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.