Ping Pong – 09

Ping Pong  - 09-19 Ping Pong  - 09-27 Ping Pong  - 09-30

What defines us – what we are, or how we’re viewed by others?

Ping Pong is certainly an interesting study in contrasts.  It’s like no other sports anime in so many ways, but structurally it definitely follows the rules – in fact it’s more of a boxing series than anything else.  And as idiosyncratic as it is, Ping Pong seems to ultimately be following a predictable course, headed for a climax that started to look inevitable several weeks ago.  We may yet have some surprises as we watch that climax play out, but the broad structure seems to have been set in place for quite some time.

The execution of the false main character gambit looks to be just about complete as we sit with two episodes remaining.  Peco is definitely the hero, which is not at all what it looked like four or five episodes into the series.  Interestingly he’s the hero both inside the series and out, quite literally playing that role for Smile and, it’s increasingly obvious, for himself too.  But there’s not really a villain here, certainly not Smile – if anything he’s the one that needs saving by the hero.

This theme of false roles is a recurring one.  Kazama gives off villain vibes sometimes but his encounter with Sakuma this week pretty much says it all.  Dragon asks his former kouhai if he resents him, and Sakuma replies “No – I pity you.”  Smile started out as the main character but has transformed into both a victim and the top boss.  Peco looked like a sidekick, then a foil, then he too became an object of pity – all before emerging as the true protagonist of the piece. And the most glaring example of all is of course Wenge, who started out looking like both boss and baddie if anyone ever has – and ends up now as the most sympathetic and humble person in the entire cast.

China’s role in the story is indeed a highly unusual one.  He appears for a couple of moments, usually near the beginning of an episode, makes a big impression and then largely disappears.  He seems to be here to give us a character arc that shows growth independent of the sport of table tennis, and it’s remarkable how effective he’s been in that role.  We even have the throwaway figure of Smile’s first victim from the first inter-high, who’s become a recurring theme with his comic “searching for himself” adventures (looking darker and more tanned every time we see him).  There’s an almost Rashomon-like quality to the way Ping Pong tells slices of the story from many different perspectives – perspectives that don’t always overlap, even if they’re experiencing the same events.

At this point in the story there are only three players that really matter, and fittingly as the episode ends it’s those three who remain standing at the inter-highs.  Of the three, it’s very hard to muster a lot of rooting interest for either Smile or Dragon – even if it’s easy to sympathize with them.  I find Kazuma now almost as pathetic as I did Peco at his lowest – when Sakuma confronts him during his usual crapper-time he asks “Who do you play for?” and Kazuma replies himself – but he later tells Sanada (who’s just been dispatched by Smile) that he’d said “the team”.  Kazuma seems to be dead inside, desperately trying to be everything to everyone who’s opinion matters to him but losing his sense of self.  And Smile is simply an emotionless beast at the table – cold, ruthless, and seemingly infallible.  He spots Sanada a 9-1 lead in their first game just so he can scope out his weaknesses, so sure of his own superiority is Tsukimoto.

There are those here who know that someone else lives inside that impassive superstructure – most crucially Peco and Obaba.  It’s Peco who remembers that he gave Tsukimoto the nickname “Smile” not because he never smiled but because he did – after Peco taught him ping pong.  He and Obaba saw plenty of that smile and they remember it, and it’s for Smile that Peco is now pushing himself forward despite his increasingly troublesome knee.  He blames himself for Smile’s current state, for letting his own game decay and depriving Smile of the hero he’d always depended on.  It’s an incredibly egotistical view if you stop and think about it, but there’s something so straightforward about it – and Peco – that it’s hard not to be charmed.  Peco has an easy and affectionate relationship with Obaba that we’ve never seen Smile show with anyone – when he announces that he’s been taking a dump she offers him “Omedettou” with seemingly unvarnished sincerity.  When Obaba says “Luv ya, Peco” it’s clear that she really does, and that he returns the favor.

As we head towards what could be a dark finale for Peco, his salvation may in fact be that he’ll always have something that Smile never will – the easy ability to make people love him.  Even if his ping pong dreams die he’ll always have that.  That’s not to say throwing his career away is anything to be dismissed easily – it’s no wonder Obaba and her son try and talk him out of playing, given that he’s already booked his ticket to nationals and her own history on that score.  It appears we may indeed be coming down to the foreshadowed scenario of Butterfly Jo’s protege being in the same situation he was, and Obaba’s in the same as she was – though of course Peco has to get by Kazuma before that can happen.  Pain injections or not, that isn’t going to be easy, but it’s hard to see Ping Pong resolving itself without the prospect of Peco and Smile standing across the table from each other, and how all of the main cast deal with it.

