Eiichiro Maruo is a first-year high school student, and he’s at the top of his class. In fact, he’s known as “Ei-chan” (A-chan) for his grades and his painstakingly meticulous notes. After deciding to join a sports club to balance his otherwise sedentary academic lifestyle, he settles on taking advantage of a free trial at the local tennis club. Little does he know that one year from now, he’ll be competing in the Kanagawa Junior Tennis Circuit!
The next Prince of Tennis has arrived! Well, maybe. Eiichiro hardly has the natural talent of the aforementioned show’s main character, but he’s studious and dedicated as evidenced by his performance in school. His reputation among his peers is one that most honors students past or present can relate to, even if his motivation for such dedication to school is currently locked in the mystery of his lack of interest in learning. Perhaps that’s more of a cultural barrier than narrative obfuscation, but I know I had interest in performing in high school the way I did and I’m curious to find out how his home life and other factors might have shaped his performance.
Unmotivated characters are sometimes more relatable, and seem to be way too common these days. Thankfully, Baby Steps counters with Natsu Takasaki. She’s the preppy school idol, but there’s more to her than meets the males’ eyes. When Eiichiro visits the tennis club, he sees Natsu (who had borrowed -and ruined!- his world history notes earlier!) hard at practice. She notices him, and entrusts him with her secret – she hopes to go pro. And she’s doing what it takes, too. May she be a lesson that just because someone may seem all show, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything going on upstairs. There’s something in the way she’s written that puts a fresh (or maybe honest?) take on the “idol with a secret passion” trope, and it seems like she’s going to fill a mentor role for Eiichiro. It’ll be more refreshing if she breaks some other cliches (if they avoid romance, for example), but we’ll see where the story goes.
If only it were a more pleasant viewing experience. The visuals and audio of this series are actually pretty terrible. Some of the tennis action scenes look nice when you’re not noticing how clunky the animation of the net moving across the screen is. Things bounce all over the place from cut to cut, features slide all over faces – it’s just sloppy and takes away from the immersion of the experience. The voice acting isn’t bad, but the music sounds like updated digital stereo versions of 80s anime soundtracks except without the mono charm, complete from the tinking slapstick track to the totally rad guitar riffs accompanying the sports montages.
Another strike against this show is its narrative structure. I feel like the plainness of the opening flash-forward robs this first arc of any of its drama. You see how he applies his studying to his tennis in the first 10 seconds. In Gurren Lagann, the bombastic scope of the opening scene contrasts so greatly with the story’s beginning that it inspires curiosity. The stated one-year leap from “never played tennis” to “good at tennis” is rather undramatic.
All in all, not a bad episode. I don’t feel like watching it will be a chore… yet.