This week’s episode is definitely down-time before the Araya/Maruo match – the beginning of the episode has Ei-chan basically bulldozing his way through the tournament to earn his spot in the finals, going up against a familiar, intimidating face. We then cut to the focus of this week’s episode, his relationship with Natsu! There’s no better down-time than this.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned anything specific about Natsu before, but she’s really great. For a series that shines with its characters, a simpler character like Natsu manages to grab my attention anyway – her characterizations are so on point, and every moment she shares the screen with Ei-chan just makes me appreciate this series’ real knack for romance (both inside and outside the court!) as well. Right from season 1 we’re immediately convinced by Natsu’s apparent popularity in school – she’s pretty, athletic, and full of happy vibes all around. What makes her so perfect a match for Ei-chan, and also the perfect companion for the journey to going pro, is that she’s not only the one who really brought him into the world of tennis in the first place, but that they’ve both set sights for the professional world.
Working towards the same goal together is just incredibly romantic, and in the case of Baby Steps every bit of progress in their relationship feels well-earned for the both of them. Ei-chan’s always had a tiny bit of attraction for Natsu right in the beginning (who wouldn’t, the girl is an odd bundle of pure joy), but he really only begins to show genuine interest in her after getting to know her better – her ambitions, her friends, her rivals, and what makes her tick.
He can never really figure her out though – and that I think is the real beauty of their relationship. They’re, as explicitly mentioned by the series itself, polar opposites, both as tennis players and just as people. That’s what makes them great together, because they make up for their differences almost perfectly. It’s just incredibly sweet to see relationships as genuine as this in anime – both the boy and the girl are trying to figure each other out, and are constantly amazed, as well as confused at the same time. Their entire relationship is just a breath of fresh air really – being able to see a protagonist’s romantic interest being not just…well, a romantic interest – but an actual person. It sounds like a really low bar, I know, but you’d be surprised to see how many one-sided portrayals of romantic relationships (that are THIS good, even) are in anime and media in general if you ask me.
I’ve just mentioned how romantic the notion of working for the same goal is, but yeah. Being able to understand someone so well because you’re really in it together is great, but Baby Steps takes it one step further. Natsu, compared to Ei-chan, is the more experienced (and arguably better player, in the beginning of the series anyway) one, bringing support, and more importantly motivation. Ei-chan’s working to become a better player, but also becoming someone she can share her dream with. Yet at the same time their contrasting natures means they both have something to offer to the other. Apologies, I’m just rambling right now and probably making no sense.
The other parts of the episode are largely focused on Araya, Ei-chan’s next opponent, another familiar face (of DEFEAT!) from the first season. Truth be told he’s definitely less interesting than some of Ei-chan’s other rivals (given how high the bar is set it’s really no wonder), but Baby Steps still works its wonders here. We get an extended flashback sequence about his road to going pro, but his is one completely different from Ei-chan (and also of Miyagawa, Ei-chan’s last major opponent). His journey is one perhaps even more arduous – and also bittersweet. Araya and his club’s approach to tennis essentially left friends that couldn’t catch up to him in the dust, literally. It’s kind of lonely, but at the same time a source of strength for him to press on for the people that couldn’t. He’s also another victim of Ei-chan Analysis, meaning he’s got most of his weaknesses from his first match with Ei-chan all basically handed to him on a plate to work on, and he’s clearly a different person than he was when we first saw him. Of course, that can also be said about Ei-chan…..