Boy, is this show ever ugly. Stylistic choices aside, this is some of the most bare-bones art and animation I’ve seen in any anime – we’re talking about stuff approaching the level of the Togashi doodles here. I’m not sure whether Yuasa is the only director who could have made this show visually interesting because it has an incredibly minuscule budget, or if he’s simply indulging his peculiar aesthetic to a greater degree than normal. Either way, it is visually interesting – and it’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.
As I’ve mentioned before there is a kind of stark beauty in what Yuasa-sensei is doing here, and it manages to poke its head tentatively into the light once in a while. For all the memorable characters arcs being woven here, it would hard for me to say there’s one I like more than that of Kong Wenge. China continues to have a huge impact with minimal screen time, because his storyline is almost impossibly grounded, realistic and emotionally resonant.
That said, if you’d told me at the beginning that Wenge would be providing a lot of the positive energy in Ping Pong at the halfway point I’d have said you were crazy. But that’s exactly what’s happened. I see now that his story is being set up as a mirror to Smile’s just as Mereum’s is to Gon in “Chimera Ant”. Wenge started out at the top of this little universe, and miserable. Now he’s crashed to Earth and found a peace that seems to gave eluded him for entire life. He parted friends with his government minder, he’s welcomed his mother to Japan for a Christmas visit, he’s acting as a mentor to his teammates and even ends up making wontons with all of them – and his mother – in the kitchen of his dorm. The karaoke scene is another in a string of fascinating musical montages in Ping Pong, and it’s instructive both for Wenge’s character and the story as a whole (including the sea-mountain guy, who now says he’s going abroad).
Wenge’s arc is just one example of a larger theme in Matsumoto Taiyou’s story, where we’re taught that the initial impressions we have of people are often almost completely off-base. Smile is now playing China’s role as the pitiless bully far better than Wenge ever could have. Peco is on a downward spiral of self-pity, and Sakuma is nearing the end of his own table tennis journey of self-analysis. The bullying captain of the Katase team is now the hard-working blue-collar kid trying to hold the team together in the face of Smile’s arrogance and condescension. And Kazama is almost completely remote from his own team at Kaio, caught up in a world of ping pong stardom where ping pong itself is clearly not a high priority.
I don’t know if Wenge is going to factor into Ping Pong as a player again, but it seems very likely that Peco is. He’s pretty much bottomed out at this point, getting drunk on liqueur candies and dumped by his girlfriend. It’s Sakuma who gives him the push he needs – first with a rather harsh lecture about wasting his talent, and then a much more practical nudge – saving Peco when he jumps from the causeway and nearly drowns in the shallows. The irony here is cruel – Sakuma has the desire and motivation to be great but lacks the talent (he’s tried learning to be a chopper as a sort of last-ditch bid to save his career, but accepted that it’s just not in the cards for him). He’s had to watch Smile – who has the talent and lacked any desire to be great – pass him by, and Peco – who has talent but lacks the discipline to make the most of it – fritter it away.
Where does Peco decide to go when he picks himself up from rock-bottom? To Obaba. Their interactions have always been pretty cute and quite funny, but there’s an added layer of seriousness now – Peco asks her to rebuild him as a table tennis player from the ground up. “Gonna propose to me? Don’t do it if you don’t mean it.” It’s a joke full of seriousness, because it seems Obaba knows what’s coming. Obaba and Koizumi have a history, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how her training methods differ from his. Peco was always the show horse, the hero – to Smile, to Sakuma – is he now being set up as a sort of avenging angel, with Smile as the bully that needs to be taken down a peg?
Of course the truth will be much subtler than that – Ping Pong just isn’t that sort of story. But it’s going to be fascinating to watch this play out, that’s for sure. Are there signs Koizumi is feeling pangs of guilt about where he’s taking Smile, or is he simply playing good cop to his own bad cop? Smile seems more miserable and lonely than ever – he’s becoming the sort of person he’s always professed to hate, and he’s watched the guy he always idolized transform into someone who invites contempt. Everyone has to play the lead role in their own story, and Smile has yet to reach that point – it’ll be when he does that we see what sort of person he truly is, and what sort of ending Taiyou-sensei has in mind for that story.