies Ei-chan’s belief that the sport is what he was looking for, on the inside he’s treated to those who take the sport from a different perspective. Those who play tennis seriously. Those including Takasaki Natsu, the girl from his grade, playing tennis on a level where even a total amateur like Ei-chan can tell that she and the people she plays with are good.
Of course, the two recognize one another, and Ei-chan is totally put out of his element dealing with a cocky grade schooler and a bunch of attention over who he is, but once practice starts, it’s like a switch is flipped. The focus all goes on the intense practice, and Ei-chan, try as he might, passes out during the, admittedly harsh, warm-up. It’s not something he can keep up with, and as close as he is to giving up, this is where Natsu sets an anchor in Ei-chan’s mind. With his (true) excuse for leaving being studying, Natsu asks if Ei-chan likes studying, based off the school notes she previously remarked as impressively freakish. Somebody who goes that far has to like what they’re doing, in her mind, be it for studying or school in general. Ei-chan denies this naturally, since he does it to be prepared, because it’s important. This is totally beyond Natsu, since going so far for something one isn’t passionate about is, well, totally beyond her. She loves tennis, so she’ll put all of her effort into that instead, to go pro. This, is what Ei-chan gets anchored on. He had wrongly assumed that this was a hobby for her, but instead it’s what she’s very seriously pursuing as her future, a very unstable and uncertain path. Could tennis really be that fun to cause one to go down a path such as that? He doesn’t get an answer on that beyond seeing Natsu back in serious mode, already back to practice, but the question and display serves as a raised in him. Both for tennis and a curiosity in Natsu. And really, I think the anime did a good job here. Baby Steps was never meant to burst out of the gate from the start, the title implies as much, and with that in mind, it serves these types of episodes of set-up and introduction well.
No lies, Baby Steps is one of my favorite sports manga. Rarely you get a manga so focused in the sport, and have it consistently expand that path for all of its current chapters. Along with that, it’s strength lies in character, particularly that of Maruo. It’s got a very down to earth appeal to it, something which at first feels as meticulous and small seeming as the protagonist himself. In other words, it’s not a show I ever expected to see adapted. Which is why, despite the predominant smile this puts on my face, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat apprehensive here. Pierrot isn’t exactly my favorite studio when it comes to adaptations, though they can do definitely do good work. When you have something which is gradual like Baby Steps and only have 25 episodes to show it though, it can be hard to imagine how the anime could end up doing. But between the knowledge that the author is helping with the content, and seeing this pleasant first episode, it’s probably best to enjoy this and take things as they come.