Apologies for the extreme delay in getting these last Baby Steps posts out. I’ve been swamped with assignments at uni, and before I knew it I was literally 4 weeks behind on every anime I was watching. Expect a longer-than-usual post on episodes 24-25 as well as my final impressions on Baby Steps within the week, and once again I apologize for the delay!
On to the post!
Episode 22 is the ‘usual down-time before the big match up’ episode, which has a little less going on than the usual, but since this is Baby Steps we’re pretty well off here as well. We get lots of focus on Natsu (or rather, Ei-chan’s relationship with Natsu) and how it has affected the both of them. We also get a little bit of (some rather surprising) insight into who has basically been presented as someone with no weaknesses – the great Nabae himself.
The first half of episode 22 was all about Natsu and Ei-chan as a couple. They’re a good couple. They’re great together. I don’t mean it as a ship, but that they’re genuinely great for each other. They enrich, motivate, inspire and improve each other just by being together. We see Natsu’ s game basically exploding because of her amazing performance (which the series states, started after she announced her going out with Ei-chan). For Natsu, she doesn’t separate her feelings of things outside the court from the ones within – her Good Vibes from being with Ei-chan inspires and motivates her to do well, not necessarily for his sake, but because she “has fun striving for the same goals” as Ei-chan. Her path to becoming a tennis player has been made that much more meaningful to her because she has someone accompanying her on the journey. And as for Ei-chan, he may have realized it at the beginning, but he’s always liked her, at least in the sense that she inspires him to be a better version of himself.
Another person that has been a huge part of Maruo’s tennis is actually Coach Aoi. Unlike most sports anime (Daiya no Ace being the most apt example in this case), the way he coaches Maruo is unique in that he doesn’t necessarily dictate what Maruo should strive for. He guides, but doesn’t explicitly instruct. He gives Maruo hints, but key to Maruo’s improvement is how he always self-reflects on what Coach Aoi tells him, and internalizes that advice into his play on his own. In this episode, Coach Aoi gives Maruo pretty timely advice (which is clearly but subtly based on his experiences as a player who went a little too far) – play with the style you’re familiar with, be a player that respects both the sport and respects himself.
We lastly also get some pretty surprising insight into Nabae, and how he’s different (or maybe similar?) to Ei-chan. He’s essentially been presented to us as someone who is just a better version of Ei-chan as a tennis player. He’s got full rein of technique, he’s incredibly self-reflexive, aware of his (court) surroundings, and he’s been a tennis player much longer than Ei-chan. However, we see that he didn’t get his stunning ability to always be in control of the game (his emotions) as he presently seems to be. He used to be easily riled up to his disadvantage during games when things didn’t go his way. What he instead did was use his sheer will to win to control his emotions (at least until after the match), constantly reflect on himself and improve on his game. Takagi comments that Ei-chan may differ from Nabae in that he’s ‘naturally’ able to control his mental state, but is this true?
Episode 23, to me at least, was a little less interesting. I guess it’s because I just happen to find the effect tennis has on Ei-chan’s life to be the most relatable, fascinating parts of Baby Steps? We do get a lot of development in episode 23 however.
If you’re even slightly familiar with Kurobas (I watched the first season, wasn’t quite my thing but I more than see the appeal) you’d have heard of ‘The Zone’ before. In Baby Steps though things are a lot more down to earth, and the zone isn’t some kind of superpower to be wielded, but rather something that unconsciously gives players a lift that improves their game. It’s an exclusively psychological state rather than anything really physical, and doesn’t have any kind of corporeal nature insofar as being an improved extension of the mind. And as psychological states go, it is definitely fragile, and incredibly difficult to achieve.
In the beginning of the episode we see Ei-chan lead the game against Nabae by being really close to The Zone & breaking game on Nabae’s first service game! Fragile as the zone is however, we also see Nabae’s incredible intuition and sensitivity for situations like this – he knows well that Ei-chan’s elevated state of play is only temporary, and indeed it is. Nabae grabs 4 games off Ei-chan before Ei-chan even realizes it himself.
The challenge for Ei-chan comes with trying to literally have to best Nabae, with the conundrum being that Nabae is basically a better version of him. I expect episodes 24 & 25 to further explore their subtle differences though!