For a series that’s ending next week, Baby Steps sure isn’t acting like a series that’s ending next week. Not only does it remain resolutely – one could almost say “eerily” – faithful to the manga, it didn’t even have a “The Final Episode!” addendum in the next episode preview for what will, presumably, be the final episode. If there’s any sign of Katsuki Hikaru’s new material by way of an original ending or otherwise, apart from the OP I’ve yet to see any evidence of it.
I’m really agonized over this because as great as the story is already, everything about it is about to get even greater (and once that’s finished, the cycle will repeat). The training, both physical and mental, gets more interesting. The tennis gets more gripping and nerve-wracking. And the relationship between Ei-chan and Natchan continues to develop in a manner so alarmingly natural that because it’s manga, almost fees unnatural.
Integral to that process in ways both expected and unexpected is Aoi Ryouhei Toriumi Kousuke). We (and Maruo) first meet him suspiciously lurking outside STC while Maruo is doing laps after practice ends – or rather, after after-practice ends, as he’s already forced Yukichi to stay behind for an hour feeding him balls to practice his 64-square control. Maruo has just watched Nat-chan rely on her experience and mental fortitude to outlast the middle-school phenom Megumi-chan. Maruo’s answer to this, as to everything else, is “I must work harder if I want to catch up!”
Shady as he looks (he did everything but offer Ei-chan a candy) Aoi-san earns some credibility by dropping Miura-kantoku’s name, though he largely fritters it away by saying it’s because he’s borrowed money from him. He earns even more by stopping Ei-chan’s running and pointing out that his style is flawed – he’s leaning forward, which Aoi speculates is because he’s strained his lower back. He then proceeds to tell Ei-chan to lie down, hikes up his shirt and presses on his lower back until he screams in pain – an action to which Ei-chan’s response seems entirely appropriate. When Ei-chan shows up for practice the next day, one of the two new coaches that Miura introduces is none other than former pro player Aoi-san himself – and Miura pronounces that because he’s going to be busy with Takuma full-time for a while, Aoi is going to be in charge of the other boys in A-Court.
It’s hard to know how much to talk about Aoi-kantoku, like all the other crucial characters dropping into Baby Steps like paratroopers. I don’t want to spoil the experience for all of you that will be picking up the manga, but he’s a great character and vital in a number of ways. The phone conversation between Miura and Aoi is an important one in establishing Aoi’s role in the story, and he makes it clear right from the beginning that he has a somewhat different approach than Ei-chan is used to. “Working harder isn’t always the best way to get where you want to go” he tells him, before unceremoniously kicking him out of practice early and sending him home. His instructions – no practice for the next two days. And Ei-chan is only allowed to do what he wants to do, not what he needs to do. And that goes all the way down to when and how much he eats and sleeps.
By now even anime-only viewers know Ei-chan well enough to know that’s not going to be an easy order for him to follow. This is a boy who always – even before taking up tennis – does what he needs to do. Forbidden from that he’s lost, but fortunately Kageyama proves what a true bro he is once more. He stops Ei-chan from practicing in secret because “I want to practice” and promises to hang out with him – then surreptitiously sets up a one-on-one with Natchan. Sure he has ulterior motives – he can’t put the moves on the Prez till Ei-chan is officially off the market – but Kageyama is just the connection to normalcy Ei-chan needs here. Natchan shows up, Kageayama takes off (but not out of sight) and Ei-chan somehow works up the nerve to stop Natchan from going home, and suggests they do something together.
It’s all so natural, so flowing, so faithful to the source that it feels strange to think the series is really ending next week. There’s no good place to end an adaptation that should go on for 100+ episodes if there was any justice in the world, though I suppose where we seem to be headed is about as good as anywhere. As gutted as I’m going to feel next Sunday night, if Baby Steps has managed to convert a few anime viewers into manga readers, then this series will certainly have been worth it.