I admit I was a little puzzled by the tepid reaction to Nat-chan when Baby Steps’ anime adaptation was in its early stages. The truth is I felt as if people weren’t really understanding her character the way I was, but it’s hard to divorce myself from the fact that I’m 230 chapters into the series (the anime is around 57, and was obviously a lot less in the early days) and maybe it was simply a function of knowing her better. Still, I don’t remember ever not liking her the way a lot of people weren’t.
Is that starting to change now? I hope so, and it seems to me as if her charms are becoming more and more obvious as the series progresses (and that sign on her back was certainly truth in advertising). More than that, I really adore the chemistry she has with Ei-chan – they’re awkward in a very natural way, which is especially interesting given that Nat-chan by nature is an incredibly straightforward and direct person. I find both she and they very refreshing, free of artifice and self-aware posing. Both she and they are cute without trying too hard about it, and she says what she thinks without doing it to call attention to herself.
Watching their banter at the Oosugi Festival brought all that home – that, and the fact that we’ve so barely skimmed the surface of what Baby Steps has to offer. In literally every aspect of the series – the training, the coaches, the competition, the parents, the romance – the best is absolutely yet to come. The cast is full of great characters we’ve barely met or not met at all. Maybe with Baby Steps and Hunter X Hunter ending at the same time, the Gods are trying to tell me something about the future of anime and being primarily an anime fan as opposed to a manga fan.
Then again, Mushishi and Yowapeda start back up next season…
In any event, we’ve got five more weeks of Baby Steps to enjoy, so let’s enjoy it. Setting aside the art and animation in the anime version (which have actually improved a good bit) I would argue that as a sports series, Baby Steps is probably as close to functionally perfect as it’s realistically possible to get. The logical progression and the depth of breadth of Ei-chan’s experience are peerless in the medium, and it’s vital that there are no shortcuts. On the tennis side, the focus is on completing the two-month experience in breaking down the body – and then immediately launching into a tournament with no rest, the STC Cup. This is no coincidence on Miura’s part – in order for his pupil to understand the nature of the lesson he’s learned, Ei-chan has to go into the tournament without his usual safety net of opposition research and with every muscle in his body protesting every stroke. And indeed, so he does.
This is the essence of the “body transformation” experience – Ei-chan is now able to do things he would have found impossible before. It isn’t so much a question of improved muscle tone and flexibility (though he’s certainly got those) but recovery time. “Active rest” is the key – rather than lie in bed, moderate exercise can help this new body recover faster. And compared to the hell Miura was putting him through, a tennis match against Kanagawa-level opposition is moderate exercise. And like everything else in Baby Steps, it’s a baby step – merely one phase of a physical metamorphosis than will continue from the end of the tournament (in which Ei-chan easily claims his first title) to the Kanto qualifier for the All-Japan junior.
In the meantime, though, there’s a week of rest at last (in time, Maruo’s body will learn to recover completely in two days). Naturally, Maruo being who he is decides to “rest” by busting his tail helping out at the culture festival (here the anime actually improves on the manga with some very funny cosplay moments) to make up for the time he’s missed. Koshimizu (remember him?) tries to be a douche and piss Mauro off by giving him all the lousy jobs, but he’s such a straight-up guy that he neither gets the message or objects to the work (which, happily, pisses Koshimizu off that much more). There’s a bit of a nostalgic quality to these scenes of a normal high-school life, because Ei-chan has effectively given up on a normal life to pursue his tennis dreams (and he seems to sense this). But Kageyama, who knows Ei-chan as well as anyone, replies to the concern of his friends that Maruo is “too into tennis” by saying that Ei-chan has “never been more alive”. Well – his father knows Ei-chan as well as anyone too, and he also recognizes that fact.
It’s at this point where I really started to feel sorry for Sasaki-chan, who’s clearly lost this fight but just can’t seem to give it up. Part of the blame for that may fall on Kageyama, whose constant attempts to fight the inevitable begin to seem almost cruel. And it’s at this point where Kageyama seems to realize this himself, and does what I wondered why he didn’t do a lot sooner – ask Sasaki if she wouldn’t be better off considering the person that’s been by her side (it seems as if in Japan every time a guy in high school tries to help a girl get with his friend, he really wants the girl for himself – it sure didn’t work that way in my high school). Alas that suggestion goes over like a lead balloon – adolescence is indeed a cruel time…
Sadly for Sasaki, you just can’t fight the chemistry between Ei-chan and Nat-chan. I love the moment where she brings him a nikuman as he’s stuck working the information stand for hours, and reports that her friends said she was “acting like Ei-chan’s girlfriend.” Their follow-up conversation is so perfectly them – Ei-chan asks “What did you say?” and Nat-chan replies with “What did you want me to say?” (which causes Ei-chan to go on tilt). The meaning here could hardly be more clear, but this is another area where progress is measured in baby steps – one doesn’t go from abjectly inexperienced to cool and composed about love in the blink of an eye. But here as with tennis, I think one could objectively say that Ei-chan’s steps are adding up to real progress.