I can’t say this turn of events has been anything but predictable – the true course of Ping Pong has been laid in for much of the series, and it was only a question of how we were going to get here. It’s a little too neat and proper for my tastes if I’m to be honest, and I don’t think this episode ever really bridged the credibility gap that was inevitably going to arise if Peco beat Dragon in a match (especially given his current condition). But that aside, it was certainly brought off with an abundance of style and panache.
I’ve enjoyed the hell out of many a sports series in which I knew next to nothing about the sport coming in – Hikaru no Go and Chihayafuru come to mind, and even Capeta to a certain extent. And I’m enjoying the hell out of Ping Pong, too but – somewhat ironically given that this is a sport I actually played constantly in my childhood – I don’t think I’ve ever so acutely wished I knew enough to understand the nuances of what was happening. Why is the twiddle so important to what Peco is doing? I wish I could tell you – I know it involves flipping the bat to utilitize the different surfaces on each side, but as a grandiloquent moment it’s somewhat lost on me. I’ve often felt over the course of this show that I was only getting half the picture, which I never really did with those other shows despite never having played Go or Karuta in my life. I guess it just goes to show that the gap between rec room ping pong and competitive table tennis is wider than similar gaps in almost any other sport.
This matters because this penultimate episode hinges on the moment when Peco turns around what’s been an utter whitewash (outscored 22-1 in the first two games) at the hands of Ryuichi and begins his miraculous comeback. And in truth, as a sports moment (though it was the most impressively animated ep of the series) it was largely lost on me – Ryuichi was dominating at one moment, Peco made a little speech to himself and all of a sudden he had the Dragon on the run, and his knee wasn’t a factor. I get that Peco needs to be close to the table and rely on quick attacks rather than let Dragon push him back, but I don’t really get what changed that allowed him to accomplish it.
What that leaves me with is the character side of the equation, and fortunately the episode almost totally works for me there. Peco’s transition into the hero role is now complete – not only is Smile waiting for him to soar into the sky, but Dragon is too. If anything this episode is more about him than it is about Peco, which I suppose is fitting as it’s largely his exit from the story. Dragon has basically been a tragic character for a good while, and as Peco has clarified his main character status so Dragon has with his. The poor guy is clearly lost – he plays out of desperation, driving himself forward out of fear. Fear of disappointing his grandfather, fear or losing, fear of having to face himself. He’s oblivious to the fact that the girl who loves him, Yurie, is leaving the country and hasn’t even bothered to tell him. He gets no joy out of what he’s good at – it’s a chore, a burden, and the only feeling it brings is “hollow”.
Peco is every bit as much Ryuichi’s opposite as he is Smile’s. The best moment of the episode comes when Obaba says “Don’t think too much Peco, you don’t have the brains for it”, and that sums him up very well. If ping pong success is joyless for Dragon it’s impossible without joy for Peco – it’s the sheer exuberance of his love for the game that powers his entire on-court (next to table?) persona. The whole bit about Peco’s infectious glee rubbing off on Dragon was laid on a bit thick in my view, but the point is effective enough – at long last, Dragon was able to stop thinking and just play. This is a game, and Peco’s success has always depended on never losing sight of that (and his downfall resulted from doing so) and at least Dragon had a few moments of exuberance himself before Peco sent him packing.
What now? Well, we have the matchup that’s been inevitable for weeks. Smile has been waiting for the hero to arrive, and here he is – so what will the kid who once looked like the main character do now? Will he follow the path of his coach and go easy on his opponent, or will he follow the teachings of his opponent and continue to be a ruthless machine? The most interesting element to me here is actually Butterfly Jo. I’d be very curious to hear what his truthful answer would be if you asked him “Do you regret what you did on that day, all those years ago?” This is not a black and white situation – if a guy steps into the ring, he’s stating that he’s healthy enough to fight and no opponent should be expected to hold back. But is Smile a happier boy now, having lived out Koizumi’s directions and become hard and cold, than he was before? I don’t think so, but that old Smile was hardly a whole figure either – he too seemed pretty joyless, able to find happiness only by extension, through Peco. As predictable as this ending is, it will still be fascinating to watch it play out.