Having just come off some pretty intense competition eps, Baby Steps gives us something quite different here – the consummate all-arounder, just like its hero. This was one of those quiet weeks that shows off the elements that make this something close to unique among sports series – the attention to detail, the focus on all aspects of Maruo’s journey, and the preternaturally natural (pun intended) nature of the development, both character and plot.
One of my favorite supporting characters in this cast is Aoi-sensei, and this was probably his strongest episode yet. We learned something very important about him this week – that he was forced to retire from the tour because he played through injuries (a common story). That colors everything about his approach to coaching. Take a look at Aoi-san and you see a guy who looks a lot more like an adult Maruo than, say, Takuma – an average-sized guy who’s built himself up into a bit of a fireplug. His approach to teaching is unconventional, but in Maruo he has an unconventional student. He’s the right coach for the right player – and that in-turn reflects on Miura, who was smart enough to see that connection.
Maybe the weight-training sequence was boring if one isn’t especially interested in the sports side of things, but I love the fact that Baby Steps takes the time to get it just right. This is not remotely limited to tennis – it’s especially critical in sports like baseball and golf, for example – but flexibility is ultimately even more critical to “power” than strength. Building up the wrong muscles does more harm than good because it limits flexibility, which is why unfocused weight training is worse than none at all – especially for someone still growing, as Ei-chan is. Even if by his admission Aoi-san underestimated how quickly Ei-chan was going to connect the dots and learn the lesson the Takuma match was intended to teach him, he understands his student – if you show Ei-chan how something works, he grasps it immediately. And he believes in him – “You’ll blow by these players soon enough.”
For Ei-chan, this edition of the All-Japan Junior Indoor is strictly a watch-and-learn affair – it’s next summer that really counts – but for Natchan it’s serious business. She’s just about to start her first match when she sends EI-chan a text asking to meet in the main office, and he’s on the way there when he literally bumps into (well – is bumped into by) Shimizu Aki (Ishihara Kaori, a very talented young seiyuu). Shimizu is an unassuming little thing, and pretty helpless with technology – when her battery falls out she thinks it has a “dent” and wonders why it won’t work, until he fixes it for her. But Shimizu turns out to be the top-ranked junior girl in Japan, someone Natchan has never beaten in four tries.
It’s not yet the time to talk too much about Shimizu, so I’ll just say the clues are there about how she’ll be important to the story. For now, she’s mostly an illustration of how Natchan still has many insecurities, and that manifests itself in more ways than one. If Ei-chan is the ultimate sensor-thinker, Natchan is a classic intuitive-feeler – she trusts herself to instinctively know what’s right, but needs reassurance that she’s doing the right thing. Because Shimizu represents such an obstacle in her path, Ei-chan’s harmless interaction with Shimizu is a bit threatening. And because she still gets nervous in the first round, she’s desperate to have Ei-chan be there to watch her – even if it’s just for a game or two.
Not to overstate the case, but I think the development of the relationship between Maruo and Natchan is amazingly natural and unforced – it’s like the Goldilocks of manga romances. Both of them are aware of what’s happening here, but neither is secure enough to openly confront it – much less to the other. Natchan asking Maruo to be there for her match is (in addition to being adorable as hell) an incredibly big compliment, actually – a huge expression of both affection and trust. And I think Maruo is aware of this, though perhaps he doesn’t quite understand what it means yet. For him, as much as he’s fallen for Natchan (and let’s not kid ourselves he hasn’t) having Natchan there for a symbolic first game really wouldn’t be a big deal. But he’s starting to understand her well enough to realize that for her it is a big deal, and sometimes it’s a partner’s role not to apply their own logic, but simply to be what the other partner needs.
We’re headed into some interesting areas with Ei-chan now – in terms of preparation for the upcoming All-Japan Junior, the difficulty in making life choices, then relationship with Natchan, and work-life balance. And Aoi-san is going to play a big role in this, because as we’re starting to see he’s not so much a coach as a life advisor – someone who’s lived the life of a tennis phenom and stepped in many of its traps, and can help Ei-chan avoid them. Those traps are a big part of Baby Steps – as much as Ei-chan loves tennis, is it really a positive thing for a 17 year-old to be so exhausted that he has to snatch 5-minute naps between classes in order to stay afloat? Ei-chan is obviously lucky not just to have coaches like Miura and Aoi, but friends like Kageyama who have his back when the yahoos in the gallery give him a hard time for the path he’s chosen to take. A lot of tennis kids aren’t so lucky (as this episode shows us).