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Ping Pong  - 09-14 Ping Pong  - 09-15 Ping Pong  - 09-16
Ping Pong  - 09-17 Ping Pong  - 09-18 Ping Pong  - 09-20
Ping Pong  - 09-21 Ping Pong  - 09-22 Ping Pong  - 09-23
Ping Pong  - 09-24 Ping Pong  - 09-25 Ping Pong  - 09-26
Ping Pong  - 09-28 Ping Pong  - 09-29 Ping Pong  - 09-31
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7 comments

  1. S

    "Smile is definitely the hero, which is not at all what it looked like four or five episodes into the series. Interestingly he's the hero both inside the series and out, quite literally playing that role for Smile and, it's increasingly obvious, for himself too."

    Typo? don't you mean Peco in the first sentence?

  2. S

    Great episode. Ping pong is just … I want to use the swedish phrase " går från klarhet till klarhet", which according to the dictionary means "going from strength to strength", but "klarhet" is also "light" and "clarity", so some of the meaning is lost in the translation.

    Because the series is simply stellar at the moment. I have no idea what the next episode brings, will we see an injury, who will win the semifinal? and the final? I honestly have no idea.

  3. G

    Taiyou Matsumoto never fails to compel me with the way he maintains the equilibrium of development for his characters. I haven't actually anticipated that I'd be snarled in a dilemma of sympathy and be driven by such tremendous emotional attachment, especially in a single cour series. Ping Pong's characters are all equally engrossing, and their distinctness ultimately embellishes the series with a strange, captivating beauty. Whatever sort of conclusion this series will have, I just don't see its momentum diminishing even by a bit in the last two episodes.

  4. N

    Remember how when sea-mountain-abroad guy made his first appearance you remarked on how his voice didnt fit a high schooler? when he speaks to other people (like when he was selling ice cream on the beach) his voice is pretty high pitched, so that old wirry voice is probably the voice of his monologe that reflects his dreary personality

  5. It doesn't sound high-pitched to me, but I know the seiyuu too well I suppose. I will say thought that this series if full of actors who sound way, way too old to be high-schoolers (apart from Peco pretty much all of them) and most of them look way too old, too. I think that's just the vibe they're going for.

  6. N

    I don't think it's realistic for Peco to straight out win against Dragon with his knee the way it is – even if he was in perfect condition, it would have been a terribly high hurdle. Peco might be a genius, but Kazama is a monster, after all. The only way I see for Peco to win without hurting the integrity of the sport (something like winning a Karuta tournament using your weak hand for the first time) is if Dragon goes into an existential doubt spell and self destructs. So, I'm not at all sure that the fated match this show is working forward is Peco vs. Smile, and I don't think it's really necessary for them to meet head on – If Peco's personal arc is to become the hero and inspire Smile, he can do that just fine by rising to the occasion and giving it all against Kazama. Then when Smile faces Kazama in the finals, he can do it smiling and rediscover the fun in ping-pong. It wouldn't really matter if he loses the match, really. Kazama might win it and then self destruct and quit ping pong all together. At this point, winning or losing for our last top players seems inconsequential. What matters is how they decide to live the rest of their lives

  7. J

    Well, there has definitely been a lot of lead-up to Kazama having his own existential crisis and moment of doubt. We know he hides away from everything before a match, that he's withdrawn from his team-mates, he's living up to the sins of his family and being a sell-out.

    It can definitely make structural sense for Kazama to leave the tournament in the next round. It is an interesting scenario though, Physically Kazama is in peak condition, and Peco in bad condition, while Mentally its the opposite. Peco has every reason to win, momentum, to prove himself, to see Smile smile again, and because he's feeling good as a person, while Kazama is falling apart at the seams.

    Hopefully the next episode will really play into that during the match, and highlight both aspects.

    Personally I think the narrative has to resolve with Smile vs. Peco. What point would here be in Smile beating Kazama? Kazama would be in the same place as if he were beaten by Peco, released of the expectation on him with the time to find himself again. Smile would just be the ultimate winner and not really feel any better for it.
    As far as I can see the final is Peco vs Smile, Peco puts in his all really challenging Smile, Smile beats him, they regain their friendship, regardless of winning/losing or long-term careers.

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