Absolutely fascinating, this show is – subtle, intense, funny, challenging. It’s ugly as Yuasa anime usually are, but it has a kind of beauty to it too – the kind of beauty you see when you look at a really fugly dog and think “That guy is the only thing in the universe that looks like it does”. Visuals aside, this isn’t a series that focuses on the prettier side of human nature either – but there’s a sense here that it has a redemptive quality to it that will shine through in the end.
Smile remains the core of the story, but there’s an awful lot going on around him that demands your attention. The episode opens with Smile visiting Koizumi-san, who’s recovering from the match with Smile – except he never gets to the house, because he bumps into Koizumi’s wife outside, and once he finds out the coach is OK he declines to come inside much less stay for dinner, because “I don’t like eating at other people’s houses.” “You have no charm at all, do you?” the wife asks – but you can see it’s a wry comment laced with affection. Smile is such an odd duck – too nice for his own good between the lines, but utterly tactless in his dealings outside them. Could it be that Smile’s nice-guy act in the arena is a defense mechanism (hint: yes)?
My favorite montage of the episode from a directorial standpoint is Yuasa’s introduction of the arena where the Kanagawa regionals are being held – effectively, a tap dance number with ping pong providing the steps and sounds. It’s simple yet insanely clever, and it sets the mood perfectly for the event to come. Most of the major players we know – Smile, Peco, Dragon, China – but we soon met Dragon’s teammate Sakuma Manabu (Kimura Subaru) who’s fated to meet Peco in the quarter-finals (a trip to the semis means qualifying for Nationals). He knows Peco and Smile from the obaa-san’s parlor, and he and Peco have a hilarious face-off that’s literally a face-off.
The highlight here is always going to be Smile vs. Wenge, and we know it from the moment Smile announces to Peco that he’s drawn China in the third round. But there are other matters to attend to first, and one of the things you quickly notice about Ping Pong (the series, not the sport) is that no detail is unimportant, and no speaking character fails to make an impression. Kazama tries once more to recruit Smile to Kaio, this time taking the direct route – and he chooses to approach him by insulting his playing style and lack of will to win. This has the effect of making Smile uncharacteristically intense for his matches (presumably exactly what Dragon intended), the first two of which are both skunks. And that’s coming on the heels of Smile scolding China to Dragon (not to China’s face of course) for skunking his first opponent, saying that it would scar the poor sap for life.
It’s a measure of the care Ping Pong takes in presenting its characters that the cannon fodder for Smile’s first match – while he isn’t given a name – is given a back-story and a good chunk of internal narration (he’s also given a big-name seiyuu, Tsuda Kenjirou, who sounds absurd as a high schooler but in this show it seems to fit). He’s a third-year who starts out with seemingly heartfelt wishes to make his last inter-high count, and a vow not to lose to some first-year. It’s hilarious but tragic to see his optimism quickly turn to wry fatalism – by the second point he internally mutters a resigned “Well, this is hopeless”). He’s already thinking about what he’ll do after he loses at this point – “Maybe I’ll go to the sea” – and the camera even follows him there later in the episode.
An interesting bit of trivia about the sport that I was unaware of (and there’s a lot of it) – it seems that the players show each other their paddle before the match, because this tells the opponent what style they use. That’s interesting (and highly unusual for a sport) in its own right, but even more so when you consider that Smile abandons his usual chopper style in the first two matches for a straight-up attack mode (prompted by his pique over Dragon’s verbal assault). Is that considered bad sportsmanship? I also wondered if Smile was actually humming out loud during his matches, because that sure as hell would seem like bad sportsmanship to me. This style change prompts an interesting conversation where Peco light-heartedly ribs Smile for taking “his” style – but there’s a strong sense of insecurity behind Peco’s words. These two are clearly close, but surely Peco – a vainglorious lad if ever one was – likes the arrangement where Smile obligingly subverts his own talent and lets Peco hog the spotlight.
The match between Smile and China is full of permutations and ramifications, an intense and somewhat existentially ugly affair. Wenge has predictably come into the tournament disdainful of his opponents and cocksure, but he’s legitimately interested in Smile as we already know, and “keyed up” for their match. Koizumi switches out Smile’s paddle (I won’t pretend to understand the significance) and Smile, seemingly, takes the first game of their match (seemingly best-of-5) to study Wenge’s game – effectively throwing it 2-11. In the second he completely turns things around, winning easily, and he continues his dominance in the third. As this is happening we can see Wenge disintegrating before our eyes, physically and mentally. In response to Smile scolding China Kazama has pointed out everything that’s at stake for Wenge here – a chance to redeem himself at home if he wins, and an end of the competitive road even in backwater Japan if he loses. But Smile plows ahead, dominating the start of the fourth and potentially decisive game as well.
There are so many questions this match brings to mind, which will only be answered with time. After Wenge’s coach threatens him with the dire consequences of his impending loss, Smile glares at the man – and then, unmistakably, throws the match. Does Smile actually understand Mandarin – he did say “Nihao” to Wenge earlier, but even I know what that means – or is he just good at reading the situation? Fascinating as that question is, there are deeper ones. Is Smile really so good that he could have beaten China so easily, this early in the story? And was Smile wrong for doing what he did, considering the relative stakes? Earlier in the episode Smile glares up at Kazama in the stands and says “Table tennis to kill time, offensive play to unwind. It’s nonsense to stake your life on table tennis. It baffles me. It’s revolting.”
This, it seems to me, is likely to be the fundamental theme at the heart of Ping Pong the series. In a genre which generally celebrates the martial spirit the Japanese revere so much, focusing on the positive side of youth sports (and I believe strongly in that side) while still endorsing the win at any cost manifesto in a de facto way most of the time, is Ping Pong going to be the anti-sports anime? Will it subvert the genre in telling us that it’s fine for Smile not to want to win at any cost and to care about the feelings of the opponent – to see sports as a diversion, not as a life’s mission? There are similar themes in the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer, about a little boy who’s a genius at chess but too kind to be all he can be. Of course the fact remains that Smile is by all appearances a pretty unhappy kid, so this lifestyle choice isn’t exactly working for him in the Karmic sense. I’m fascinated to see where the series follows that thread – but it’s just one of many that look like they’ll be leading to very interesting places.