Ping Pong – Episode 4

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.

Ping Pong

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.

Ping Pong

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.

Ping Pong

13 thoughts on “Ping Pong – Episode 4

  1. I think that it’s going to be my favorite sport thing from a visual medium ever. It’s so spot on the the psychology of it. And that match again’st Kazama had so much tension! Dragon vs Robot fight well be sweet.

    I personally have difficulties with characters (over)explaining everything that is happening during action and even the new Jojo is losing me a bit during its battles. It’s much slower than the first season.. Also finally dropped Hunter X Hunter again at ep 117 because it’s just too much (exposing obvious stuff in a repeated fashion doesn’t help to build tension AT ALL). Talk need to actually feel natural and not weird and contrived. The show used to be more like Jojo in term of exposition but now it just explains the same things three times and from every character’s perspective to gain time.

    • Yeah, HxH is a weird case. I personally think it works for that show (well, at least up to where I am), but it’s certainly a very unusual stylistic choice.

      Apparently it’s generally agreed that this new arc of Jojo starts kind of slow, so I’m not too worried about the current pacing. The Stands supposedly get more and more interesting as the story continues.

  2. My reading of Kazama’s one-sided conversation with Smile at the end is that Kazama doesn’t understand Smile at all. Nothing that Kazama held out to Smile as features of Kaio is attractive to Smile at the moment because they’re all about winning at ping pong and Smile fundamentally care about that (yet). ‘You can be the best competitor you could possibly be’ is utterly the wrong pitch to someone who doesn’t want to be a competitor at all. This seems to imply that Kazama fundamentally misread the ending of the Smile/Wenge game. If this is the case it’s an interesting hint that he’s not as all-powerful as the rest of this episode made him look.

    (Well, the rest of the episode apart from the bit where he hid out in the washroom, which was itself a really interesting touch. This show gives me so many things to think about.)

    • True, it does seem like Kazama doesn’t understand what makes Smile tick based on that. Which is weird, though, because he pretty much nailed his psychology last episode. Perhaps he just assumes that once Smile breaks out from his apathy, he’ll be motivated by similar things to what he himself is motivated by. It’s sort of an open question exactly how Smile will act once his highest priorities aren’t “go with the flow and avoid hurting other people” – based on the little hints we’ve gotten, the “real” Smile is sharper, more proud, and definitely more invested in winning.

  3. >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.

    I thought it was something simplier– “Victory” vs “Fun”. It was shown repeatedly that Smile plays table tennis for fun, but Kazama just can’t or doesn’t want to understand.

    Kinda reminds me of myself in junior high, when I used to attend rowing section. Gliding on water on a narrow shallow boat is extremely fun (it really is), but it hadn’t really occured to me that people didn’t do it for fun– they did it to enter competitions. After I got it (and after several conversations with my coach, yeah), I quit.

    • Eh, I disagree. I think there’s more going on here than that, and that Smile actually will learn to enjoy competition – he just has to first be shaken out of complacency with his current self first.

  4. I think that both that last comment and what it quoted are simultaneously correct: the coach wants him to want to win because he KNOWS that Smile plays for fun, and he wants him to understand the most fun one can have is when one BELIEVES in the game as long as it’s happening–you know, just like the best way to enjoy anime or any show/move is to “believe” for its duration. (The difference is that Kazama believes in winning, not in the game itself)

  5. Maybe I am taking this wrong, but I never thought that Smile plays ping pong for fun. It seemed to me more like he was playing simply to have something to do, it was hard to tell whether or not he had “fun” when he was playing ping pong. He says that “it’s simply a way to pass the time until I die”, and to me that says he wasn’t really playing it for fun, and if he was good at another sport he would play that one instead. The coach says that “talent doesn’t always go to those who want it”, and to me that defines Smile. He doesn’t want to intrinsically play ping pong, he just happens to be good at ping pong, and because he needs something to do, he plays what he is good at.

    • I guess we’ll just have to see where the show goes with it, but personally I don’t think the show isn’t going to let Smile get away with his “I’m just doing something because I need something to do” attitude forever.

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