Butterfly Joe: “Question for you, Mr. Tsukimoto. What happens when someone goes after a hero’s weak point?”
Smile: “Heroes don’t have weak points.”
Both Obaba and Butterfly Joe know that Peco’s knee is killing him, yet you wouldn’t notice it by the way the kid is playing. He’s giving Smile the match of a lifetime, showing everyone that heroes don’t have weak points. That’s the key difference here. Early on in the episode, Butterfly Joe wonders if his tutelage had helped Smile. Would Smile be able to do what the old man had failed to do? Would Smile be able to “[drive] a stake into an old friend’s injury?” Normally, this would be a difficult dilemma for anyone to face. How do you weigh your own personal ambitions against a friend’s well-being? Butterfly Joe couldn’t do it to his friend Kazama. In fact, Butterfly Joe had to throw to match in order for Kazama to win. ‘Had’ is the key word here. With Smile and Peco, however, the situation is different. Like with Kazama, Peco’s knee is killing him. Nevertheless, the boy with the bowl cut plays as though he feels no pain, thereby living up to Smile’s proclamation: “Heroes don’t have weak points.”
Peco is truly the catalyst in Ping Pong. Whoever he plays, he allows them to fly. More specifically, he frees them from their shame. I’ve already covered Kong and Dragon in previous posts, so I won’t get into too much detail about those two here. It’ll suffice to say that Kong felt the shame of being exiled from his country, and Dragon felt the shame of his father’s shortcomings. Both characters strove to win at all costs in order to make up for their shame. In losing to Peco, however, both characters realized what they were truly missing in life. As a result, they were freed from their shame and allowed to live life to its fullet. Having said that, what’s the deal with Smile then? What is Smile ashamed of? Or perhaps more correctly, what would Smile have been ashamed of if not for Peco? It’s simple: if Peco had not been a hero, Smile would have felt the shame of “[driving] a stake into an old friend’s injury.”
Butterfly Joe saw himself in Smile. As a result, the old man wanted to correct in Smile what he saw as a major failure in himself. The old man is, however, mistaken. There’s no shame in considering a friend’s feelings. The problem was that Butterfly Joe allowed himself as a player to fade into obscurity after he had let Kazama win. It also didn’t help that Kazama went on to brag about his victory: “I hear you’ve been telling people you beat me through sheer grit.” As a result, Butterfly Joe felt as though an injustice had been done. He had shown Kazama mercy, but his friend threw it back in his face. Butterfly Joe thus tried to help Smile do what he couldn’t do. What the old man only now realizes, however, is that winning at all costs isn’t the ideal situation either. To truly win this match and thus the championship, Smile would have to “[use] a strategy that might end [Peco’s] career.” That is, if Peco had been any normal player. As we all know, however, Peco, is a hero.
As previously stated, Peco plays as though he isn’t injured. He plays as if he feels no pain even though Butterfly Joe advises Obaba to rush the kid to the hospital as soon as the match is over. Instead, when people watch Peco play, they can’t help but feel as though ping pong is the funnest sport in the world. By showing no weakness, Peco frees Smile from the his dilemma. To answer Butterfly Joe’s question, Smile could totally do it. Smile could totally do what the old man could not do. Nevertheless, he doesn’t have to. Peco’s ability to defy all logic and thus ignore his weaknesses allows Smile to go all out without having to feel any guilt. Smile doesn’t have to think, “Wow, I’m about to ruin my friend’s career,” because he knows that even if Peco loses here, he would bounce back and become a champion in table tennis one day. As a result, both friends are able to go all-out and play with reckless abandon.
We even see Smile dive into the stands to retrieve a ball, thereby cutting his knee in the process and spilling a tiny bit of blood. Nevertheless, this scene is important. Like everyone else, Smile can bleed. Unlike what most people have been saying, Smile is not a robot. Being a natural introvert, however, Smile only felt comfortable going all-out against a true friend. Throughout the match, we see scenes from the two kids’ younger days. Smile was, of course, bullied by the other kids. He was called a robot back then as well, and as we’ve already learned, the bullies would trap Smile in a locker, a metal prison to match their verbal insults. Peco freed Smile from not just the locker, but the his proverbial shell as well. More importantly, Peco showed that Smile could bleed just like the rest of them. He showed that Smile’s hands coursed with blood just like the rest of them. As a result, it’s okay to have fun, it’s okay to get angry, and it’s okay to stand up to your bullies. Smile cutting his knee and showing blood now during the finals shows that nothing has changed. He still bleeds like the rest of them, but most of all, Peco is still the hero who frees Smile from his prison. As Smile dives for the ball that is going out of bounds, we see his metallic surface shatter to reveal the flesh and blood underneath.
Obaba: “And it’s not like it matters who wins this one.”
According to a photo in Obaba’s dojo, it would appear that Peco had gone on to win the match, but she’s still right. It wouldn’t have really mattered if Smile had won instead. If a battle is an externalization of the conflict between two sides, there is no conflict here. It’s just two friends competing with each other for the love of the game and the love of the game alone. There are no other factors to consider. As a result, seeing Smile and Peco go all-out and enjoy themselves is the ending. No more really needs to be said. After all, the outcome of the match wouldn’t have changed anything anyway. Win or lose, we can easily imagine Peco going on to become a champion in table tennis. Had he lost, I don’t think Peco would have fallen into despair and malaise again. He’s been through it already, and he knows he can’t give up on the sport. We can imagine Peco recovering from his knee ailment, and eventually train himself to become a champion. From what we can tell in the epilogue, this is indeed what he does anyway. Likewise, win or lose, we all know Smile only plays table tennis for fun. It’s not like victory would’ve turned Smile into the Michael Jordan of the sport. Fittingly, we see Smile has become an elementary school teacher in the epilogue. As adults, both characters are where they truly belong, and a different outcome to the finals wouldn’t have changed any of that.
Smile: “What’s wrong with being mediocre?”
There are some nice touches in the epilogue, but I won’t get into them since I’d just be recapping what you could see for yourself. So instead, I’ll sum up my thoughts on the series as a whole.
Ping Pong has been a nice surprise, since I had no expectations of the anime going into the season. Sure, the animation is not technically stellar — in fact, it is downright comical at times — but it is certainly expressive, which is important for a show like this. I think what really works for the anime, however, is its heavy emphasis on each and every single one of the show’s major characters. No one is underdeveloped here. Not a single person is wasted or used as a plot device. Every single character is explored to the fullest. Hell, even side characters like Yurie have a surprisingly level of depth. We get to see and understand what drives each of these characters. We also explore their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their concerns, etc. It’s easy to trick the audience into pitying the characters. You just have to bludgeon them with emotional trauma until they are numb from the experience. It takes a deft hand, however, to elicit a wide range of emotions from the audience, and this is what Ping Pong accomplishes with much finesse. The characters do not simply wallow in their failures. Instead, the anime weaves a story in which the characters feel not only despair and resentment, but hope as well. Ping Pong‘s story is as human as can be, and that is why it’s my favorite show of the season.