Ping-Pong – 01/02 Review
I guess, Peco has never heard of the infamous training-arcs shounen-anime so often like to use for everybody and his dog – talent or not.
Sports-animes weren’t always something I’ve enjoyed but over the years watching animes they really have grown on me as a genre. They are often quite straightforward and I would even say oftentimes deliver a better representation of the stereotypical shounen-genre-themes than fantastical battle shows like Naruto or Bleach do for example (mostly on account of not being forced to do bullshit-worldbuilding). Naturally this excludes Adachi’s work who mixed slice-of-life, romance and sports basically all the time in his series in various ways (often to the detriment of one particular element). It’s weird that this hasn’t become the standard-model for sports-series… well, then again all his series took multiple seasons to finish and nobody wants to commit to that these days… not even Adachi apparently whose last few series seem kinda meandering (Mix) or just plain absurd (Q & A). Well, enough about that, this is supposed to be about Ping Pong, a series I actually quite like.
Smile is a guy that never smiles and he has a friend named Peco who’s better at Ping Pong than he is. But then one day the Chinese appears who is a disgraced Pro-Ping-Pong-Player from China and he plays against Peco who stands no chance. All the while, the Chinese actually only wants to play against Smile who he considers the better of the two. Smile and Peco’s coach Mr. Koizumi is of the same opinion and tries to train Smile by helping him overcome his psychological weaknesses.
One of the best moments of the first episode is certainly the moment when the Chinese and his trainer listen to the game between Smile and Peco. And while they comment on the back and forth it’s startlingly revealed that Smile who is supposedly weaker than Peco is actually losing on purpose.
Smile: Everything makes me tired lately. Dealing with people… and Ping Pong is getting more complicated, too. It’s not simple anymore.
Ping Pong is a sports-anime-series following Smile and his friend Peco as they deal with the challenges that the sport of Ping Pong has to offer. The focus is on Smile definitely with the rest of the cast playing support-roles even though they often stand out more than Smile does. Smile is one of those characters that are passive, speak with a monotone, silent voice and normally would just be the sidekick to a more flamboyant main-character. But in this case the focus of the series does indeed lie on a character who doesn’t want to be in the limelight.
Smile’s nickname is an ironic one since he never seems to smile and even at his best during the second episode the series and he himself compares him with a robot. His passiveness certainly makes him an unlikely choice for a main-character and indeed in the first episode he never talks first, he always just reacts to the words directed at him. And in a lesser series this would’ve been a truly bad decision to focus on Smile that way. But by exploring the character step by step the first two episodes have already shown that not only he’s an enigma to the audience with his lethargic passive behavior but most of the people around him don’t know him truly as well. More than anything else the season needs to be a character-study about Smile as he starts to get more involved with the world and the sport. A philosophy of stoicism dominates Smile’s character at the beginning and it only makes sense that he therefore seems as distant and removed from the audience’s scrutiny as he is.
But the series makes it clear that this isolation is a choice of comfort, it’s the easy way out for Smile. And his name is indeed the first sign how he actually doesn’t want to be in that isolation. In the second episode Peco, his best friend, tells him that he agrees with the coach’s harsh training that he gives him to which Smile in his usual stoic way answers: “You’re wrong, Peco. I’m only in it for a good time. Having fun is good enough. I don’t want to sacrifice things or drag people down to win.” It seems an obvious contradiction that the guy who never smiles would claim to do something just for fun. And that brings me back to the beginning and the quote which Smile says shortly before where he complains about things getting more complicated. But more than complicated it’s about how Smile is conflicted since both his coach and the Chinese have made it clear that he’s holding himself back because in the end he actually doesn’t want to win.
The second important theme of the first two episodes is actually proclaimed by Peco. Winning against another former Ping Pong Player he proclaims confidently that only people without talent need to make an effort. And many shounen-animes would actually happily agree with that, using dramatic and emotional stakes to somehow turn talent into a deus ex machina for sudden power-ups. Another typical approach for sports-animes is concentrating on the balance between the two basically saying that effort is as important as talent like it’s a competition of sorts. In that dualistic version effort is often the morally superior factor showing how effort can beat talent while talent is seen as a sort-of elitist thing that enables even bad people to compete in a sports. Meanwhile effort is linked to the love and respect for a sport and therefore is only available to good people. This series however makes it clear that talent is an important factor to being good but that effort is what polishes and refines that raw talent.
