Management: I know, this is highly irregular. I was just writing my usual week in review blurb for this episode and then just kept writing, so I guess I kind of accidentally wrote an episodic post. Apologies.
Not content to be impressive merely for its merits in writing, art design, and direction, this episode helped demonstrate that equally important to Ping Pong’s magic is its wonderful sound design. This should have been obvious, actually – after all, the first episode’s highlight was a scene where Wenge and his trainer tracked the course of a match through the sound of rackets alone. But this episode got even more ostentatious about this strength, opening with that beautiful crescendo of rackets and ping pong balls leading into the tournament qualifiers. The effectiveness of that moment is pretty much how it goes with Ping Pong – like with Tatami Galaxy, basically every quality I turn to and focus on is clever and creative and uniquely effective.
Also, plot! Yeah, the show is really barreling through Smile’s development here. It doesn’t waste time with anything – Smile may try to play up his “robotic” nature, but everyone around him already knows better. His exchange with the Kaio team champion was great – all the key competitors here are extremely different people, and so their interactions are a wealth of fun, distinctive dynamics. It was interesting that Kaio played up how much Wenge has riding on the line in this match – though he claimed to hate the way Smile holds back, his actions seemed likely to ensure it. Though of course, his “stating plainly” exactly what Smile’s weakness is certainly lit something of a fire in Smile. In spite of all his protestations to the contrary, Smile clearly still has his pride.
…which then came around to alter the dynamic between him and Peco in very natural ways, because, you know, this is a good show. It was pretty great seeing the development Peco had wished for actually kind of annoy him in the end – though he cares about his friend, he surely couldn’t help but enjoy being the one in the spotlight. Seeing his friend no longer play second fiddle to his own confidence had to sting, which plays to the very true gaps between our better nature and our everyday sources of comfort. It’s easy to try and cheer Smile up when it requires nothing more than empathy – but the changes Smile needs might actually require sacrificing the friendship he himself has relied on, and that’s a much harder sacrifice to make.
…and then the show leads into the big match with the same trick it started with – a light, building music built out of the natural sounds of Smile’s pre-match rituals. His mocking little song, a hero theme he’s written for himself, a sound that will come to dominate the match. Tapping his foot, impatient, again betraying his emotionality even as he attempts to hide it. Cut to silence, Smile’s words break it. “Do your best, Kong. I’m good.” Everything the episode has built towards. But Smile can’t help his own empathy, and so he throws it away.
One last bit – gotta give credit to this show’s visual style again. On the smaller side, the expressions this week were great – look at Smile when he actually wants to win, or Wenge when he realizes his dream may be fading. And more generally, I am a huge fan of how this show is absolutely embracing its adaptive nature. It doesn’t try to pretend it isn’t a manga, it fills the screen with manga panels. It leads the eye, and creates a rhythm much more smooth than a frenetic series of full jump cuts would generate. Rhythm is one of the keys with this show – it’s not a collection of well-chosen but disparate parts, it is conducting the audience to create a specific visceral reaction, and every piece contributes. It’s a pretty little symphony.