Ping Pong – 05

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Some series just boil down to that old carnival sign on the wall in The John Laroquette Show: “This is a dark ride”.

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.

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  1. k

    I think what each main character ultimately needs is to find a balance in his life so they can go on and be happy, or at least get closer to being happy.

    Pre-monster Smile was certainly less morose than monster Smile, but he was going absolutely nowhere. It seemed like he just existed from day to day, regarding life as something happening to other people, feeling safe in a bubble as long as he could be around Peko, as if he was living vicariously through Peko. The fact that he broke out of this is, I think, a huge step forward. Smile found something that he wanted to do strongly enough to willingly breake the patterns of his relationship with Peko because of it. Sure, maybe he's not happy yet, but this is a step toward becoming his own person and living his own life, and opens up the opportunity for developing a better relationship with Peko.

    The story is, at its heart, about the friendship between Smile & Peko, and until now this relationship was anything but healthy, involving self-imposed restraints on Smile who felt safe in a bubble as long as he was around Peko, his "hero". This was a fuel for Peko's already unhealthily huge ego and got in the way of Peko maturing and developing a better attitude. Now this is over: Smile came out as the secret "alpha male" and Peko is nursing his wounded pride. But for both to be happy they need find a way to put their relationship back together, to regard each other as equals. Koizumi may be just trying to reach the dreams of his youth through Smile, but unwittingly, he has in fact changed Smile's life and put him on a new track, hopefully toward happiness and self-fulfillment.

    Btw, China is just breaking my heart in every scene he has. I really hope he'll find something, a friendship, a rivalry, anything that would inject at least a tiny little bit of happiness into his life. His mom winning the lottery or something wouldn't hurt, either. (To me it seems that one of his main motivations is to support his mom and to make her feel proud. I'd hate to see him fail.:/)

  2. S

    I loved Peco stop-light-red burnt skin. With the cheap art design, it's easier to be bold and change appearances of the characters, which is something I miss in other anime

  3. R

    I'm reminded of the saying the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.

    Because that certainly is the overall feeling I get when watching this show. It's not completely morose, in the sense that it feels like there could be a way out of the huge mess of broken spirits and emotions everyone seems intent on hurdling toward, but then when you think it'll work out, the show instead goes "hah! gotcha" and nope. Which might just be worse, but man if it isn't interesting to watch.

  4. N

    "there's something in what his wife accuses him of, using Smile to live out his frustrated ambitions." Wasn't that obaba who said that?

    "prompted by finding one of her hairs – which seem to be falling out, presumably as a result of industrial pollution" – I watched that part again thinking I might have missed it, but I don't really see anything to suggest anything other than natural hair shedding

  5. 8

    I don't think it was industrial pollution either. He was looking at the part of her hair that had gone white. I think he was realizing how old his mother had become – or possibly stressed because of all the white coming into what looked like very black hair. I can't tell if she'd been hiding it by dying it black or if she was just aging faster and he was only just noticing.

  6. q

    Actually, she was dying her hair black. So you're half right. He was probably looking at the white portions and realizing she's aged. :( It made me get all weepy, thinking about my own mom.

  7. S

    The main theme for me is how these characters deal with the harsh reality – the world of high-level competitive sports – in which winning and/or losing define their lives.
    So I thought that the most fascinating aspect was the contrast of Kong Wenge against Peco and Sakuma. All three lost a match in the last two episodes but deal with it rather differently. Kong Wenge seems to be the most mature one by accepting his loss, because he already realized he’s not cream of the crop. For Peco and Sakuma, however, it’s like their whole world shattered in that moment. Peco falls in passive-aggressive behavior and Sakuma has become a barrel full of frustration and anger.
    I empathize with them since when one always believe they’re very good at what they do and then find out that isn’t the case, it’s a shocking mental blow. These things also happen in real-life, not only sports. Unfortunately, mental breakdowns are harder to recover from then physical injuries. It’ll take some time for them to get over it and I’m looking forward to see their choices in life.

  8. I agree, Wenge actually dealt with it the best – though to be fair, he didn't have the personal angle the other two did.

  9. N

    Are you saying Wenge had it easier than Peco and Akuma? I can't imagine that to be true. Whatever the devotion Akuma had to the sport, and however grand Peco's delusions of greatness were, Wenge was practically a pro since the age of six, and literally has to stat again from scrap. He can't even go back to his own country out of shame.

  10. Did I say he had it easier?

    The point is, Wenge's issue is more of a life crisis thing. For Peco and Sakuma, it's more immediate and personal – Smile is someone they know intimately. And he's someone they're used to dominating, because he's always let them do it.

    I'm strictly spitballing here, but I get the sense that Wenge is almost relieved about what happened. I think he was exhausted trying to project the image of an arrogant steamroller that he didn't really believe himself.

  11. n

    It took me a while to notice that the long-haired float surfer wannabe dude was Peco, even after he showed up to the club and had a chat with the Devil. Isn't he drawn kinda more handsome than before?

  12. A

    I didn't recognise him at first. As for being more handsome? Well maybe it's because he's lost that horrible bowl cut!

  13. t

    taking quite a leap here…ping pong is still "wild and eccentric" in its own way and that's a good thing.

    seeing Smile…he hasn't changed. sure, maybe he is taking ping pong more seriously, but he keeps his facade here showing zero real interest/enthusiasm/emotions. he is still locked in that closet. acting more and more like a robot. interestingly, this is a phase in the evolution of our analogy – the butterfly. from being a caterpillar in the last few eps, he is know in the cocoon phase (rings a bell for a moment with Pouf…but oh my, those two quite different..or not necessary?).

    other than that we had Weng who is struggling, but as I said, he seems relieved a bit. maybe it's because "dragon" guy won the tournament. still, he is one of the most interesting characters we have. I guess we won't see him a lot, but when we's such an extra for this series and what he represent (like with his mom).
    speaking of the dragon, he really burst fire out of his mouth ha?
    I wanna know more they really grasp the meaning of that "talent". it's interesting.

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