From the sports-laden Spring 2014, three series made it to my watch list: Haikyuu!!, Baby Steps, and Ping Pong the Animation. I loved Haikyuu!! from the first episode, Baby Steps after a few weeks in, but Ping Pong not until the series was already drawing to a close.
The reason, as I’ve been telling people recently, is that while all three are great, their merits lie in vastly different places.
Haikyuu!! is easiest to enjoy because it’s very typically shounen, packed with action, intense rivalries, and pep talk on the value of nakama.
Baby Steps, on the other hand, is great for its realistic storyline and relatable protagonist. It’s not ‘cool’, but it captures you anyway, and gets your heart to pound as strong for Ei-chan’s matches as for your favorite World Cup team’s.
Then we have Ping Pong the Animation, which ended a couple of weeks ago at the 11th episode. It offers a vastly different experience from the two previously mentioned, and I’m not just talking about the art and animation style.
A Series About Motivations
The reason I failed to fully appreciate Ping Pong from the get-go is simply that such is impossible for a series like this. It’s not meant to work that way in the first place.
Ping Pong offers a short plot that features no more than two tournaments and the rigorous training of the various characters in between. Not too exciting, but that’s okay, because the true goal of this series, I realized, is not to tell a riveting story, or even to teach audiences about the sport (was there ever a moment where they paused to explain the mechanics or the jargon?). It’s to explore the different motivations of the different people who play table tennis. That’s a point that only presents itself towards the middle, so we don’t really get a chance to fall in love until then.
Several times, Ping Pong leads us into thinking that it’s a story about something more conventional, like the journey of an underdog high school through a tournament (like in Haikyuu!!), or the rise of a naturally gifted player (like in Baby Steps), or previous generation rivalries being passed down to the next (that Peco suffers from the same knee injury as Kazama Ryo definitely wasn’t meant as a coincidence), but ultimately, these plot points turn on us. Katase High School doesn’t feature prominently in the story; Smile loses to Peco in the tournament; Butterfly Jo and Kazama Ryo turn out to be in good terms after all.
The way things turn out seems almost satirical to the typical sports anime, and that’s another thing that makes Ping Pong great. Just as it contradicts the idea that everyone plays sports for the same reason, so does it to the notion that success means the same to everyone.
Smile plays for enjoyment.
Tsukimoto Makoto, or Smile, has the most natural talent out of all the characters, and has caught the attention of table tennis giant Kaio Academy and legendary-player-turned-coach Butterfly Jo. Ironically, Smile only plays as a pastime. He likes playing, but he doesn’t particularly care about winning. In fact, he tends to lose on purpose to spare the feelings of his opponents. In the epilogue, it is revealed that he has completely stopped playing professionally, although he becomes an instructor for young children at Tamura’s dojo, where he himself first learned the sport. Is he a failure? No. Rather, this is his success. All Smile has ever wanted is for himself to enjoy table tennis as a hobby and for Peco to continue being his table tennis hero, which Peco does.
Peco plays for passion.
Yutaka Hoshino, or Peco, is the surprise hero of the series. During the first half of Ping Pong, almost all attention was focused on Smile, and Peco was just the best friend and a backdrop. In the end, he turns out to be the character we had thought Smile was going to become. Peco is naturally gifted in the sport, not as much as Smile, but his passion for table tennis more than makes up for the deficit. Having played and won all his life, though, he becomes conceited and stops taking practice seriously. He almost quits completely when he gets crushed in two matches that he had thought were sure wins. But then he renews his love for table tennis as well as his ambition to play in the Olympics. Peco decides to relearn the sport from the very beginning and starts to train rigorously, and from here, he follows the story pattern of the typical sports anime protagonist. He endures injury by sheer passion, beats everyone, and in the end, he achieves success by becoming an Olympics player.
The Dragon plays to win.
Kazama Ryuichi, called the Dragon, plays to win, period. Out of all of them, he’s the most concerned about being on top, which is due to the pressure of having to prove himself to his grandfather Kazama Ryo, who himself is a celebrated table tennis hero and looks down on Ryuichi’s parents for presumably poor business skills. Ryuichi cares so much about winning that heneeds to lock himself up in the toilet during tournaments to be able to pull himself together before his matches. Out of all the characters, Ryuichi also suffers through the most rigorous training, often involving complex machinery produced by the family-owned Poseidon and the militaristic regimen of similarly family-run Kaio Academy. This causes him to see table tennis as a war or a tool rather than something fun. His eyes lie only on winning table tennis, so much so that he completely ignores the obvious affection of his beautiful model cousin Yurie. Years later, the cousin is a designer in Paris and Ryuichi is out of the National Team. He wonders what he should do next, his life until then having been nothing more than a series of one table tennis success after another. Is he a failure? In his eyes, yes. But in a way, being forced out of table tennis may do Kazama good. Now he can open his eyes to the rest of the world that he has ignored for so long.
China plays to go home.
My personal favorite is Kong Wenge, also called China. He used to play for the Chinese National Team but has since been kicked out. He transfers to a high school in Japan to beef up a wimpy table tennis club, but his secret goal really is to dominate the high school tournaments and win himself a place back in his home country’s team. Kong starts out as a condescending jerk, but eventually mellows down into a captain who genuinely cares about his teammates’ improvement. Through it all, though, he never wavers in his desire to win his ticket back home, but he never does. In the epilogue, it is revealed that Kong eventually naturalizes as a Japanese citizen and starts playing in the Japanese National Team. It’s interesting in that his fate is both a success and a failure. Kong fails in his original goal to go back to China after losing two consecutive high school tournaments, but he does eventually manage to succeed in once again being admitted into the national team of his home country, even if it’s a different country this time.
The Demon plays for passion, too, but he isn’t very lucky.
Finally, there is Sakuma Manabu, the Demon. Despite the monicker, he is in fact a second-rate player. His is what I consider the saddest story, because he loves table tennis but is not fortunate enough to have been born with natural talent. He tries to make up for it by working twice as hard, but as his total destruction at the hands of Smile proves, the combination of talent and practice trumps that of practice and more practice. Sakuma eventually gets kicked out of the Kaio Academy team and suspended from school for engaging Smile without permission, which leads to him completely quitting the sport. It’s not without regret, though. In fact, there is a lot of it. He laments that he cannot be as good as Peco despite having the same level of passion, or as good as Kazama despite undergoing the same level of training, all because he was not born with natural talent, and table tennis is a sport that requires such. Years later, he’s the only one married with children. Is that a success? I’m not sure. I’d like to say yes, because he seems to have come into terms with his fate and moved on, but it’s difficult to claim that with conviction when I recall that last scene showing Sakuma requesting for privacy from his companion so he can grieve on his own.
Sanada plays to beat Kazama.
There’s another one who’s too minor a character that nothing cool came up when I searched his name on Google Images, but I think he deserves even a short mention. Sanada Masayuki, second-in-command to Kazama in the Kaio Academy team, has a unique motivation driving his actions. He wants to beat Kazama, whom he resents for getting the best of everything. His character arc is short and fleeting, but I found it interesting that the series included a foil to the other characters. Sanada’s notion of success is petty. He just wants to beat Kazama at something, even if it were something outside a ping pong match, namely winning Yurie’s affection. He fails, though, and that’s really the end of the story for him, because that’s truly the end of the line for people with neither the talent nor the proper motivation to succeed.