Season Reviews, Sports Edition: Baby Steps, Haikyuu!!

These two shows may share a genre (and a final grade), but they couldn’t be more different.

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Okay, so technically this should be the “series” (not “season”) review of Haikyuu, but c’mon – we all know they’re going to make more. Of course the big surprise this morning wasn’t that Haikyuu DIDN’T get an official Season 2 announcement, but that Baby Steps DID. Yes, The Little Tennis Series That Could will be back in Spring 2015, with more of its unique MC and equally unique take on the sports genre itself.

I’ve quietly become a big fan of the sports anime/manga genre over the last couple years (thanks largely to Chihayafuru, the perfect “gateway” sports show for a shoujo fan if ever there was one), but one thing that continues to surprise me is just how different each show can be, delivering its own style and tone to a genre that is, at its core, about coming-of-age, hard work, and striving to achieve your goals.

Perhaps no two series are more indicative of the many ways a show can go about portraying these themes than Baby Steps and Haikyuu. To see just how different, hit the jump for some spoiler-free reviews on the first 25 episodes of these two sports stalwarts.

Baby Steps

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In Baby Steps we have an intensely realistic look at a single character’s progression in a sport, from the first moment he tries out tennis to… well, the manga hasn’t ended yet, so who knows where that “to” will take him? Protagonist Ei-chan matches the tone of the series perfectly – he’s smart and possesses a fair amount of natural talent, but he’s by no means a genius or a prodigy. Instead he’s an absolute work horse, methodical and observant, forever thinking and strategizing and taking that one, well, baby step forward each episode, both in his tennis game as well as his relationships with the other players (particularly Natsu, a wonderful female character in a genre that can sometimes seem rather bereft of them).

Because of its focus on the very realistic side of sports – the hard, unflashy, grind-it-out practices and training sessions that occur between The Big Matches – some people may find Baby Steps to be a bit of a slow at times. Actually, I’m one of those people (heh), and I admit that I had a hard time with this series, partly because of its pacing and partly because I’m generally more of a team sports fan, and singles tennis is very much a one-on-one battle, two individuals fighting as much in their heads (strategy!) as they are on the court. That focus on internal monologue during the matches themselves made the middle of the series drag a bit for me.

Even so, I stuck with Baby Steps largely because of its likable cast and interesting MC, and by the end of the season I was glad I had. The story really does build on itself very well, slowly introducing both Ei-chan and the audience to the world of tennis (and all the unique personalities who populate it). By the last third of the series, Ei-chan has clearly defined his personal goals, giving the series a sense of purpose that was somewhat lacking previously, and fully investing me in both the matches and the training that occurs in between (the additional focus on side characters helps, too, as it gets Ei-chan out of his head and interacting with others more).

Baby Steps may not be what you think when you think “sports anime,” but it paints a clear, realistic picture of what it’s like to be a young athlete. It’s a bit of a slow burn, and the animation is admittedly sub-par (still frames and noticeably off-model character designs plague the series throughout), but if you’re looking for a smart show with well-written, dynamic characters that pays as much attention to strategy and training as it does to the games themselves, I strongly recommend giving this series a try.

Season Grade: B+

Haikyuu!!

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Haikyuu is more what you think when you think of a “pure” shounen sports show: It’s straightforward, honest, loud, and emotional with a main character (Hinata) and teammates who are as straightforward, honest, loud, and emotional as the series itself. They’re a bunch of volleyball-playin’ dorks you’ll enjoy spending time with, and while the show never reaches the level of depth and subtlety present in Baby Steps, it does give its cast ample development over its 25 episodes, allowing them to grow and change both in matches and out of them.

As much as I acknowledge the objective value of Baby Steps, honestly, I prefer Haikyuu, and I prefer it for one major reason: I love team sports, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an anime capture the positive aspects of team play quite as well this show does. It’s a joy to watch this group of strong personalities come together, work together, and pick each other up when each one stumbles, and it made me flat-out nostalgic for my own volleyball (and basketball) days.

While the first cour drags a bit towards the end, the second cour (the Inter-High tournament) is as fine a sports arc as any, an excellent balance of tense matches and character development for both our boys and their opponents. I freely admit to cheering, swearing, and tearing up periodically throughout the tournament, and I’ll be surprised if you don’t do at least some of the same.

Perhaps more than anything, though, Haikyuu is phenomenally animated. Production I.G. must have known they had a hit on their hands, because they spared no expenses here. Characters are as expressive visually as they are vocally – fitting for a series where just about everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves – and the volleyball matches themselves feature not only some of the best animation of the year, but some of the best animation I’ve ever seen, period. Haikyuu comes about as close as any anime to matching the pace, fluidity, and sheer physical beauty of a real-life sporting event, and the combination of dynamic animation and excellent camera movement had the effect of making me feel like I was not just watching a well-choreographed story, but an actual volleyball game in real time.

Haikyuu never impressed me with ambition the way Baby Steps or Ping Pong did, and it never made me outright giddy the way Yowamushi Pedal did, but incredible animation, a lovable ensemble cast, and exciting matches made this a series well worth watching, and one I would happily recommend to anyone who’s looking for a straightforward sports series full of fist-pumping excitement and great team chemistry. It’s not the best or even my favorite sports show of the year, but in a field this packed with quality, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

“Series” Grade: B+

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