Ping Pong – 04

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There’s an economy to Ping Pong that I find truly admirable, but that sure isn’t all I like about it.

It strikes me that for someone who went into this series with no preconceptions whatsoever – about the sport of table tennis, about anime, about Yuasa Masaaki – Ping Pong would probably be the most surprising show of the season.  Those of us not intimately knowledgeable about the game surely don’t see it as the savage, brutal affair we’re seeing depicted here.  It’s a show that makes no effort to be pretty and offers none of the trappings or affectations most casual dilettantes associate with anime.  It’s a series that would defy expectations at every turn – yet for those familiar with the manga, the director and old-school NoitaminA its narrative success is anything but a surprise.

In my post on the premiere I referred to Yuasa-sensei as “kind of like Akiyuki Shinbou if he were interesting”.  Easy as it is to see that simply as a dig at Shinbou (I don’t deny it’s no compliment, though “if he were still interesting” is probably more accurate) in my view it’s quite a valid comparison.  As Shinbou typically does, Yuasa here is using unorthodox artwork, stills and “trickery” (if you will) rather than a lavish animation budget.  But the stark difference is, everything Yuasa is doing is on-point – all of his discordant imagery and playing with perspectives and shot compositions have a specific role to play in telling his story.  Of late, Shinbou’s trickery is merely trickery for its own sake – the stuff he does in one series could just as easily be stuffed into the next, because it’s generic Shinbou noise.  It’s intended to be a distraction, and that’s what it is.  Yuasa’s stylized work here isn’t intended to distract – it’s intended to focus, and that’s exactly what it does.

What really leaps out at me about Ping Pong is the sheer existential brutality of it.  Yuasa’s visuals are ugly but really, so is the story he’s telling so it fits.  And there are isolated moments of beauty in the art, just as there are in the story itself.  We see the imagery of a butterfly over and over where Smile is concerned – in Koizumi’s eyes, it’s the transformation he sees himself facilitating in turning Smile from the unmotivated slacker he currently is into the world champion table tennis player his talent says he should be.  But I don’t believe that’s what Matsumoto Taiyou has in mind, and that dynamic is the spine of the entire story.

There are no wasted characters in Ping Pong – everyone’s story is important in itself, even if Smile is the axis around which they all rotate.  Smile is a bit player this week, a spectator – the matches of import are Wenge playing Kazama and Sakuma playing Peco.  In the latter we see a match of genuine mean-spiritedness on both sides – two old playmates who never liked each other as children and still don’t, the formerly downtrodden Sakuma enjoying the twisting of the knife now that the tables have turned.

Most of the major characters here are more tragic than anything, and Peco is certainly no exception.  He’s very much suspended in childhood in every way, up to and including his game.  He’s a braggart, an irreverent spoiled brat who’s addicted to candy and still plays the game the way he did as a ten year-old.  At that age his brash aggression was enough to make him dominant – now. someone like the kid he mocked as “Professor Ping Pong” can toy with him using moon balls and blocks.  This match is simply ugly (again, ugly to look at too but brilliantly executed) – Sakuma is enjoying torturing his former torturer, and his play style is hardly aesthetically pleasing (not that he has any responsibility to make it so).  It’s quite fitting that Peco still cries after every loss, because he’s still a little boy in every way, in competition and outside it.  And the things that make you dominant in both as a little boy just make you sort of pathetic as a high schooler.

In many ways I find China to be the saddest character in this cast, and his arc has taken a surprising course.  He’s seemingly very much the paper tiger – when he was introduced, I expected that he really would be the dominant force in terms of the sport itself for the entire series.  But he was clearly the inferior player when playing Smile, and very much so when facing Dragon.  And he knew it, too – Wenge tells his coach that he’s pretty sure Smile tanked his match (the coach disagrees, but only verbally I suspect).  He’s already a beaten man by the time he starts his match with Kazama, and the reaction of his coach indicates that he knows it too.

Alas, poor Wenge – for him, all the arrogance was clearly a cover, a defense mechanism.  His confidence shattered by Smile, he proves no match for Dragon.  There’s a redemptive quality to his post-match scenes, where his coach stops reminding him of the stakes if he loses and starts reminding him that he has a life after table tennis (ominous though that is, it’s well-meant).  “It helps.” Wenge offers in thanks, and in that moment it really does seem as if the two are speaking as friends – but it’s hard to see where Wenge’s character goes from here.  The symbolism (airplanes, etc.) seems to indicate that it’s over for him both as a player in ping pong and in Ping Pong – that would certainly be something I would have bet against when the series started, but I just don’t see where Matsumoto can take the character now.

