I love sports! I mean, what else can scratch that itch for nationalism better than sports? So when I heard Ping Pong THE ANIMATION had somehow stumbled itself into the noitaminA block, I figured now is a better time than any to start paying attention to sports anime.
Ping Pong THE ANIMATION Ep. 1
Peco: “Is the next stop ours?”
Smile: “No. The stop after next.”
What’s interesting here is that these two kids are just two sides of the same coin. Peco is brash and outgoing. On the other hand, Smile is quiet and unassuming. Peco seems to be boundless in his energy; Smile can’t even express his emotions without tiring himself: “Smiling, getting angry–that stuff makes me tired.” Peco is brimming with so much confidence that it spills over into arrogance: “Only people with no talent exert effort.” Meanwhile, Smile disapproves of such ostentatious displays of self-aggrandizement. In fact, he doesn’t seem to think very much of himself: “Don’t give me too much credit, old lady.” Is it a low self-esteem or is Smile just being realistic? Or is Smile merely serving as a counterbalance to Peco’s persona?
But the truth is that it’s all a defensive mechanism for Peco. Beneath all his bravado is a rather fragile ego. When Peco loses to Kong, the kid breaks down and cries on the floor; Smile had to reassure and pick his best friend up from the ground Afterwards, Peco hides his head as he leaves through the gates of the school. Part of this plays into his jester personality, but at the same time, it reflects a bit of Peco’s vulnerability. This is all rather ironic when you recall how the Smile kept insisting to the upperclassmen that he isn’t the Peco’s keeper. Despite this, all of their peers continue to believe otherwise: “C’mon, man! Peco only listens to you…” All throughout the episode, Smile is actually overprotective of Peco.
When the upperclassmen leans upon Smile to get Peco to attend practice, Smile claims that this task shouldn’t under his responsibilities. Despite this, we see Smile pay Peco a visit to deliver the message anyway. He claims he doesn’t care whether or not Peco shows up to practice, but Smile then turns around and acts like a concerned parent the very next day: “You’ll get diabetes if you keep chugging condensed milk.” Both Kong and Koizumi recognize that Smile’s holding back whenever he plays against Peco. For reasons yet unknown, Smile feels the need to serve as a counterbalance to Peco’s personality.
Peco says something rather telling at one point in the episode: “I do like that side of [Smile], but even I don’t want him to be like that forever. We’re not kids anymore.” Ironically, Peco is the one who needs to grow up. He’s the one who seems immature as he taunts his upperclassmen. Not only that, it’s clear that Smile is coddling him. If Smile was to ever assert himself and become his own person, how would Peco really react? Would Peco be able to support himself on his own? That’s a hard question, and it’s a question that Smile himself isn’t ready to answer. When the Chinese coach felt Kong had gone too far in dismantling Peco, Kong replies, “I showed him reality.”
Unlike Peco, I suspect Smile’s sense of self doesn’t hinge upon whether or not he loses a game of pong. Kong thinks Smile lacks combativeness, but I think that’s because Smile doesn’t need to win to maintain his own ego. In that sense, he doesn’t exhibit signs of combativeness because he doesn’t actually have anything to fight for. On the other hand, again, a loss to Kong caused Peco to cry. Granted, Peco was completely shut out; he couldn’t score a single point. But China’s been known to produce some of the best ping pong athletes in the world. Why would you fall to the ground and cry after losing to one of the best? Could you imagine how Peco might react if he started losing games to Smile on a regular basis?
Peco: “Is the next stop ours?”
Smile: “No. The stop after next.”
As for Kong, he’s an interesting character too:
“Nothing about you is good enough. Don’t you dare think you can stand at the same table as me! Why did I have to come to this country to the eastern end of the Earth?! Now learn… how powerless… and unpolished you are!”
The part about Japan being on the “eastern end of the Earth” is the most telling part. For much of the history between China and the rest of its East Asian neighbors, i.e. Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, China has seen itself as being the center of the universe. This brief excursion to Japan is thus nothing but an exile for Kong. And even if China has had to play catch up in recent decades, I’m sure prevailing attitudes still feel as though the smaller countries should continue to look towards China instead of the other way around. Ultimately, the sport of ping pong itself is just a metaphor. You can replace it with anything that Japan has borrowed from China and Kong’s sentiments would still apply.
All in all, I find the characters in Ping Pong as equally fascinating as the show’s quirky aesthetics. This is probably my favorite show of the season thus far.
Baby Steps Ep. 1
Eiichiro’s one quirk is that he’s got a heavy case of the OCD. He even has to compartmentalize his own bento in neat, perfect portions:
Basically, our protagonist isn’t an intuitive learner: “…it’s because I’m not the kind of person who can pick stuff up right away.” As a result, he needs to overly prepare himself for every single occasion. He’s infamous amongst his peers for his exhaustive note-taking abilities. Whenever you need to cram for a test, Eiichiro’s the man to ask for. He’s got it so bad that he’ll even take notes in the middle of a tennis match (during the change-overs). But how does this work with sports? Coaches will often tell their players that if they’re too busy thinking on the court, they won’t react quick enough. Let’s face it: most athletic sports are a reactive game. Yes, players will put in the long hours at practice in order to prepare themselves for the biggest games, but there’s a thing called muscle memory for a reason. Sports practice is inherently repetitive so that even the hardest, most strenuous physical feat will seem like child’s play to a professional in the heat of the moment. When Lebron James hits an insane fadeaway over a the outstretched arms of some 7-footer, it only looks easy. Hard work and preparation has allowed superstars like James to pull off ridiculous moves in the middle of a game because he doesn’t have to stop and think. It’ll be interesting how Baby Steps can seemingly reconcile these two disparate elements: the intuitive need to react quickly on the court versus Eiichiro’s need to break everything down analytically as he’s playing the game.
