If there’s a drawback to populating a series mostly with interesting and likeable people – especially a sports series – it’s that it can be an avalanche of mixed emotions. I’ll take it, don’t get me wrong – this kind of character development is more precious than gold to me (and twice as rare). But it does make it a painful experience to watch Ping Pong sometimes, and this episode was definitely one of those times.
Poor Kong Wenge. He’s always on the outside looking in as far as screen time, and he can’t seem to buy a break at the table either. I liked China even when he wasn’t making it easy to like him, and each subsequent appearance has made him more and more sympathetic. What a fascinating character he is, and I don’t think it can be denied that he’s grown more as a person than anyone else in the cast. But he hasn’t grown more as a player (and perhaps that’s not coincidental) and he seems destined to be forever stymied in his attempts to redeem himself and be allowed to return home.
I wasn’t too thrilled when I saw Peco and China had drawn each other in the second round of the Inter-highs (yes, it’s been a year) because these were the two guys I was pretty much rooting for going in (which in itself is testament to the remarkable rehabilitation of Peco’s character). And even as unconventional as Ping Pong is, there was no chance Peco was going to lose this match. You had to figure he and Smile were going to meet up sooner or later, but I was hoping Wenge would be allowed to stick around until the semi-finals and earn his trip to the national championships. C’est la vie.
It’s for such events as this that the term “luck of the draw” is perfectly suited, and it’s really Peco who drew the short straw here – not only did he draw Wenge in the second round, but also Dragon in the semi-finals. On the other side Smile has it relatively easy, with only Kazama’s #2 at Kaio standing in his way until he reaches the finals. And it’s Smile who’s the talk of the tournament, the rumored challenger to Dragon’s throne – not only is no one talking about Peco, but he wasn’t even going to be entered in the tournament until Obaba told Butterfly Jo to do so.
There’s also some shenanigans on the part of Poseidon here – they’ve placed mats throughout the arena, apparently without notifying anyone, and conveniently set up trucks outside selling the shoes Dragon was advertising on TV. Whether to give Kaio an unfair advantage or just flog shoes it’s a cheap trick – and judging by the fact that Kazama himself isn’t wearing the mat shoes it definitely seems like the latter. The first round goes as expected (Kong finishes off a Kaio bottom feeder easily) but the best part is watching Kong and his teammates interact afterwards – he’s become a real hero to these guys, and actually seems invested in seeing them do well.
Koizumi doesn’t even bother to watch Smile’s second-round match (he does get a start when a slightly pouty Smile tells him (“I lost”) afterwards, but instead focuses on Peco and China. And indeed, that’s where most everyone’s eyes are turned, including a Kaio team somewhat startled to see this new Peco who suddenly looks like a real threat. Smile, too, is pleased to see his old friend back – “Welcome back, Hero” is perhaps the most telling line of the episode, full of heartfelt joy with just a drop or two of sarcasm. It’s clear these two are destined to meet – with apologies to Dragon, I don’t see even he getting in the way of that fated meeting.
There’s some pretty geeky stuff in here about Peco’s backhand – how he grips the paddle strangely and it’s “almost like a second forehand”, and how “a bluff works best on the best players”, but I’m not enough of a table tennis person to appreciate the nuance. I do know that Peco is displaying adaptation skills that have Obaba and her son pretty amazed, but also that sometime big is likely coming with the knee – it turns out Obaba herself had to retire because of a knee injury. I find myself hoping it doesn’t come down to a poetic repeat of the Koizumi-Kazuma scenario from all those years earlier, with Smile’s new ruthless persona matched up against his old one – it certainly fits neatly, but that feels like pretty low-hanging dramatic fruit for a series as daring and original as Ping Pong.