Ultimately Ping Pong always comes back to Smile, and it’s the course of his life that’s the real drama here.  Koizumi slaps him after the Wenge match as punishment for tanking, scolding him that no one wins in a match like that (and in that, he’s right – it’s disrespectful to everyone involved and to the sport itself).  He offers Smile the option to quit, which in the moment at least the boy accepts, and Koizumi has a very revealing conversation with Obaba, someone he’s obviously known for a very long time.  Their tone is gentle and nostalgic but she’s accusing him of some serious stuff – trying to reclaim his lost youth via Smile.  “The winners write history, and the losers are history.  I’ve seen that thinking wreck a lot of people’s lives.”

In a sense, Ping Pong is no less than the chronicle of the struggle for Smile’s soul.  “People who know themselves never crave anything.” Koizumi says.  “It’s the ones who don’t know themselves who’re the ones who struggle hard to win, because they want to prove something.  I want to take him there, that’s all.”  Think about that – isn’t self-awareness something we should strive towards, not run way from?  Assailed from all sides, Smile also has Kazama courting him – offering him flattery and tales of the seemingly endless lengths Kaio (which claims all four semi-final spots and with them all the spots in the inter-high) will go to in catering to his needs.  Kaio, of course, is the very embodiment of the syndrome Obaba describes – with an abusive coach, a team full of players who jealously resent their Captain and a focus on winning at any cost.  Against these forces pulling at him – and the siren song of his own exquisite gifts – can Smile stay the person he is?  And even more pointedly, should he?  These are the questions Matsumoto seems to be asking here, and I’m fascinated to find out how he answers them.

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19 comments

  1. N

    This was awesome.

    I kept expecting Weng to confront Smile about tanking (with some lengthy Chinese that Smile would somehow understand the general meaning of), but it doesn't seem that will happen now.
    What I do see as a possible eye opener for Smile is if and when Peco tells him to start playing him seriously so he (Peco) can get stronger. Both of them have a lot of growing up to do.

  2. r

    Enzo, we're in agreement about Wenge. I'd be surprised to see him stay in the story, because his character arc is all but finished.

    Peco, Smile, Dragon and maybe Sakuma are going to be the main players (heh) going forward from here. I do think Smile knows himself far to well to really be tempted by Dragon and Kaio; it may be that his motivation to succeed comes from watching Peco's struggle, facilitated by Koizumi.

    "There are no wasted characters in Ping Pong": Couldn't agree more. In this way, Ping Pong reminds me a lot of Hunter x Hunter, where every character is important somehow.

  3. A

    I could see that now Wenge has had his original swaggering arrogance knocked out of him, he could turn himself around and redeem himself through hard work.

    The Sakuma and Peco match was remarkable. Through those huge lobs into the rafters it was clear that Sakuma was doing it partly to annoy Peco with those long waits for the ball to come back down to the table, and partly to make Peco wear himself out by returning each one with a smash. Marvellous gamesmanship.

    I loved the bit with Koizumi and Obaba too. It was clear those two had some shared history, and I found myself wishing for a flashback to them in their prime.

  4. S

    Yup, it’s great sportsmanship.
    I’ve seen this type of match development in many real-life games (Tennis: Nadal – Federer, Football: Chelsea – Barcelona, Boxing: Ali – Foreman) in which the defensive player wears down the stylish attacker. It looks ugly, yet I think it deserves more admiration, since it actually isn’t easy to pull off. It requires a lot of stamina and especially mental toughness to win. And for these type of players, the win justifies the means.

  5. I think that's a bit harsh on Ali and Nadal (though not Chelsea, or the Italian national team). One could hardly imagine a more stylish boxer than Ali, rope-a-dope notwithstanding. And Nadal, for all this reputation, is an excellent attacking player too. I agree the plodding, defensive style deserves more respect than it does – but I think it applies more to the likes of Ferrer than Nadal.

