This episode of Ping Pong was mostly about shoes.
Kazama’s much-touted Mat Shoes, to be precise. The shoes that are supposed to give you an advantage on competitive mats, which our protagonists today learned would be installed for the big regional tournament. As Kazama’s advertisement says, “They’re completely different” – but in truth, the shoes are merely a confidence placebo. And instead of prompting a wave of shoe-buying in our protagonists, each character’s specific reaction to the mats ends up pretty much describing their journey so far.
Kazama himself makes the boldest statement here. In spite of being the face of the shoes, and acting as the champion of a team that’s all wearing them, he doesn’t wear them himself, and makes no effort to console his teammates regarding this fact. This makes sense, given what we’ve learned of Kazama so far – not only does he not rely on the strength of others (having given up on heroes long ago), but he also doesn’t lend others his strength. His teammates are left abandoned, and we see the consequences when Kong’s first round Kaio opponent begins thinking of his loss only in terms of blame, and whether it’s due to Kaio’s decline. Kazama finds no joy or camaraderie in ping pong, and that is reflected in those around him.
Kong, on the other hand, has learned to deeply value the companionship of those around him, and find strength and happiness in building them up through his support. When his old coach arrives to see the tournament, Kong confidently brags that “my team has actually gotten pretty good this year.” The same brash confidence that defines his character, but now applied not to his own strength and desperate need to win, but the pride he feels in being part of a community he’s helped bring together. This shift in Kong is reflected in his own words to his teammates. He declines to change his shoes (preferring the ones that have carried him here from his home), but tries to maintain their confidence in their choice, saying it’s good for them that they bought high quality shoes. The important thing is not that they made the right or wrong choice – the important thing is that Kong believes in them, and supports them in their decision. That’s a power no designer shoe can offer.
Smile and Peco both remain in their old shoes as well, and the circumstances of this choice are indicative of each of their journeys. Peco cedes to the advice of the trainers he now respects, the trainers who declare “no pro changes their shoes for mats.” And Smile ignores the question when his coach offers it, and instead responds, “More importantly, do you have any strategic advice?” He does not need the false confidence of the shoes, not now that he has a coach he’s come to respect and rely on.
The last act of this episode featured Kong’s final, losing match against Peco, and though I’m sad to see Kong lose, it was a lovely match for him to go out on. He enters the match just after congratulating his teammates on winning their own – he loses it smiling at the fire he’s lit in Peco, backed by the cheers of his friends, and dreaming of returning home. Whereas Smile and Kazama largely demonstrate the power of a hero to inspire others in both its presence and absence, Kong represents the other side of that equation – how gratifying it can be to be that positive influence on others, and how your strength can reside even in the faith you instill in those who believe in you. It is sad to see a character of Kong’s passion and talent end his competitive journey here. But Kong has learned a great deal from ping pong, and he can walk off the mats with his head held high.