My headline for this post was going to be something along the lines of “Another wonderful NoitaminA anime finishes its run, and immediately joins the ranks of the forgotten”. The list of such shows – commercially irrelevant and with virtually no impact on mainstream anime fandom’s consciousness – is a long one. But then I happened to stop by Ping Pong’s MAL page, and noted – to my considerable surprise – that it was up to an 8.45 rating. This was after starting out in the low 7’s, causing me to comment at the time how grating it was to see it ranked lower than the other NoitaminA series, the spectacularly mundane Ryuugajou Nanana no Maizoukin.
If you listened to the last RC podcast (the one I <COUGH> hosted) you know that I don’t put much stock in fan ratings in places like MAL – though though are occasionally on-target. But the salient point here is that Ping Pong must have seen a meteoric rise over the last several weeks, and when I checked Stalker points I saw the same trend – the Blu-ray box has skyrocketed all the way up to #39 in all of Amazon Japan’s listings. It’s still not looking like a hit, don’t get me wrong, more like avoiding being a flop – but it’s clear that the last few episodes of this series have connected in a big way. And if you’re a fan of quality, character-driven anime and using the medium as art for art’s sake, I can’t see how you wouldn’t find that encouraging. I sure as hell do.
There weren’t a whole lot of surprises in the final episode. In fact, there haven’t been many surprises in the last half of the series period – they were pretty much all in the first few episodes, and Ping Pong has followed a pretty predictable course for quite some time. But in the final analysis that doesn’t amount to a problem, because the execution was superb and the truth is that Ping Pong ends up being a story about people living out their destiny as much as anything. The Japanese are big on this whole “red string of fate” idea, and that concept seems to be at the heart of this series. All of the people we met were interconnected – both by their feelings, and by the game of table tennis. And this was the story of those connections – how they were formed, how they were tested, and how strong they were.
One thing I want to do in this post is call out the work of the little guys who played Peco and Smile as, well – little guys, because they were an increasingly important part of the series as it progressed (and never more than in the finale). Satomura Hiromu played young Smile, and Nishida Mitsutaka young Peco, and once again we see that the authenticity achieved by casting real kids is something whose importance can’t be overstated, especially in a show like this once. I especially liked it when young Peco stormed into the classroom where Smile was being bullied and bellowed “Thank you very much-o!” If much of the focus in Ping Pong is on the connections between the characters, a major component is also the connections between our various selves – in the past, present and future. It was vital that we understand why Peco came to mean so much to Smile, and the scenes from their childhood paint the picture wonderfully.
If this final episode was anything – aside from a very comprehensive wrapup of everything that transpired over these 11 episodes – it was a sort of dual love letter to Peco (from Smile) and to the sport of ping pong itself. There were great scenes of all kinds – often set to the fantastic soundtrack that has graced so many sequences in this series – including some intense and dynamic action in the final match between Smile and Peco. But my favorites were the quirky ones – first, the montage following the major characters from toddlerhood to adolescence through the perspective of the ping pong table. Set to the singing of a a children’s chorus, it’s a fabulously hopeful and vibrant moment, a full-throated embrace of life and of the pure joy of doing something you truly love.
The second is when the three old-timers – Koizumi, Obaba and Kazama Taku – hung out in the hallway and shot the shit while that final match was going on. Both these scenes were among the best scenes in any anime this season, the first for its undisguised love of the game and the way it framed the arcs of all these characters so affectionately, and the second for its wry humor and observations on the nature of getting older – an equally joyous embrace of life, albeit from a very different perspective. That latter scene is quite emblematic of the finale as a whole, because it eptiomized the notion that the final match wasn’t really the important part of the final episode. I could see where some might find that a bit of a letdown, and it does leave some interesting questions unanswered – such as how diligently Smile followed through on his pledge to target Peco’s bad knee, and on how Peco managed to beat him if he did. But the point is really more about the brotherhood between these two young men than the match itself.
So, in the end, which one of these two was the main character? And does it really matter? One thing seems ever clearer to me from the finale – there’s a marked difference between the way Peco and Smile view table tennis. Peco loves the game for its own sake, and his love of himself (that’s not a criticism) is what drives him to try and be great. Smile, by contrast, loves ping pong mostly because it connects him to Peco. Peco means everything to Smile, and has since those days in third grade – and even if Koizumi managed to get him to broaden his motivation for a while, ultimately I don’t think he cares much about the game independent of that. Maybe Peco is the hero and Smile the main character, if that makes any sense…
I do like that Ping Pong went for a comprehensive ending that really felt like an ending, though I did find the post-timeskip sequence a bit too neat and tidy (right down to Smile finding Peco’s old paddle) for my taste. It was interesting to see where everyone ended up – Wenge becoming a naturalized Japanese and playing for the national team was a fascinating way for his arc to conclude – but it was more than I needed, and took me out of the moment a bit (though that would be a small criticism, and about the only one I have about the finale). I think Smile’s choice (manga readers will note that the Rubik’s Cube finally appeared) reflects that he stayed true to himself – even if it’s a bit sad that he didn’t pursue a career he had the talent to succeed in, I don’t think he would have been happy as a professional table tennis player. And he was happy in his life, that much is clear – maybe even having learned to find his own path rather than living vicariously only through Peco. And even staying friends with Butterfly Jo after all those years, and getting a girlfriend to boot.
When you put a director like Yuasa Masaaki in charge of a manga by Matsumoto Taiyou at a studio like Tatsunoko, good things are going to happen. I don’t think anyone would call Ping Pong a classically beautiful series, and it’s clear it was done on a meager budget. But it serves as an object lesson in how pure creativity and style can transcend conventional limits – a lesson more commercially successful anime directors could learn a lot from. Yuasa-sensei doesn’t simply make visual noise for its own sake – everything we see serves a purpose (and not in distracting us from how cheap the series is). There are actually some very slick and detailed sasuga animation sequences in Ping Pong, but as much as anything what Yuasa does – as usual – is find the point where ugliness and beauty meet. He’s a very Wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection – sort of) director, and Ping Pong is a very Wabi-sabi show. It’s also a fabulously-written one, with fleshed-out and engaging characters up and down the cast and a coherent and self-contained storyline that has great structural integrity both in narrative and intellectual terms. It’s a story that lends itself perfectly to a single-cour adaptation, something I wish was more of a factor in the choice of source material the anime industry chooses to adapt.
A series like Ping Pong reminds us once again that even as it devalues itself by turning to generic LN adaptations and repeats, and increasingly shunning two-cour series, NoitaminA still serves a vital role in the anime universe. Directors like Yuasa and writers like Matsumoto-sensei – artists whose work is unconventional, stark and doesn’t press commercial hot buttons – are sorely underrepresented in a mostly generic anime landscape. I don’t know for how much longer NoitaminA will still matter – the trend is clearly a negative one – but I suppose if a superb show like Ping Pong manages to avoid outright commercial disaster that can only help the cause.