Demon speaks to Dragon for the first time in six months, and poses this particular question to his former teammate. Dragon tries to say that he plays for himself, but Demon sees right through it: “Don’t be ridiculous. If that were true, I wouldn’t have…” Demon never finishes his thought, but if you’ll recall, he admired Dragon. What did he admire about Dragon anyway? I’ll get to that in a second. As he takes his leave, Demon also insists that he doesn’t resent his former teammate. If anything, he has sympathy for him. When Dragon finally meets up with the defeated Sanada a bit later in the episode, he tells the latter about his encounter with Demon. This time, however, he answers the question differently:
Dragon: “He said, ‘Who do you play table tennis for?'”
Sanada: “What’d you say?”Dragon: “‘For the the team, of course.'”
But that’s not exactly true either, is it? After everything that we’ve seen and everything that we know about Dragon, he’s clearly playing for his father. The weight of his family’s honor is a burden upon his shoulders. His extended family once talked trash about his father, but ever since Dragon started to win and bring prestige to both Kaio and the family company, the trash-talking stopped. And can he afford to stop now? This is why he works so hard, and as a result, this is why Demon both admires and has sympathy for his former teammate. Dragon’s not perfect, of course. He’s a flawed human being just like the rest of us. He blasts his own teammates publicly on TV, and he neglects Yurie. But it’s all for his father’s legacy. How much longer can Dragon sustain this effort, though?
As talented as Dragon is — he’s the two-time champion going for a three-peat, after all — he still needs to hide out in the restroom before every match. So as a result, how much longer before the pressure becomes too much for Dragon to bear? The motif of taking flight is a common one in this anime. It represents freedom in a lot of ways. For Dragon, taking flight would likely grant him freedom from the burden of carrying his father’s legacy. Sometimes, we need to be a little selfish and live for ourselves. Dragon’s done all he can. If he tries any harder, he may ruin his life. After all, he’s already driving Yurie away. He only stands the risk of isolating himself even further if this continues.
This isn’t to say, however, that Dragon should free himself from table tennis or anything like that. Rather, if he loses the upcoming semifinal match against Peco, he’ll free himself from the pressure to win all the time. After all, losing can open your eyes to a lot of things. It certainly seems to have done Demon some good. As crushing as it was for Demon to quit the sport, Demon now has a new perspective in life. And this is perhaps what Dragon needs. He needs a new perspective. He needs to see things from a losing’s standpoint. Perhaps only then will he reassess what he wants in life, and not what he’s obligated to do. Another prime example of this, of course, is Kong:
Kong: “I have to go teach my lost ducklings how to fly.”
Exiled from China, dominating the sport in Japan represented Kong’s only ticket back to his homeland. So in that sense, he’s always been different from Dragon; he used to play for just himself. Nevertheless, losing gave him a different perspective. Losing the first time — to Dragon, no less — gave Kong the ability to accept his place in life. He didn’t want to embrace Japan nor his new team. To him, the island nation was nothing more than a pathetic pit stop full of unrefined and untalented players. China has a long legacy of dominating the sport of table tennis. With that in mind, it was shameful for Kong to lose here, and this meant Kong couldn’t leave.
Nevertheless, do we give up and allow shame to consume us? Kong realized he now had to make the best of this pit stop, so he started to coach his team. He started to care how they did. Kong’s second loss only reinforced this idea. He won’t be able to take flight and return home to China, but he’s still free. He’s now free from the pressure of living up to China’s legacy. He’s free from having to dominate Japanese players just because he’s Chinese. As a result, he’s going to turn his attention back to his teammates and teach them how to fly. Kong can say he plays for his teammates.
But what about Smile? Who does Smile play for? That’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Throughout this week’s episode, people constantly refer to our placid protagonist as a robot. They say he’s brutal and merciless. They say he’s cold and heartless. What horrible things to say about a kid, though. The irony here is that although Smile has finally taken flight in one sense, i.e. he’s fully realized his true potential in the game of table tennis, he’s also imprisoned in another sense. In becoming a highly-efficient table-tennis-playing robot, he’s trapped within the metaphorical metal locker once more. People may fear his talents now, but they still say horrible things behind his back. They may have garnered respect for his game, but they don’t really respect him. Smile’s demeanor may never change, but I’m sure he’s aware of what’s happening around him. I’m sure it can’t feel good either.
