When we use the term “Sakuga” in regards to anime, it’s generally in relation to the animation – those moments where fluidity and detail reflect a signifiant uptick in the budget to really drive a scene home. For me Baby Steps is “Sasuga” – an all-purpose Japanese expression used when someone or something you expect to be good really delivers the mail, just as expected. For Baby Steps the anime great writing is sasuga, but sakuga is anything but sasuga. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise to see this episode animated so beautifully – especially the match between Takuma and Araya. Clearly, Pierrot has been saving up some budget for moments like this.
In all honestly, I think this was about as flawless an episode of sports anime as you could ask for. It offered an even split between on-court and off-court development, it featured wonderful interaction between the two romantic leads, it meaningfully advanced the arc of not just the main character but several others, and it introduced an important new character with style and wit. It’s in moments like this when it really becomes clear why Baby Steps is such a comprehensively superb sports manga, but it’s certainly gratifying to see the execution in the anime rise to the occasion in a big way.
As it happens I’m reading about Maruo fighting through an incredibly tense match in the manga even as I’ve watched the Araya battle unfold (not much a spoiler, that) and without going into too much detail, the experience is really illustrative of how internally consistent Baby Steps is. It’s striking both how much Ei-chan has grown from the person and player we see here, yet also how much of what he becomes is already perceptible – his character, like the series, is like peeling back the layers of an onion. There’s so much depth here, so much detail – it’s that which really makes this such a unique sports series. It’s a shame we’ll never see that fully play out in anime form, but hopefully a few more people will be prompted to read the manga and if so, the anime will have served a noble purpose.
In terms of what happens on the court, it largely speaks for itself – it’s two talented young men bringing out the best in each other. As Araya puts it, “I’ve never thought this much during a match before” – and that’s the nature of Ei-chan’s style, like a bulldog with a genius I.Q.. His combination of persistence and resourcefulness is a powerful weapon, even if his other weapons haven’t yet developed enough to fully take advantage of it. His style is always asking questions of the opponent, and Araya is smart enough to realize that being forced to answer them is making him a better player. Ei-chan loses, but it takes an unreturnable ace and a lucky net-cord to finish him off.
What happens after the match is even better than the match itself. I love seeing Ei-chan in these vulnerable moments, where he comes face to face with his own limitations, because it’s they that reveal what a remarkable lad he is – and in this instance it also delivers up a truly glorious shared moment with Nat-chan (though poor Sasaki would surely disagree). I think it’s wonderful that Ei-chan cares so much that he can’t quite hold back the tears as he talks about it with Nat-chan, and her reaction to the awkwardness is perfect. I see Nat-chan criticized a lot, but my honest view is that comes from not really getting where she’s coming from as a person – maybe the anime hasn’t done a good enough job of portraying that, and I know her too well to notice. She’s an incredibly honest and positive person, and she seems to always know the right thing to say to Maruo – Nat-chan trusts her instincts in key moments both on and off the court, and they usually serve her well. There’s no artifice to her – when Nat-chan says something it’s because it’s what she truly thinks, and when she thinks something she usually doesn’t hesitate to say it.
Ei-chan himself is man enough to cry after such a heartbreaking loss, but there’s no self-pity here. Watching Takuma and Araya is an opportunity to learn something he can use to get better himself, and he’s there dutifully taking notes as soon as their match begins. For Takuma this was in many ways the worst possible result – he shared Araya’s weaknesses with Ei-chan, and the net result was that Araya won anyway and improved his weaknesses in the process. But as Takuma says he deals with Ei-chan every day, so he’s used to having to think on the court. The final match was a fascinating one – beautifully animated, and the contrast in styles between the fluid and graceful net player and the gritty and intense counter-puncher came across better than I ever imagined it could. As for Araya going back on his word after the match, it was only right – Araya accomplished something very significant during this tournament, even if it wasn’t what he originally set out to accomplish.
In the aftermath of the match there’s the awards ceremony to look forward to, Maruo’s first as a participant. But when he goes to stow his notes in his bag (yes, Japan is the safest country in the world) he runs across a young man who immediately recognizes him as “Notebook-kun” and grabs his pad without asking. This, as we soon learn, is Ike Souji (Hosoya Yoshimasa) the boy Maruo’s age who left STC at 14 and went to study in Florida because no Japanese in his age bracket (certainly not Takuma) could challenge him. Ike is in town for the upcoming Japan Open, where he plans to make his pro debut – but he gives Ei-chan a message to deliver to Miura-kantoku, that he’ll be stopping by for a proper visit. It’s no spoiler to say Ike is an important figure in Baby Steps, and we haven’t seen the last of him.
There’s one more very important element of this episode, and it comes in its final moments. No sports manga that I’m aware of portrays the parental side of youth sports as well as Baby Steps does (only Capeta in its first arc comes remotely close), and while it hasn’t been a major part of the anime so far, that’s because Ei-chan hasn’t gotten full-on serious about tennis yet. But he’s smart enough to know that even in losing to Araya as he did, he made great strides forward (just as Nat-chan told him after the match) and meeting Ike Souji was a reminder of what was possible when one truly dedicates themselves to tennis. Ei-chan’s parents aren’t cardboard figures relegated to the background – they’re real people who love their son and care about his future, and his “Tatoeba…” moment at the end of the episode is one of the true landmark moments in the series.