It’s almost as if Yamamoto Kouji and the team at Fuji TV looked at the schedule for Spring 2014 and said, “OK, we’re going to have two shows – a full hour. But every bit of the creativity, daring and originality is going to go into one show. The other can just be whatever.” If you ever wanted to find two series whose juxtaposition could clearly refute the possibility that NoitaminA still means anything as a cohesive presence, you couldn’t do better than these two.
But then, Ping Pong isn’t responsible for NoitaminA, if NoitaminA even still matters. Ping Pong is quite bold and brilliant enough to speak for itself. I wasn’t 100% sold after the premiere (maybe 80%) and Yuasa Masaaki’s visual trickery still isn’t my favorite style of direction. But among the many things that became crystal clear after this majestic second episode, two stand out for me. The first is that Matsumoto Taiyou’s source material has the potential for greatness in it. And the second is that it’s a perfect fit for Yuasa-sensei’s aesthetic.
If the standout character of the premiere was “China”, without a doubt the breakout of the second is Koizumi-sensei. As usual Yuasa has stocked his series with a bunch of voices that don’t sound like the usual suspects in this day and age, and Yara Yuusaku is delivering such a performance here. He’s actually a veteran seiyuu but hasn’t been heard much lately, and he sank his teeth into the role this week with glee and aplomb. I found his Engrish to be more odd than anything in the premiere, but it was truly hilarious here – first when he corrects Peco’s pronunciation of “burger” (though his isn’t much better) and the second when he calls Smile “Honey”. There’s a lot of context behind that second one which I’ll get to shortly, but in the moment it’s pure comic gold.
We do get just a few moments of Kong Wenge here, before the opening credits – and it’s enough to make me want to see a lot more – but the rest of the cast more than ably carries the rest of the episode. Koizumi, as I said, takes command quickly. He fills a role that’s much more akin to an American-style sports coach here than a Japanese one, like a reject from “Friday Night Lights”. His dialogue (like that “Honey”) is pure Hollywood. There was little sense in the premiere of just how intense, driven and talented he was – but boy, this ep sure makes up for it. Koizumi takes it upon himself to bring out the beast inside Smile, the kid whose talent he’s spotted even as the boy has tried his best to hide it (“You don’t follow the ball, Smile – the ball follows you. You feel it, don’t you?”). And the methods he uses (a romance like no other) are decidedly un-Japanese – and thus far, unsuccessful.
Another important character makes an appearance this week, and that’s Kazama Ryuuichi (Sakuya Shunsuke, another old hand who’s not a major presence these days) – universally known as “Dragon”. He’s the defending inter-high champ for rival Kaio High and #4 in the world junior rankings, and he’s come to practice to – of course – observe Smile. In truth he’s come to tell Koizumi that Smile is wasted at Katase and to get him to transfer, but he too is underestimating Koizumi-sensei’s determination and stubbornness (if there’s a difference in this case – or any). Dragon is intimidating as hell – bald, huge, and looking and sounding twice his age – but I get the sense he’s a decent sort of fellow. We’ll see.
In structure, what we’re seeing here seems pretty clear. First Peco, then China, then Koizumi, and now Dragon – Smile is the hub around which all these spokes rotate. Their role in the story is going to be to shape his story, each in their own way (and they are already). Of Smile himself we learn bits and pieces, both from his odd demeanor and through flashbacks. Most prominent among those is the one showing him trapped inside a classroom janitor’s closet as a grade-schooler, talking to himself to keep himself calm, eventually imagining the moment when “The hero arrives” – is that hero his own submerged ego, or something else altogether? He expresses no desire but to be left alone, yet the world seems unwilling to honor it, no matter how hard he tries to be invisible (“I even breathe quietly”) – and of course Smile’s obvious talent for ping pong is a curse for this very reason, so it’s no wonder he tries to hide it. Smile is fascinating – he of all people justifies his lax effort and resistance to Koizumi’s coaching by telling Peco “I’m only in it for a good time. Having fun is enough.” The contrast to the face he shows the world as he plays is inescapable.
All of this is laid out during a lazy stroll around Enoshima (I hadn’t realized this series was set there – NoitaminA has good Karma with that enchanting place) that both cements the realistic and complex nature of Smile and Peco’s friendship and offers Yuasa the chance to come as close as he ever does to conventionally beautiful imagery. Yuasa’s vision generally reveals what’s frankly a pretty ugly world, but he finds beauty in the way he frames the boys and the landscape, in the soaring kite bird that steals a woman’s burger (“Burrrr-grrrrr!”). He captures the moment beautifully here – the idyll of youth, the way boys take comfort in each other’s company while doing nothing overtly to court or give it. These two are certainly a mismatched pair in the way adolescent friends so often are, but the dynamic between them is a fascinating one.
The culmination of the episode is a challenge from Koizumi to Smile, which both cements Ping Pong’s status as a great sports anime and stamps it as a sports anime unlike any other (and what a glorious time it is for the genre). The 72 year-old and the 16 year-old are even more of a mismatched pair, but their duel is psychologically and physically brutal – the old man teases and taunts the young in the first game, having encoded his game deduced his weaknesses unerringly. But this match brings out the savage in Smile, which I suspect is exactly what Koizumi intended – I don’t think the old bastard ever expected to win his bet and turn Koizumi into his “dog” but to spark a fire in him that the boy would never be able to extinguish, thus accomplishing the same goal. But when the heat of battle causes his blood to boil, Koizumi can’t do anything but try for the kill – once an athlete, always an athlete. That’s one of many fascinating themes we’ve seen teased out over the first two episodes, and the potential for the next nine weeks is tantalizing to say the least.