Let’s take a closer look at the episode through a few interesting pieces of dialogue.
Obaba: “I had to work hard to pick up your slack too.”
A little later, Obaba bitterly implies that Butterfly Joe is a hypocrite for inquiring about Peco when he had written the kid off in the past. There’s a reason why the story reminds us very early on in this episode that Obaba, Butterfly Joe, and Kaio Academy’s president were once childhood friends. As such, imagine how Butterfly Joe might have changed in Obaba’s eyes. The guy once threw a game just to allow a friend to win the match, and as a result, the friend would not give up on his dreams. Sure, Butterfly Joe fell into obscurity afterwards, but whose fault is that? It’s easy to blame it on others, but at the end of the day, Butterfly Joe controlled his own fate. We can’t deny this because, most of the time, sports are a meritocracy. If Butterfly Joe had wanted to battle his way back to the top, he could’ve. He simply didn’t.
Nevertheless, Butterfly Joe once cared enough about another person that he threw a game. Well, look at the old man now. He certainly sees himself in Smile, and this is why he pushes Smile so hard. At the same time, however, this selfish need to live vicariously through Smile hurts not just his prodigal student but the rest of the team as well. After all, we’ve already seen how Smile was hurt by the way Butterfly Joe had tried to pass the kid off to Kaio Academy. Also, remember how Obaba had to tell her former childhood friend what he had done wrong; he had failed to consider the kid’s feelings. Likewise, he has failed to consider the entire team’s feelings. After all, we’re talking about high school kids here. The art style sometimes makes them look like adults, but they’re still kids. And these kids have had to see their coach devote his time and effort solely to a single person. That has to hurt.
Worst of all, Butterfly Joe never once gave a shit about Peco. Peco wasn’t perfect, of course. He was a cocksure, lazy player who never bothered to hone his craft. Nevertheless, he’s a kid just like the rest of his teammates. Who was there for Peco when he crashed and burned out of the first tournament? No one. And isn’t that crazy? What sort of team is that? Even more damning, what sort of coach is that? This is where sports are more than just the results. Sure, the goal of sports is to win. No one’s denying that. No one looks down on Olympians for devoting their entire lives to their respective games. But we’re talking about kids. And with kids, sports are supposed to be a way for them to learn about life. All Peco learned is that he should run when life gets tough. Butterfly Joe wrote the kid off. Butterfly Joe didn’t care. Butterfly Joe is a bad coach.
So as you can see, no matter how well Smile ends up doing in the upcoming tournament, it’s hard to respect Butterfly Joe. In his selfish attempt to live vicariously through Smile by fixing his protege’s problems, he failed to be there for the rest of the team. As a childhood friend, therefore, can you imagine how much this must’ve hurt Obaba to see? She once saw him care for a fellow friend. Nowadays, the old man is narrow and selfish. He never once cared about Peco, especially when the kid was in the dumps, and he even forgot that Peco was on the team. Hell, he almost drove his own prized student away as well. Butterfly Joe isn’t an evil person or anything like that. And if you knew nothing about his past, you would think that he is a nice old man. I’m sure he is a nice old man. But people can be many different things at once, and in Obaba’s eyes, Butterfly Joe has failed to be a proper coach.
Obaba: “But talent-wise, he’s far above Kazama Ryuichi from Kaio. I can say that much for sure.”
Butterfly Joe: “No way!”
If anything, this should render Dragon in a better light. He’s reached the apex of his game through his sheer work ethic alone, and that’s nothing to snub your nose at. At the same time, however, it also makes you realize what a shame it is that Peco had failed to live up to his own potential for so long. You could almost say the same thing about Smile, but the situations are different. After all, Peco had always wanted to be the best; Smile didn’t. Nevertheless, the former was all talk and no bite. He turned tail and ran at the first sight of adversity. Granted, he almost got no help from the people who should’ve been there for him — namely, Butterfly Joe as we’ve just discussed — but still, running away is not really admirable, is it? Obaba has spent quite some time building Peco back up, and this involves not just his game, but his work ethic as well. Still, you have to wonder how Peco will react when he’s under pressure again. This is just one of the tantalizing narratives as we near the upcoming preliminaries.
