What a fascinating and subtle series Ping Pong is. There aren’t many series about which I would use the term “deep”, but this one is – there are layers and layers of psychology at work here, and a cast that shoehorns interesting characters even into secondary roles (indeed, even the Tsuda Kenjirou character who fled to the beach after losing to Smile showed up again, this time promising to flee to the mountains).
That’s a good thing because, to be blunt, the show is obviously very, very cheap – and that was never more apparent than with this episode. A director like Yuasa can make a show look interesting even with a limited budget (see Yamauchi Shigeyasu’s work with Kimi no Iru Machi for another example) and Ushio Kensuke’s soundtrack and the sound design help too – stuff like the ping pong “dance” number and the kabuki track this week bring a great sense of style to the piece. There’s only so much you can do to hide the static backgrounds and missing faces, but as long as the show is this brilliantly written all of that stuff is secondary.
There’s a bit of a free association feel to Yuasa’s narrative style here, as he leaps from character to character without necessarily interconnecting scenes in conventional fashion. This episode starts with Wenge, who happily seems as if he’s going to be around at least in a small role for a while. He’s decided to stay behind in Japan and try to help rebuild the high school team as he was contracted to do – though he admits he “can’t show his face” back home anyway. China is only in the episode for a couple of minutes, but it’s a great example of how Ping Pong makes every moment and character count. There’s not much to his time here – just a quiet goodbye with his coach, and a flashback to another with his mother (prompted by finding one of her hairs – which seem to be falling out, presumably as a result of industrial pollution) on a gift box she’s sent him. The wordless and minimally animated images of Wenge sobbing as his train pulls away are immensely powerful and completely authentic, and they speak to what an indelible impact Wenge has made in limited screen time.
The meat of the episode – and indeed the series – focuses on the struggle for Smile’s soul, and the impact it has on the people around him. One of the reasons Kong didn’t feel so terrible about losing to Kazama is that Dragon went on to win the world youth championships – though the Kaio team isn’t having success to match. And when he returns to Japan, Dragon announces on television that Kaio is in trouble, and that only Sakamoto Makoto can save them. It seems Kazama is doing this in concert with the wishes of his grandfather, who I assume is the former pro who founded the school – but the rest of the team is understandably less than pleased.
One of the strong themes we see at play in this episode is the dissolution of two teams, Kaio and Katase. Both are basically splintering for the same reason, the fundamental incompatibility between the star system and team unity. The coach, it turns out, rather likes his team and is a bit of a softie – but he seems powerless to stand in the way of the Dragon and the old man. This is something that’s fundamentally anathema to the Japanese social contract – putting the individual before the group – yet it’s undeniably something that happens in amateur athletics all the time. And no one is taking it harder than Sakuma, who’s revered Kazama for years and deeply resents his sempai’s obsession with the timid kid he used to thrash at Obaba’s table tennis dojo.
Katase’s team is in no better shape, as Koizumi is dedicating himself completely to Smile and completely ignoring the rest of the squad. Peco has gone AWOL again (we see him in that beach scene as the episode starts) – gaining weight, letting his hair grow, smoking and generally paying no attention to table tennis. And all that seems fine with Koizumi, for whom the team is obviously just a pretext for his own personal Robocop mission. It’s when Sakuma shows up to challenge Smile – after having called in sick to Kaio – that things really hit the fan. Sakuma will be bounced from the club if he loses (playing another school’s members unsanctioned is strictly verboten at Kaio) but in truth, Dragon has already written Demon off – much to the dismay of his coach, who quite likes the overachieving oddball.
What we’re seeing here, really, is Smile as a force of nature – he effectively destroys Peco at the same time he’s destroying Sakuma in battle. It’s easy to see why Sakuma would be so affronted by this beating (and it’s a brutal, pitiless beating) – he’s the one who’s busted his ass at the game while Smile sleepwalked his way through it, but Smile can turn himself on like a switch and utterly dominate his former tormentor. Sakuma is an unlikely athletic star – badly astigmatic, not blessed with great natural talent – but Smile’s bluntness in writing him off on those grounds is cruel indeed. And in seeing the guy who humiliated him utterly humiliated himself, Peco is so disgusted with his prospects that he tosses his precious paddle into the Katase-gawa, seemingly turning his back on the game for good. I’m sure that’s not the case, but it’s not a surprising turn – Peco seemed to enjoy ping pong mostly because he could bully people with the paddle, and now that he’s revealed for the toothless lion he seems to be, the game simply isn’t fun any more. And it can’t be easy seeing the guy who’s always subverted himself to Peco’s alpha male status easily waltz by him in achievement.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m strongly reminded of Searching for Bobby Fischer – though tonally, Ping Pong is certainly edgier and more acid. “What price glory” is a very important question being asked here. I have no doubt that Koizumi feels on some level that he’s doing the right thing by Smile, helping him become the beast he has the potential to be – but likewise there’s something in what
his wife Obaba accuses him of, using Smile to live out his frustrated ambitions. This is the sort of story where no one’s motivations are simple and singular – everyone has many reasons for doing what they do.
Ultimately it’s a question of priorities – what is a justifiable price for Smile to pay in order to become a great player? Is it worth destroying the lives of friends and rivals? Is it worth losing the person he was in the process? This is not a simple thing to answer. Smile isn’t responsible for those other lives, only his own – and he has no obligation to subvert his ability because showing it is inconvenient for others. And Smile was certainly a repressed, guarded boy when we met him. Yet while the beast is certainly showing his fangs now, I certainly get no sense that Smile is any happier – if anything, he seems even more morose and sullen than he was before. I don’t think Smile will be any more satisfied being Koizumi’s tool than he would be as Kazuma’s, and for all his issues the Smile we knew before at least had a strong sense of what he believed. There’s going to be a lot of pain for a lot of characters before this sorts itself out, and I don’t expect it to do so in a neat and tidy fashion even at the end of the series – Ping Pong just doesn’t seem like that sort of story.