How do you follow up an emotional blockbuster like last week’s episode of Baby Steps? Well, the answer of course is that you can’t. It’s tough enough to do so in any type of series, but with a sports anime especially it’s better to do what Baby Steps did here – step back and let everyone breathe a little, and turn the focus on the non-athletic side of the story. The follow-up match was never going to be as dramatic as the Ide one, and the follow-up episode didn’t try to be.
We’re at the stage of the story now where I’m starting to get similar feelings to the ones I did towards the end of the first season – acute, almost physical pain at the realization of just how little time was left and just how much incredible stuff was never going to see the screen. That first season had the best sort of happy ending of course – the announcement of a second season at the end of the finale – but I’m not going to allow myself to hope for a repeat. The manga has seen a nice sales boost, but I’m sure there are limits to NHK’s largesse – I don’t know that we can expect it to extend to a third season of the anime. I guess the only answer is to do what I did before – hope for a miracle, and be grateful for what we’re getting.
Boy, though – it sure would be nice to see what’s to come make it to the screen. There are lots of little teasers or that here, in what’s mostly a breath-catching and setup episode. In the aftermath of his win over Ide Maruo is naturally receiving congrats from his entire entourage. There are several significant aspects to this: Yukichi-kun has won his match, stamping his own ticket to the All-Japan Junior, inspired by Maruo’s grit under much more intense pressure. And Aoi-kantoku is intent on hearing just what was going on in Maruo’s head as he surpassed his limits in the closing stages of the Ide match.
You hear a lot about “the zone” in sports, and it’s yet one more dramatic element of Baby Steps that’s actually a real thing – a tangible yet ephemeral state of being that all elite athletes strive for at the moment of highest importance. If you’ve ever been in it you know what it is without having to be told, but I don’t think any but the very best can consciously push themselves into it (and I’m not sure even they can). The unique thing about Ei-chan is that he willed himself into the zone through straight-up analysis and reason – achieving something utterly instinctual through pure intellect.
Ei-chan is so wired after the match that his hands are shaking, and here we have another significant post-match moment when Nat-chan blithely grabs his hand in both of hers and makes the shaking go away. For pure instinct Nat-chan it says a lot that this is what her instinct told her to do, but for the more analytical rest of the crowd the import of that isn’t lost – not least on Ei-chan. These two share a level of intimacy now, to the point where such things are natural – and Iinchou-san, among others, can surely see the handwriting on the wall at last. It’s worth noting that this “turn the corner” moment applies to Kageyama-kun, too, who’s tirelessly been her wingman through thick and thin but now can’t pretend he’s doing her any favors by continuing the charade. The best thing for everyone is to move on – though just what that means for each individual involved is a little different.
That Nat-chan and Maruo are a couple now is self-evident enough that even he can’t deny it. She comes to collect him later that night, just “wondering what he’s up to”, and they go for another late-night chat. Beating Ide-kun is hard, but figuring out whether to hold Nat-chan’s hand is really hard – and Maruo notes that his “instinct has been taking over a lot lately”. Nat-chan spares him the decision in her own feckless way, then lightens the moment with an “interview” question that’s probably my favorite moment of the episode. My reaction (even when I read it in the manga) was exactly the same as hers – that answer was totally “Ei-chan-rashii“. Even in a playful semi-flirting moment, his answer is thoughtful and comprehensive – an answer only Ei-chan would give in that situation. If he ever does become a pro, the tennis press is going to love him.
As for the next phase on the court, the key figure is Takagi Sakuya (Morita Masakazu) – though he’s not Ei-chan’s next opponent, but Yukichi-kun’s. He’s also a clubmate of Ike’s who’s actually beaten him in an unofficial tournament, and to say he makes a rough first impression is an understatement. Yukichi is determined to beat him and set up his first official match with Ei-chan, but sadly it’s not o be – Takagi makes pretty easy work of him, just as Ei-chan does of his opponent. These matches are crucial, as it’s performance at the Kanto Junior that mainly determines seeding at the All-Japan, and though Ei-chan’s opponent is 11th-seeded he’s no match for this new power on the scene. Confidence can do wonders in sports, of that there’s no doubt, and Ei-chan looks as if he belongs in a way he never has before.
Takagi represents someone totally different from Ide-kun (who’s decided in the aftermath of his loss to Maruo to go abroad and hone his game against strong gaikoukujin opponents). In fact he represents a different sort of challenge from any Ei-chan has faced so far, though certainly a type he’s going to see often if he ascends the ladder to the pro game. Also a new challenge is the fact that there are now fans showing up to matches specifically to watch Ei-chan play – the drama of the Ide match having accelerated a process that also would be part of Maruo’s progression to the pro ranks. That’s a different sort of pressure for Ei-chan to deal with, especially given that he’s not someone who naturally calls attention to himself in the way Takuma, Araya or certainly Ide are. But the process of Ei-chan dealing with new challenges is the essence of what Baby Steps is all about, and why it’s such an amazing journey to be a part of.