A consistent thread through this entire episode — aside from the big question of who these characters play table tennis for, of course — is the burden of carrying some sort of legacy upon your shoulders, whether it’s be a person’s or perhaps even a country’s. With Smile, it feels as though he has to succeed where Butterfly Joe has failed. This is why it’s difficult for me to say who Smile is playing for. In the first few episodes of the anime, Smile had resisted the idea of training himself to become the best table tennis player. After all, winning wasn’t important to him. The sport is important to him, but as a way for him to have fun and relax. Has all of this suddenly changed for Smile? Does he now think winning is everything? I doubt it. But he respects his coach, and thus, he probably cares more for the old man than he lets on.
Still, is this right? Should Smile really be playing for Butterfly Joe? Should Butterfly Joe really live his life vicariously through his talented protege? I don’t think it’s fair to Smile. Smile might be unstoppable these days — a relentless machine that can’t stop winning — but the key here is that he no longer smiles. Peco reveals to Obaba that Smile isn’t Smile because he ironically doesn’t smile. Rather, Peco started calling his friend Smile because the placid kid would suddenly beam whenever he could play tennis. Unfortunately, when’s the last time you saw Smile beam? He hasn’t for quite some time.
Peco admits that he has let Smile down. By loafing around, table tennis became less fun between them. As a result, Smile stopped smiling. Then it became worse. The sport has become a job for Smile. What he used to play for fun has become an obligation. Smile now has the burden of Butterfly Joe’s ruined legacy on his shoulders. He’s trapped by the need to succeed where Butterfly Joe had failed, and that’s ultimately unfair to Smile. He should be able to play table tennis on his own terms, and if winning isn’t important to him, then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with winning, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s still just a game.
Dragon’s father: “It doesn’t matter to them what happens down on the ground. You figure they’ve watched our ugly wars and stuff since before there were airplanes?”
And that’s the truth. Even if Smile wins it all for Butterfly Joe, the birds in the sky wouldn’t care. Hell, most of us wouldn’t care either. Are you a table tennis fan? I certainly am not. Still, this isn’t being dismissive of people who dream of winning and achieving the ultimate prize in any given sport. As long as its your own personal goal, it’s important to you and you should genuinely pursue it to the best of your abilities. But that’s the thing: it doesn’t seem as though Smile is pursuing his own goals, does it? Rather, he’s playing for someone else, and that’s why he needs a new perspective like Dragon and Kong. He needs someone to remind him to play table tennis for fun again. That’s why Peco say, “Smile’s calling me.”
Obaba: “But if you want to be world champ, you also need the courage to raise the white flag.”
Peco isn’t playing for himself, though. He isn’t necessarily in this to be the world champ. He has no burden to shoulder, because he isn’t even trying to establish his own legacy. Of course, Peco would love to be the world champ nonetheless. He’s always dreamed about it, after all. The kid with the bow-cut has rededicated himself to the sport, however, after seeing a photograph of a smiling Smile at Obaba’s table tennis dojo. As a result, Peco is playing to become the hero. More specifically, he’s playing to become Smile’s hero. If he can get past Dragon — and this also assumes Smile will get to the finals, but that part seems to be a given — the two friends can face each other once more.
The difference with the potential match between Smile and Peco and every other match, however, is that the two friends will never be adversarial with each other. Throughout the anime, whenever the characters have face off against one another — whether it’d be Kong vs. Dragon or Peco vs. Demon — it has always felt like all-out warfare. For Smile and Peco, however, they’ll never be enemies. Instead, it’ll just be like old times. It’ll be like when Peco used to teach Smile how to play the game, and in doing so, maybe the latter can enjoy table tennis again. Peco will just have to somehow fight through his injured knee and get to the finals. Can Peco overcome the two-time champion despite this large handicap, though?