  6. Z

    Although not really sports, the defensive 'turtling' style is also kind of looked down in fighting games too. Everyone wants to see bulldog all the time.

  7. S

    That’s why I listed the match-ups and not the players/teams themselves. Ali didn’t do much “dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in the Rumble of the Jungle compared to his earlier bouts. Nadal plays two meter behind the baseline to retrieve every shot, which was always the basis of his game, though he does it less often nowadays to reduce the burden on his knees. Maybe I should’ve named other more defensive-oriented players like Hewitt, Ferrer, Monfils, Simon, Wozniacki, Radwanska but they’re lesser known and this place isn’t a tennis blog.
    And also, it’s not like Chelsea “parks the bus in front of their own goal” in every game (though more often than not, especially against high level opponents).

  8. t

    "Shinbou's trickery is merely trickery for its own sake"
    well, that true only to a certain extent. in sometimes, it's true. in others? I don't think so. and MekActors is definitely a case in which this saying isn't true.
    Yuasa is focusing us on the implications directly and indirectly at the same time, while Shinbou take the time before "attacking" directly. and especially in Mekaku and Madoka it was worthwhile because eventually even the minor details induce the atmosphere and extra ideas and in the end contribute greatly to main theme.

    I don't think Weng (China guy) is the saddest here, nor his path is necessary is tougher. the fact he had been through tough times in his country, failed and came to japan in order to demonstrate his determination and show good he is. eventually it didn't work out, but, despite how he might look like to us, he still able to look at the bright side, maybe it's due to his experience or spirit, or both. and…maybe it's something that Tsukimoto doesn't have (after all, he just want to "pass time"). and it's interesting since the fight with Tsukimoto affected him mentally, but still he seemed..relieved in the end.

    there is an interesting spectrum of characters. we have Kaio guys, Peco, coaches and others, and co course Smile is the main issue. all anolgies (hero, robot, butterfly, growth and development) are related to him. all are going in some path. part of it is similar to all, it all revolves around ping pong, but the major thing here is the complexity of all these. I wouldn't say "tragic" (too strong word, at least for now) I don't feel it really tragic, but..it's life. as in life, characters walk in different path and have different view and experiences, but everyone become what he is in the end.

    even if the character design look bizarre, it doesn't really matter, because a series like that is able to reflect something different with or without ping pong.

  9. k

    It doesn't seem to me that China is "over" – by all rights his character arc should be just beginning.

    I guess I interpreted the coach's words differently. Yes, he tells China that there's a life outside of ping pong, but I don't think he means it in a "perhaps you should quit" way. To me it sounded like what older people used to tell me when I was a student and I was upset about not winning a competition or potentially failing an exam. "Yes, this is important, but at the end of the day it's not your life, it's only part of your life. You need to put things into perspective and see what's really important."

    To me, China is kind of like an anti-Smile: one who lives for the game to the point where he feels that his entire life is at stake in every match. He needs to learn that there's a life outside the sport, that he needs to build a life to fall back onto. It appears that he has no "home" at all – his old house where he lived until he was 8 appearsto have been torn down, he was kicked out of his team in Shanghai (which is why he came to Japan in the first place). He needs to relax, to build a life outside of the sport, to find a place that he belongs to.

    So no, I don't think China is over, neither in the sport, nor in the story. I don't think he'll quit playing, not at this point, when there's nothing else he can do but play ping pong. Besides, he's pretty much stuck in Japan for the time being.

  10. I definitely got the impression from the imagery Yuasa used (the airplane could hardly be more of a classic giveaway in anime) and the tenor of their conversation that this was it for China. It felt like this was intended as a sort of benediction for his character. I hope he is still around, because I've liked him from the beginning, but that's not the vibe I'm getting (P.S. to manga readers – please let us find out for ourselves).

    I do think Wenge can go back to China – he just can't do it as a table tennis fast-tracker. I got the impression he was sent to Japan as a kind of last chance, a "one strike and you're out" probation. And frankly, he doesn't seem to have talent to put him on the top level internationally in any event.

  11. k

    China had an airplane motif from the start, though – in fact, the very first time we see him he's getting off an airplane. It's the symbol of his desire and drive to go back to China, and during the match in this episode we actually see a dragon blocking the airplane. In his last scene in the episode we see the airplane flying away without him, while he's talking about not having a ticket.

