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.