Two weeks ago, I described Ping Pong as a “small symphony,” where all the moving parts just work together and elevate each other. This week, that ephemeral quality was probably best expressed not through any one scene, but through the transitions between them.
In the aftermath of the regional tournament last week, this episode was something of a cooldown – a moment of checking in with all the characters, and seeing how each of them was affected by the dramatic events of the tournament. On a character level, this is just excellent storytelling – not only did the tournament shift the overt narrative details of the story, but every character was changed by it emotionally. Wenge, Smile, Peco, Kazama, Sakuma – every one of them left that tournament a different person than they entered, for better or for worse. To illustrate this change, the show dances between each of these characters, and what might come off as a disjointed, hyperactive episode is actually made incredibly graceful through the episode’s overall narrative flow and choice of transitions.
We start off pre-opening with a rundown of Sakuma’s motivation – a series of quick shots demonstrate the chip on his shoulder he entered the tournament with (defeat Peco and claim superiority over a childhood rival), as well as the feeling of inferiority he leaves with (his victory is unacknowledged by his idol, who instead prioritizes recruiting Smile). This efficient catch-up is followed after the OP by the first bit of real plot – Wenge’s coach is returning to China, but Wenge himself has decided to stay. The transition out of this scene is made graceful through the banter of the two friends – Wenge mentions how Kazama’s victory at the Junior Olympics took the sting out of his own loss, which gives us a perfect transition to Kazama himself (whose callous victory announcement sets off the rest of the plot). Even the shots sync up – we transition directly from a shot of Wenge’s coach’s plane taking off to Kazama striding home through the airport, making it all feel like one continuous scene.
Transitions like this keep the episode feeling light and energetic even as it pushes the plot of half a dozen characters forward. Kazama discusses his future plans with his cousin as they drive along the sea, leading directly to a moment of Peco relaxing at the beach. A moment of reflection from Wenge (one of my favorite scenes of the episode, incidentally – the small detail of his mother’s dyed hair is a heartbreaking moment of vulnerability for both of them) is followed by him gathering his things and walking through the door, which bounces directly to Smile’s feet running on the pavement. Smile’s furious training with his coach is linked seamlessly into Wenge’s own practice, with the replacement of Smile’s coach with an impersonal ball-machine hammering in the loneliness of Wenge’s position. These transitions don’t just offer flow and unity to the episode, they make it a constant conversation with itself, with the elements that each scene shares only making the differences in each character’s perspective and circumstances that much more acutely felt.
The episode’s second half was much more narrow, and focused on what the various scattered characters all really had in the back of their minds – what ping pong represents to them, and where they go from here. Sakuma’s defeat was pretty much inevitable – even Peco would have likely beaten him if he’d been taking the game seriously, and Smile is one of the show’s most terrifying players. But this wasn’t really about Smile defeating one of his rivals – this was about talent and effort, and whether being a part of a “team” really means anything, and how this small bubble of high school rivalry exists on the oncoming edge of a much larger, much more complicated Real World. The last episode extolled the merits of trying and failing, but this episode proved that to be far too simplistic of an answer. This show is unforgiving, but as Smile has perhaps already realized, a harsh truth can ultimately be kinder than a comforting lie.