    As for him going home, he can't do that – he's staying in Japan for at least this school year (unless of course they decide that the deal is off and send him back to China). He's basically an exchange student.

  12. k

    Also, about his talent – I think you're too hard on him. The fact that he beat Peko, someone he's never even met before (unlike Akuma who had most of his childhood to get to know Peko and his style of playing) shows that he does have talent. He just had the misfortune to meet the only two people who were better than him: Smile, who is a genius, and Dragon, who is as China said, the "hero" of the sport.

  13. S

    No, Enzo isn’t too hard on Wenge, sports and the way it operates is too hard on him. Sure, he’s talented, but he’s not exceptional since there are too many players better than him. At high-level competitive sports it’s all about winning and while Wenge is good, he’s just not good enough and maybe he’ll never be.
    Unlike real-life, sports is a very black-and-white world. Win or lose, perhaps a draw, that’s it. The few that win a lot will be remembered, the many losers are quickly forgotten and Wenge (and Peco) is going to fall in that large group.

    I have to say that this show is doing an excellent job in portraying that part of sports psychology. Too bad it isn’t more popular.

  14. k

    Thing is, people are like "he's all talk and no talent!" because he lost to a natural born genius and a human steamroller, and everyone seems to forget that he basically wiped the floor with Peko who may not be as invincible as he thinks he is, but he is very good nevertheless. We even know that he had a promising career until he stumbled once and was therefore deemed unworthy by the Spartan rules of his Chinese team. Sure, perhaps he's not world champion material, and perhaps he won't return to competitive playing (I find that very hard to believe, though – maybe he'll eventually quit but not at this point, when he has nothing else, plus there's still the possibility of a rematch), but he is good.

    Also, while I don't know about Kong (he's too much of a wild card so early in the series), there's absolutely no way that Peko is staying down. There would be no point in his existence as a character. The guy lives and breathes winning. Perhaps he'll wallow in self-pity for a while until he gets over the shock of Akuma defeating him like that, but there's no way he won't stand up again.

  15. Then you should take up your grievance with "people" (I hear he's a jerk) since I never said Wenge had no talent.

    The issue here is that Wenge is, seemingly, a very good table tennis player – but not a prodigy, not a generational talent. He's very good, but not exceptional – and in his situation, that's simply not good enough. If he were Japanese he could continue to play at the high school level, improve, have a very good amateur career and get on with life. But as someone who comes from a country where the sport is an industry and who's been groomed from age eight at state expense to be a star, it's not good enough.

    As for the school thing, it's obviously a transparent cover to effectively use Wenge as a professional table tennis player to rejuvenate their program. As long as it was mutually beneficial, the school and the Chinese authorities have no reason to complain. But with Wenge apparently unable to achieve the objectives either of the school or his government (that he prove himself enough to reclaim a spot in the national program) either side could pull the plug at a moment's notice and likely would.

    I like Wenge a lot – he may be my favorite character too, though Smile's dilemma is equally compelling and the heart of the story – and his continues struggle would make a very interesting plotline. I'm just dubious that it's the plotline Matsumoto intends to pursue in this series.

  16. j

    I think Peco put it as something along the lines of "There is no hero."
    Does that mean Smile doesn't need a hero? Or does it mean he needs to become his own hero?

  17. Z

    As Shinbou typically does, Yuasa here is using unorthodox artwork, stills and "trickery" (if you will) rather than a lavish animation budget.

    Apart from films and some expensively made OVAs, that has been the modus operandi of TV animation studios technique for decades.

    As for Ping Pong itself, nice tense and revealing episode. Definitely the most consistent of the shows I'm watching.

  18. K

    Are the facilities that Kaio Academy has realistic for 'any' high school sports team, regardless of whether or not it's table tennis? I don't know how seriously they take high school sports in Japan, but all that equipment, plus the salaries of the staff, looks like it would cost millions of dollars. I can't imagine any school aside from Division I American football spending that much on a sports program, much less a high school table tennis team O.o

  19. It seems as if the school was basically set up as a table tennis training academy but a professional player, so if any school could do it that would be the one. High school sports is taken pretty seriously here, but mostly baseball – the power baseball factory schools could certainly pull off bling like that. Could a school do so for ping pong? Honestly I don't know.

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