Kong: “You might not believe this, but my team’s getting pretty good.”
Could you imagine Kong ever saying something like that at the start of the series? Hell, the only person cockier than Peco was Kong. This is how far the guy has come. He now takes pride in his team as opposed to just himself. If anything, he is perhaps Butterfly Joe’s foil. They both have had such disparate responses to their fall from grace. Kong decided to care for his teammates whereas Butterfly Joe has turned his back on his own students in order to focus solely on Smile. Now, you could argue that Kong had nowhere else to go. He could not return to China, so his only option was to embrace his situation. Still, the once antagonistic import from China could’ve turned in a half-ass job. He could have berated his teammates for their lack of effort. We have seen, however, that this is not the case.
Peco: “I owe you my thanks. Xie xie, Kong. I was able to get better thanks to you. You taught me how to fly.”
Kong has even managed to help Peco albeit inadvertently. Yes, I thought it would have been nice for Kong to have his swan song simply because he has turned it all around. Unfortunately, he had to play Peco in the second round of the preliminaries, which is just an unlucky draw for the Chinese player. As expected, the new Peco beats Kong. It wasn’t a blow-out by any means, but the outcome was never in doubt either. Still, if Kong has learned anything, this is where his team can pick him up. Of course, it’s doubtful that Tsujido Academy will suddenly become world beaters. Nevertheless, even though Kong has bombed out of a Japanese tournament once more, it will be nice enough for him if he can simply see his school make marked progress.
Kong: “Listen up! Practice hard and you’ll get better. That’s the truth.”
Kong’s teammate: “Then if I work myself to death, will I be able to play like Tsukimoto from Katase?”
Kong: “Not a chance.”
Kong: “I’m kidding. Who knows? Maybe talent is sleeping somewhere inside you.”
This just confirms it even more in my mind that Kong is Butterfly Joe’s foil. Hell, perhaps Dragon’s as well. After all, the latter had wanted to recruit Smile so badly — I wonder if he still thinks he can — that he even badmouthed his own teammates on camera. Meanwhile, Kong tries to encourage his teammates even though he knows deep down that the average player would never live up to Smile’s true potential. Sports aren’t about giving up. It isn’t about saying, “Well, I’ve hit my ceiling! This is as far as my talent can take me!” At the same time, it doesn’t mean you should be delusional and sacrifice everything in your life for the sake of winning. It simply means that you should always put in your best effort, and let the chips fall where they may. After all, just look at how a player from Kaio had reacted to his defeat at Kong’s hands. He is already a defeatist, which is not an attitude any sportsman should have. Nevertheless, it’s hard to foster a positive outlook when your best player blasts the entire team in favor of another talented individual.
Smile: “Welcome back, hero.”
When Smile was once trapped in a locker, he recalled how a hero had appeared out of nowhere to save him. Right now, everyone sees Smile as a robot. You could even say the real Smile’s trapped within this robot. If Peco is the hero, will Smile be saved from the locker again? Metaphorically, that is.
— It’s hard to imagine a ping pong ball could ever snap a paddle in half, but that’s just how hard Dragon is working.
— Speaking of Dragon, he never has anything to say around Yurie, so it’s hard to gauge how he really feels about her. Does he actually care for her? Or is she just another distraction in his life? Perhaps it’s even a little bit of both. Nevertheless, it makes you wonder how the two of them ever got together in the first place. It must be maddening to try to talk to someone who is so goal-driven that he can’t even pause for just a second to acknowledge your existence. Was Dragon always this way? Or has he turned it up an insane notch ever since Kaio Academy failed to win as a team?
— I never imagined everyone would be so astonished to see the Poseidon mats. Anyway, this is a reminder of how money-driven sports can be. Sports are hardly pure and innocent at the top levels. In fact, it’s a little silly to see iconic stadiums named after their corporate sponsors. For instance, the Oakland Coliseum is also known as the Overstock.com Coliseum, and that’s just plain dumb.
— Kong literally looks like he’s dancing as he plays. I guess he’s gotten his swagger back.
— Kong’s loss to Peco simply reminds me that double elimination is the best tournament format for determining the best players. People love their early-round upsets, though.