And that emerging capability is closely tied to a person’s sense of identity. It’s certainly no coincidence that the Chinese player feels somewhat lost after being sort-of “exiled” to Japan for his failure. For him the matter of his failing isn’t just about a lack of skill, he wants to know why he lost. And the first episode nicely shows off a very desperate need for an answer to why he failed and why he is now in Japan after all those years of having made an effort and being talented enough as well to be successful. Smile’s display of his true capabilities is also tied to his sense of identity and his personality clearly changes in that moment. And with that in mind, this makes also another reason why Smile’s claimed raison d’être for being so stoic and isolationistic is because he’s having fun that way. As also shown by him metaphorically hiding away in a closet, he basically hides away from the world, he shuts out the world and this series clearly shows that this sense of identity needs to be expressed to become real.
And this expression of his self by Smile at the end of the second episode leads to a very interesting reaction from Peco, his best friend. For the first half of the first episode Peco is considered to be a better player than Smile. And it’s a great moment in the first episode when it’s revealed that Smile is always subconsciously holding back when he’s playing Peco and that’s why he’s always losing against him. Even more interesting is the second episode where Koizumi, the coach, tries to take Smile’s mask of stoicism away as it makes him weak. But Peco in that moment considers that mask to be the actual identity of Smile leading to him actually looking down on Smile as he’s losing against the coach at the beginning. It will be interesting to see how the turn-around and the expression of Smile’s true character will affect their friendship because it basically goes against any understand Peco had of Smile. In some ways Peco could feel lied to now as he realizes that Smile was also holding back while playing him.
One big reason why this series is as good is its superb direction. Style-wise there’s a big difference between talking-scenes and game-scenes in this series. As it is fitting for such a character-focused series the talking-scenes often change between either wide spatial shots taking in the whole room and the characters’ places in it and very close close-ups, oftentimes just focusing on parts of the face or on the hands if those are active. Those close-ups share this very focused perspective with the game-scenes. But in the game-scenes these focused close-ups are used in rapid succession in a comic-panel-kind-of-way. The way a comic or a manga splits up its pages into panels serves on one level to direct your attention and on another level stylize the combination of words and actions as portrayed by the dialogue and the images. In this case the panels are mostly used in a attention-directing way with one panel overlaying the background with a close-up and then another panel appearing with another close-up that logically follows the minutiae-plot of the game. The style of how the panels are introduced and shown on screen has some variations but this style is only used during game-scenes as it highlights the small moments of the action in a dynamic way, although in a less flashy fashion than a complicatedly fully animated scene would deliver. But since this is Ping Pong this stylized portrayal of a game is more efficient than a normal wide shot of the two players hitting the ball back and forth.
I really hope that this series will amount to more than “Hey! Success is fun so… be successful!”
Essentially most of what Ping Pong is doing is based around characterization and the psychology behind the sport. And both are presented in a very efficient way in these two first episodes but on one hand the chosen types of characters hamper the characterization and on the other hand the scope of these two episodes thematically is rather limited. The problem with the characters is definitely just that Smile isn’t a compelling character. I never understood the appeal of the stoic, emotionless type of character. Maybe with the help of a cute chara-design you can create a moe girl-character and some glasses-wearing super-nerd certainly uses this same type of characterization sometimes. But the alienation, isolation and distance that is inherent to the behavior of these characters is never truly an issue but more often than not just a little gimmick or a mask that can be discarded if the plot wills it so. And actually somebody should’ve realized already that the simple problem with this type of character is that you simply can’t understand him. When a character never shows emotion or expresses emotion, one rightfully assumes he must be a bit of a sociopath. But in most cases that character isn’t supposed to be a psychopath so the audience has to assume there’s something else going on – but thanks to the stoic monotony that’s impossible to know! And that’s the reason why you mostly have these characters as supporting-characters because they really become one-dimensional no matter how much is going on within the character’s mind. What’s left then is just a cute little gimmick and shows like The World God Only Knows certainly twist it into such. Smile’s representation certainly is very good but at the end of the day he still is this particular character-type. And the show really needs to delve into that character’s psyche more to make him come alive for the audience even if he doesn’t change his behavior. Another worrying part is the scope in that regard and I’m not sure whether there would be anything worthwhile to find in Smile’s psyche since Ping Pong really seems to be just a sports-anime. The execution is great as described above but the first two episodes certainly kept a very narrow focus on the sports-side of things making me worry that this show doesn’t have much to say about stuff indirectly related to sports or has any slice-of-life bits to offer that would show how sports isn’t all these characters live and breathe for.
A great direction and a nicely put together plot with interesting characters create one of the best beginnings for a sports-animes I have ever seen. The first two episodes show a very distinct skill and a thematic link between the characters and the action making both the scenes outside the games and during the game engrossing. Sadly, it seems to lack the ambition to deal with any other themes other sports-animes have already dealt with before. Also, while being characterized in the best way possible, the main-character Smile remains a character hard to root for by design.
Episode-Rating: 1st Episode: 8.5/10 2nd Episode: 8/10