Only a little over a year and a half has past since Maruo Eiichirou took up tennis for the first time, but he has already decided that he wants to go pro. Having convinced his parents of his determination and with the blessing of the Southern Tennis Club, he now spends all of his time training and competing with the goal of winning the All-Japan Junior during his final year of high school. But the deal with his parents carries one condition, if he doesn’t win the All-Japan Junior he must give up tennis and turn all of his attention to getting into college. But is he really willing to give up the game he loves so much if he doesn’t win it all?
Eiichirou and His Progress
Baby Steps 2 succeeds where all sports anime must, by having an interesting and likable protagonist whose experiences and progression within the game itself inspire the viewer. Eiichirou is just the right type of character to anchor a show to and though the speed of his growth in tennis can seem a bit super-human at times, it is always earned and never feels out of place. As he continually pushes himself to the limit, never wasting an opportunity to find a new way to win, it is nigh impossible to root against him. But Eiichirou is not just an inspiration to the viewer, he also acts to inspire those around him as well, everywhere he goes and everyone that he interacts with during the season comes away changed, making his presence a lasting and significant one.
The Rivals and Their Progress
Eiichirou’s primary rival from season one, Egawa Takuma, has moved onto the pros, so a number of rivals, old and new, must step up to round out the stellar and interesting cast. With Araya Hiroshi and Nabae Yuu being the two most important to take up the torch that Takuma left behind. I especially enjoyed Eiichirou’s relationship with Araya and believe it is the best illustration of how Baby Steps does its rivalries right. After Araya barely defeated Eiichirou in the first season, he cames to realize that there is much he could learn from Eiichirou’s approach to tennis and if he does not improve himself, he would be past up before too long. This same process may be played out with all of Eiichirou’s rivals, but it never grows old as each of his opponents is able to bring a different background and perspective to their respective match. They all walk away, win or lose, knowing that they need to do better and fully aware of their own weaknesses, as one of Eiichirou’s strengths is exploiting any opening he can discover.
It is hard not to smile when the protagonist of a story slowly but surely wins over his opponents and gains the respect of those with more experience. One the most entertaining moments in the season comes when three of Eiichirou’s rivals, the nationally ranked Araya, Nabae and Akada discuss whether or not Eiichirou will win his then on-going match against yet another nationally ranked player. As each offers his own opinion, it is Araya who most strongly backs Eiichirou’s chances, believing that his friend is someone to be feared on the court, as he is completely unwilling to give up and will often show great improvement between the beginning and end of a single match.
As the focus of season two is all about preparing for and getting to the All-Japan Junior, most of the season is taken up by the matches played during both the Kanagawa Prefecture and Kanto Region tournaments. Though the studio, Pierrot, often takes many short cuts during the animation of these matches, it is nevertheless able to keep them both engaging and interesting for the viewer, often switching back and forth from Eiichirou’s perspective and that of his opponent to keep the flow from waning. I can happily say that I was never bored by any of the matches and never felt that any episode was being used as filler, even though a couple of the matches where four episodes in length.
A Budding Romance
Eiichrou’s relationship with Natsu is one of the most pleasant things about the entire series. From beginning to end it feels realistic, neither forced upon the viewer nor used to create needless drama, but is instead a natural part of the greater narrative. It is nice to see a romantic relationship in a sports themed anime be used as something other than a distraction or bother, but be a source of strength and resilience for both parties. It also has just enough progress during the season to keep you satisfied.
Nat-chan and Her Progress
Natsu as a character is great, her intuitive and spontaneous nature acts as a perfect counter to Eiichirou’s much more cerebral approach to things. The problem is that after two seasons and 50 episodes the Natsu we have at the end, at least outside of her romance with Eiichirou, is basically the same Natsu we first met. Neither her character nor her game has changed much as far as the viewer can tell, as we rarely get to spend time with her outside of her interactions with Eiichirou. Which is a shame. It is bad when Yukichi, a character whose name I often forget and usually just remember as the guy that calls Eiichirou “aniki,” has more progress as a player than the female lead. Natsu is an interesting character and a major focus of Eiichirou’s life, it is just sad that she falls so far down the list when it comes to getting attention on her story and game. This is something I really hope gets fixed as the series continues.
America, We Barely Knew Thee
The second season of Baby Steps starts up right where season one leaves off, with Eiichirou traveling to Florida to receive training experience outside of STC and to get a taste of what international play is like. With several episodes dedicated to his two weeks in America, one returning character and a number of new characters are given time and a place in Eiichirou’s world. Though the quality of these characters does vary a bit, all of them have potential and are good additions to the show. After meeting all of them our protagonist gets on a plane back to Japan and we don’t end up seeing any of them again. They will probably return sometime in the future, but until then it is almost as if they don’t exist. Realistic it may be, it is still a let down.
We Are Not There Yet
Starting near the end of season one and throughout season two, Eiichirou and the show’s focus has rested squarely on the All-Japan Junior and what it means for his future. The problem is that Baby Steps 2 ends at the conclusion of the Kanto Regional, meaning that we are still only two-thirds of the way through this part of Eiichirou’s life. The pacing has been fantastic from the beginning, but to come this far and to not know if or when we will finally see the grand tournament played is hard to accept.
Baby Steps 2 does a lot of things right and is a great example of the sports genre. Though it does not quite make it onto my list of all time favorite sports anime, it is worth a watch from just about anyone. If you enjoy likable characters, good writing and inspirational moments you really can’t go wrong with Baby Steps 2. Now to wait for the announcement of season three. It’s not over yet.
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