As a huge fan of tennis, I have to say that physical talent plays a much bigger role than one’s analytical abilities in determining the outcome of most matches. Sure, players like Federer are definitely smart, but at the end of the day, the man has 17 Grand Slams under his belt thanks to his insane shot-making ability. Since he’s aged quickly in the last few years, his intelligence alone hasn’t been enough to get him over the proverbial hump. It isn’t an accident that his last Grand Slam title came at Wimbledon. A lower bounce on a grass court gives players less time to react to shots, allowing Federer to capitalize on both his precise serving and his ability to transition to the net. Guys like Nadal and Djokovic, on the other hand, will bludgeon you from the baseline with their tenacious defensive game and ridiculous top spin shots. It’s a battle of attrition with those two. They will leave you running ragged until you start making the errors, not them. Basically, tennis isn’t really a battle of the wits. The Santoros of the game are definitely entertaining to watch, but they’ll never win anything big in their lives.
Of course, I’m not saying that these players are mindless either. They definitely have coaches to research their opponents beforehand. Even defensive players like Djokovic will go out on the court with a specific gameplan in mind. For example, if he’s up against Nadal, you know Djokovic will try to pick on Nadal’s average backhand as much as possible. But what supposedly sets Eiichiro apart is the way he’ll take and study his notes in the middle of a match. The idea here is that our protagonist will somehow come up with new strategies in between games, and this will be his special talent in this sports anime. Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not trying to paint Baby Steps as some ridiculous and unrealistic anime. The realism doesn’t really matter anyway as long as things don’t get too crazy. That being said, I think it’s safe to say this won’t be another The Prince of Tennis. In saying all of this stuff about tennis and real life pro players, however, I’m merely attempting to contextualize what will make Eiichiro’s story stand out. This isn’t merely a tale about a guy who is OCD about everything he does. This is about going against conventional sports logic and nevertheless finding success. If Baby Steps can pull this off, it’ll be a worthwhile watch even if its lessons aren’t applicable to the upper echelon of tennis competition.
And if all else fails, you can watch the show for the budding romance between Eiichiro and Natsu.
Haikyuu! Ep. 1
So it looks like you want to create a generic shounen sports anime. First, take a really small and short character. What he lacks in physical stature, he makes up in two ways. First, he’s going to have one insane talent no matter what. Every generic sports protagonist is the same way. They’ll always be small in size so opponents will initially underestimate them, but then outta nowhere, our hero unveils his secret technique and stuns everybody. Now, just repeat this for one or two seasons with minor tweaks and you pretty much have your bread-and-butter shounen sports anime. Some protagonists can run really fast, some people apparently appear invisible on the court (). As for Shoyo, he has the ability to jump like jackrabbit even though height and lankiness are often the name of the game in volleyball. That’s his calling card, so prepare to see countless opponents after opponents stare at Shoyo all slack-jawed because we’re going to milk the shit out of the fact that he can jump better than anyone else.
Second, you grab the biggest heart possible and shove it into the kid’s tiny chest cavity. So even though everything’s stacked against your protagonist, he’ll rise above it all somehow. In Haikyuu!, our hero’s middle school didn’t even have a boy’s volleyball team. Shoyo had to put it together himself. His peers started to make fun of him for playing a girly sport, but he stuck with volleyball no matter what. And because he had no team, he couldn’t attend tournaments, but our scrappy, lil’ go-getter practiced everyday as if he had the biggest game the next day. When he finally gets a team, they get smoked — absolutely smoked — but Shoyo still swore to one day dethrone the king of the volleyball court (too bad they end up becoming teammates). There’s an old adage that says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Now, in real world, talent often works hard too. But this is anime, so we don’t have to worry about that too much. Everyone but the main characters is lazy and that’s just fine.
To be fair, Haikyuu! is a lot less flamboyant than a lot of shounen sports anime. No one has crazy moves with equally crazy names just yet. Flames don’t appear around the main character when he goes up for the biggest spike of his life. Characters don’t waste time discerning each other’s sports power levels either. Still, nothing really sets Haikyuu! apart from all the other sports clones. Right off the bat, we have the scrappy, small-statured hero and the lone wolf who needs to learn the power of teamwork. Pretty soon, the rest of the lines will be colored in and that’s the problem: the lines look to have been drawn in place ahead of time. It remains to be seen if Haikyuu! will have the guts to color outside of the lines.
On the bright side, if you ignore the ridiculous facial expressions throughout the episode, the show’s animation is pretty good.