You know how sports or action shows often have that one character who has to explain what’s actually happening, so the audience understands the stakes and back-and-forth? Ping Pong apparently forgot to include that guy, so instead, they decided to illustrate conflict so that audience can actually understand it themselves. This was clear in the second episode, where they framed a practice match as the battle to ignite Smile’s spirit – everything necessary was conveyed through the robot imagery and the expressions of the contestants. It was clear last week, when, in spite of every set of eyes being on Smile and Wenge’s match, we only received muttered asides from the spectators, and the match largely spoke for itself. And it was clear this week, when Sakuma’s strategy is made visually obvious as Peco returns lob after lob with his same unthinking intensity. It’s very smart work, and indicative of how good Yuasa is at playing to his medium’s strengths to convey necessary information. As an avowed fan of Speedwagon, I am continuously impressed by how gracefully Ping Pong demonstrates that the Speedwagons of the world are generally a crutch, not a necessary variable.
On the plot end, Peco’s humiliating defeat here demonstrated the truth of Coach’s opening words to Smile – holding back betrays both players. Smile’s empathy might have protected Peco’s ego until now, but it’s done his play no favors.
And then back to the ping pong! This episode’s second match was actually the real setpiece here – instead of the distant, consistent perspective used to inform us of Sakuma’s tactics, this time the show trapped us in Wenge’s head, demonstrating the drama of this match by forcing us to live it ourselves.
The show shifts effortlessly between subdued character exchanges and expressionistic flourishes like Kazama’s lightning, but it all fits within the show’s incredibly fluid, flexible visual style. I talked last week about how the show embraces its own manga roots – to me, that seems indicative of a larger artistic choice, the decision to allow the show’s constructed nature be utterly apparent if that serves the show’s goals. It’s the same thing Kill la Kill often did, actually – “screw ‘the camera as a window to a consistent reality,’ this is animation, let’s abuse perspective like crazy!” This might be a choice the show can afford specifically because its character designs seem so human and unheightened – the unvarnished characters, colors, and environments ground the show, meaning any visual flourishes introduced can be taken as emotional metaphor without the show losing itself in abstraction. Or it also might just be indicative of the excellent back-and-forth between this show’s visual flourishes and its writing – they both seem adept at shifting comfortably from naturalism to poetry and back again.
And again, sound design. That building chorus of Kazama’s monstrosity as Wenge begins to panic, all snapping back to the squeak of sneakers and shallow breaths as Wenge regains some perspective. He’s not a monster, this isn’t the end, these are the sounds I’ve heard all my life. In the silence after the match, Wenge’s coach ends up telling him the same thing he learns in that terrifying moment – that winning really isn’t everything, and that dreams don’t need to come true to make you strong. As Smile and Peco’s own coach muses this episode, the urge to win might do more damage than good – but it’s only through seeking what we can’t reach that we find out who we are.
Meaning that in the end, it’s a very good thing Smile doesn’t take Kazama up on his offer. Kazama’s team is very good at seeking the dream, but Smile’s coach doesn’t want him to win because winning is important. His coach wants him to want to win, because you can’t learn anything until you lose with everything on the line.