Star student (and meticulous note-taker) Eiichiro Maruo originally takes up tennis just to have a little regular physical exercise in his busy schedule (well, that, and he's intrigued by a pretty female tennis player), but his priorities quickly get reversed as he applies his analytical skills (and a quick eye) to the challenges of the court.
I think how you feel about this show will depend on how you feel about its "set" pieces (so to speak.) I've never seen (have no DESIRE to see) Yu-Gi-Oh!, and it would seem that a show featuring a real sport would have little in common with an inane fantasy, yet certain things from THEM's Yu-Gi-Oh! review resonated with me while watching THIS show: the fact that almost all the action takes place in an "arena" (tennis court here); the endless strategizing the combatants engage in (particularly Maruo, who loves drawing diagrams); the fact that contests can last multiple episodes (it often takes Maruo three episodes to conclude a match against one opponent); the presence of a crowd that themselves analyze, and comment on, the actions of the players (it's Maruo's Coach Miura who usually explains it all); and the relegation of females to mostly spectator status (I'll have more to say about that later.) If you are interested in the rules and strategies of the court, and want to watch Maruo analyze some of the most eccentric and unpredictable opponent's strategies (the style of play of one Iwasa seemed a bit far-fetched to me), and come up with (sometimes) effective counter-strategies, then this is your show. The action is well-animated, both the play in "real" time and that in "stretched" time (the latter so we can follow Maruo's thinking; apparently he thinks VERY quickly.)
(At this point, I should give you a disclaimer about my own objectivity here. When I was a teenager, someone tried to teach me tennis- yes, the game existed, even in THOSE days- but I was insufficiently fleet-of-foot for the game, much less sharp-of-eye like Maruo. Baby Steps spends a good bit of time conveying how rough the physical training is that is required to play on a pro level, even for people who DO have natural talent. In any case, maybe I'm just jealous.)
I don't usually complain about character design, but Maruo's somehow annoyed me. His eyes are too large, especially in relation to the size of his irises, and when he furrows his brow in concentration his eyebrows slant down at an acute angle, which makes him look like...an emoticon. Human characters should not look like emoticons, even in anime. Curiously, even though the show's leading lady, Natsu Takasaki, has essentially the same facial design, it doesn't look bad on her. Maybe it's because her eyebrows never slant down quite so much. Maybe it looks better under her mop of blonde hair than under Maruo's "rooster haircut" brown hair. (The hair in the center front of his head sticks up like a cock's comb.) Or maybe this facial design just looks better on a female face.
As for poor Natsu herself, she's badly neglected by the show. In her first meeting with Maruo, she comes across as, by turns, insensitive and clumsy (the latter is a little hard to understand in a young woman who's been working toward becoming a pro athlete.) While Maruo eventually joins her club, we seldom actually see her playing tennis; she's mostly relegated to being part of Maruo's cheering section. (This IS a Contest Between Men, I suppose.) Somehow she has a lot more free time to attend HIS games than he seems to have to attend HERS. For no particularly good reason, the show also throws in another girl, Sasaki, as part of Maruo's cheering section. She's the classic Sweet, Demure, and Dull girl (complete with glasses) vying for our hero's attention, but given her reserved manner, and the fact that she's NOT a tennis player, I would say she seems at a disadvantage here. (I'd call it 40-Love, Natsu's favor.) For Natsu, on the other hand, there are moments where she obviously wants Maruo to define their relationship- she's surprisingly candid about it, at one point- and at these times you realize that, despite the impression the show originally gave of her, she's actually a rather thoughtful girl who's considered some other things while Maruo was too busy just trying to figure out his own opponents in that War Between Men. I wanted to see more of the Maruo-Natsu dynamic than the glimpses we got. And I REALLY wished we'd been given more opportunity to see Natsu on the court. At least they gave her a starring role in the show's closing credits; I liked the closer a LOT more than the show's rah-rah opener, called "Believe In Yourself!"
Much of the rest of the show's interest resides in the other male characters. I didn't care much for Maruo's longtime pal Kageyama, or for his more-recently-acquired "bro" Yukichi. (Both are drawn in a caricatured style.) But Egawa Takuma, also in Maruo's club, was a moderately interesting character- a surly player of a very aggressive stripe, he has an ambivalent attitude toward Maruo, not least because Takuma seems to ALSO be interested in Natsu (and has known her a lot longer.) Maruo's opponents are a mildly interesting bunch; some just despise him and can't seem to get over that; others are actually cordial, or even give advice.
Three stars overall. If you think that Maruo's frantic attempts to outguess and outgun (or maybe outracket?) his opponents might make for a fascinating watch, or if you just love tennis, please feel free to add a star. At the end of the show, there's an announcement that there will be a Second Season in 2015. Will I be in attendance? Only if Maruo is willing to take, rather than Baby Steps, some Giant Strides in some off-the-court areas of his life. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Nothing really objectionable. Despite the fact that women's tennis outfits are a bit short, the show never does a cheap (panties) shot of Natsu, and she's realistically proportioned. There's no violence per se, though some of the players are pretty aggressive.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream on Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subs.
Review Status: Full (25/25)
Baby Steps © 2014 NHK-E, Pierrot
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