12 Days of Anime #11: “Awakening to Simplicity” December 15, 2015Posted by navycherub in 12 days of anime, Anime, Baby Steps, Essay.
Tags: 12 Days of Anime, Anime, baby steps, Essay
Another sports show with Kamiya Hiroshi in it, oops.
The first season of Baby Steps had a very specific appeal. While other sports shows use their sports to express their characters’ personalities and growth, they are frequently more than willing to stretch the plausibility of it all to accentuate the emotion. Baby Steps, on the other hand, almost never steps outside of the realm of possibility, showing us a tennis that is technical and (at least, relatively) down to earth, the dream of any sports fan who just wants to see their favorite sport in animated form without frills.
The great thing about it, then, is that Baby Steps doesn’t sacrifice its characters or their stories for the sake of its technical details. Instead, it simply uses those real aspects to develop its characters in its own way. Baby Steps doesn’t believe you really need special techniques, sudden evolutions, or extinction-causing tennis to make your characters stand out. No, instead, Maruo doesn’t even begin the story interested in tennis at all. He hasn’t been running errands until he has an ungodly 40 yard dash or biking back and forth from Akihabara all his life. He’s just a bookworm looking for a way to stay in shape, and tennis manages to fall into the exact kind of cardio he is looking for, until he discovers his love for the sport and decides to pursue it full-time, of course.
Admittedly, his studying habits do constitute a prerequisite super power of sorts, so it isn’t all that different in every way. As soon as he realizes how he can break tennis and the various basics he needs to master into small chunks that can be studied, repeated, and perfected like a science, he utilizes it to his full advantage. He spends a lot of time in the show training his initially ill-prepared body to actually be able to perform those stunts, but in his head, everything he needs to do makes logical sense, so when the time comes all he has to do is work out the logistics of actually doing it. He takes notes on his opponent’s habits between matches, uses his data to calculate their most likely next move, and can break down the other side of the court into 10s or 100s of individual boxes able to be aimed for at a moment’s notice. His ability to divide his learning into smaller pieces comes across in how he perceives his goals, as well, aiming for small milestones that add up to great achievements over time.
It sounds very cool, but after a while I found it to actually be a bit disheartening. For its first season, Baby Steps constantly rewarded Maruo for being able to logic his way out of almost any situation. He didn’t win every match, but the implication that he could go as far as he potentially wanted on pure logistics alone seemed to almost downplay the talent or hard work of other characters, who may not be as inclined to the detail and technicality Maruo is but are excellent players in their own rights.
Luckily, Baby Steps seems to realize it had this problem too, because its second season begins with an arc practically designed to deal with this specifically.
In his Florida training arc, Maruo plays with a group of players who are largely better than him. For good reason – these people have almost all been playing for much longer than him, aiming for heights he has not even though of before. Against these opponents, Maruo’s style of play is unconventional, but still not really enough to put him truly on the same level as them. Maruo trains, and eventually we come to this episode, which portrays the majority of Maruo’s final practice game in Florida against professional player Alex O’Brien. Maruo has been studying Alex for his two weeks in Florida and seems to have an advantage because of this, until Alex notices what weaknesses Maruo is exploiting to stay ahead.
For Maruo, this is a horrible turn of events. He has relied on his data to do well for so long that an opponent who can so easily figure out what is going wrong and adjust for it is a problem. As the game progresses, Maruo starts realizing that he can’t stick with the data and his stats the entire time; his instincts prove to be a vastly underutilized tool in his arsenal, and with them as well as a little luck, Maruo manages to pull a last-minute win from the teenage pro. Learning to combine what he has learned with what he needs to understand on the fly is an important skill that he hasn’t taken advantage of in the past.
What’s really important here is not just that Maruo has learned that sometimes he has to let go and trust his body with his game; in the larger thematic picture, this is the beginning of Maruo learning to live with spontaneity, to trust his gut as well as his intellect. Even better, in Baby Steps‘ mature fashion, the line between those things is not ever really portrayed as solid – instead, his improvement happens by understanding that there is hardly a line at all. Maruo’s growth comes from realizing that his rationality and instinct coexist and become stronger by informing each other.
Throughout the show he has been pushed by friends and coaches to put down the books every once in a while and actually put himself out there, but he never seemed fully comfortable with that prospect. Maruo’s comfort zone was in his mind, where simulations and statistics could play out as perfectly as his imagination would allow. This pushed him a long way, but the practicality of honing that alone has been pushed to its limit by his game against Alex, and the value of real-world experience augmenting pen-and-paper data and vice-versa starts to be showcased through this match.
It is Baby Steps at its finest, mixing the technical and brass tacks of the sport with how those elements reflect the player. For Maruo, learning to appreciate and utilize both the complexity of his mind and the simplicity of his body is a point of growth not only for him as a tennis player, but also him as a person. Most importantly, I believe everyone can see a little bit of themselves in Maruo as he reconciles those two seemingly contradictory parts of himself.