I’m not sure if Baby Steps is the most consistent series of the last few years, but it’s got to be pretty close. There just aren’t any lulls here – story-wise it’s a series with a variety of peaks and no valleys. And the really great thing about it is that while it’s filled with “I can’ wait till XX happens!” moments for manga readers, there’s no letdown after the gratification – there’s always another of those moments to look forward to, and it’s usually even better than the last one.
No doubt this ep was a mile marker most of us were really looking forward, an episode with a very important event on tap. But with Baby Steps the journey is always continuous, so just as one milestone is reached the sense of beginning is still strong. And as always with Baby Steps, the two pillars of the series – the romantic development and the tennis development – are inseparable. Neither exists in a vacuum, and the impact of the one on the other is always felt. It’s been a while since I was 17 and I was never an athlete with aspirations to greatness, but I swear it really does feel as if you’re right there.
We’re at a critical juncture (one among many) in both journeys here. The Kanto Junior is about to start, but before that there’s the matter of Ei-chan’s match with Takuma. Clearly Pierrot saved up some budget for one of their rare splurges here, because this match is nicely animated. It’s easy to see the dynamic at work – Takuma playing downhill, always trying to push Ei-chan back. Ei-chan mixing his spins and pace, repeating his “what I lack in power I can make up in control” mantra. And he does pretty darn well – the scoreline is 6-2, 7-5, but considering where the gap between these two was a few months ago, that’s a remarkable degree of progress for Ei-chan. But it’s still not a win.
After the match Takuma acknowledges Maruo’s growth, which Maruo takes some pride in despite his harsh assessment that the true gap was wider than the scores. But the more interesting reaction comes from the press there to write a story on Takuma, and from Miura-kantoku. It’s the loser of the match that provides the surprises, especially when Miura notes than Maruo has only been playing for two years. His variety of shots and persistence is striking, and Miura notes than he’s STC’s most promising player – and that it might not be long before the press is back to write a story about him.
With that it’s off to Chiba and the Kanto Junior, and the episode begins to truly soar. Again, the narrative really takes you into the moment – nerves at the start of a huge event, yet a certain sense of fun at being on a field trip with a bunch of friends. Ei-chan’s promise to his parents looms large here – he’ll give up on being a pro if he doesn’t win the All-Japan, an event he can’t even reach unless he places in the top 16 at Chiba. But not lost in all that is that this is Ei-chan’s first overnight trip for a tournament, and Nat-chan is right there with him – sitting next to him in the back seat, in fact.
We see everything through Ei-chan’s eyes here: the childlike thrill at seeing his modest hotel room, seeing the tournament venue for the first time, his unsettled nerves on the eve of the big day, the jolt of adrenaline at bumping into Nat-chan in the lobby. When she invites him to “show him something cool” the gap in their experience really shows, but he does follow her – to the beach, full of aspiring young tennis players looking for a welcome distraction (and perhaps more). The moment is certainly not lost on Ei-chan – this is obviously an appropriate time to finish the confession Takuma so rudely interrupted. But this is Ei-chan, and his hyper self-awareness can’t ignore the potential impact on what’s to come. Is this the wrong time for such a distraction? Is it the perfect time?
Fortunately, Nat-chan is as ever much the impulsive one in this relationship, and she beats Ei-chan to the punch. Not only that, she lets on that she knew what Ei-chan was about to say before Takuma interrupted him. I always find these moments between these two to be refreshingly natural and honest, and this one was no exception – in fact it’s one of their best shared moments in the series so far. I love the fact that Ei-chan insisted on saying “it” himself despite the fact that Nat-chan beat him to the punch, and that Nat-chan framed her feelings for him by saying that she was as happy when he won a match as when she did herself. That’s so very true to both of them, and their relationship is an unforced and charming as any in anime.
This is all part of the greatness of Baby Steps. Being a teenager trying to become a professional athlete isn’t simply a matter of endless practice and conditioning – life does go on. And being 17 and in love complicates things, just like college exams and parents do. No matter how on tries to suppress it the heart is insistent, and demands to be heard – and no series I know does a better job of showing us the way the quest for athletic success and those demands are intertwined. Things never stand still in this series – huge events are coming, and new characters are about to sweep through the narrative like a typhoon. But the special grace of Baby Steps is that it manages to value both the moment and the future equally, never diminishing the one when it focuses on the other.