The moment of truth is finally here. Smile and Peco square off, not just as athletes, but friends.
Ping Pong’s finale brings the story to a close as Smile and Peco finally face each other. Those expecting a match rivaling last week’s episode’s intensity may come away a bit disappointed. However, the final episode more than makes up in the lack of actual ping pong with one of the most satisfying conclusions to a character arc I have ever seen. This is a match the whole show has been building up to, not because of who’s the winner or something like that, but because it’s the fully realized meeting between two lifelong friends who have finally reached the end of their journey.
As I watched the final ping pong match, it really started to come together just how momentous this occasion is for the two players. Smile’s who suffered from bullying was saved by Peco’s friendliness and the introduction to the sport of ping pong which became such an important part of his life. Ping pong wasn’t just a sport for him, but a tangible product of the connection he had with the closest friend he knows. We constantly hear the line, “Blood tastes like iron” this episode and while you could see it coming, it was truly satisfying how the episode comes together with that line. Yes, Smile is taciturn and antisocial, but that doesn’t mean he’s not human. He has his moods, his dreams, and most importantly, he has people he cares about. The reason why Smile has been playing ping pong all this time is because it is the foundation of his and Peco’s friendship, so when Peco finally comes around, it’s a wonderful moment.
There are so many other great moments I could talk about. There’s Smile going for Peco’s weak knee, a representation of the fact that neither Peco or Smile is holding back this match. There’s Smile breaking out of his robotic shell, finally being saved by Peco. There’s the old timers getting together once more to relive the old times. There are the flashbacks that illustrate the strength of their friendship and how for these two, the greatest thing that ping pong gave them was the fun of playing with each other.
In the end, I think that’s what makes Ping Pong’s final match so beautiful. It isn’t about winning or losing. It’s not about proving who’s the best player. It’s about two friends who love the sport with all their heart finally going all out because it’s so much fun for them. It’s a match where the thrill of competition comes second to the love for the sport.
The epilogue was an effective way to tie up the story in a satisfying manner. Smile has finally found his place in life, and more importantly, he’s happy. In fact, I think the ending works so well because everyone who fought so hard for what they wanted finally get it. Smile wanted to reconnect with his best friend and gets it. Peco wanted to go the top, and he gets it. Kong, Akuma, and Kazama also finally realize the things that truly make them happy and pursue them with all their heart, whether that be starting a family or returning to the world stage of ping pong. In its conclusion, Ping Pong makes good on its promises and gives us the closure for these characters we’ve come to care for so much.
This was about as perfect as they could have finished up this series. In the end, we didn’t get to see much actual ping pong between our two heroes, but that’s not the point. As the flashbacks show, this is a friendship that has lasted for almost a decade. One forged in the bonds of ping pong. Playing against each other used to be as natural as drawing breath. Peco has redeemed himself through fire in defeating Kazama. It is in his renewal as the Hero that Smile is freed from the confines of his emotionless playing. He doesn’t have to be what people expect him to, he just has to have fun with his best friend, just like they used to. Their passion is something that is in their blood. And their blood tastes like iron.
That’s not to say there was absolutely no ping pong, the show made sure of that. It seems that Tatsunoko had blown most of their budget before this last episode, but what it lacked in technical quality it made back by utilizing the style the show had been cultivating this whole time. A black and white final scene seems reminiscent of the timesaving measures of Gainax, but showing the match as just Smile, Peco, and the ping pong table allowed the scene to carry meaning through its sparse setting. That was the point in the match where everything melted away between the two of them and the only thing left was ping pong.
The flash forward is a time-worn tradition in the sports show genre, but I’ll forgive Ping Pong for that considering the age of this story. It’s always fun to see what happens to our characters even after they become celebrities at their sport. It helped bring some good closure to Smile’s arc. In the beginning, he seemed resolute in not letting ping pong dominate his life. His drive in the series was merely for the chance to reconnect with his best friend. In the end it seems he rested on his laurels and took his own way in life. Kazama seems to get the short end of the stick, but really I think his role in the story was realizing there was life outside of ping pong. Finally getting kicked off the national team has made him refocus what he will do with his life. Peco and Kong, however, knew by the end of their series that ping pong was a part of their souls. Almost all of the musing we got about the matches from an outside perspective were from Kong. Watching Peco go all out inspired him to stay in the fight, and in the long run that effort succeeded.
As both a sports anime fan and a Masaaki Yuasa fan, I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I heard that Yuasa was going to direct an anime about ping pong. I had my speculations. For one, I knew it was going to be an artistic tour de force. And yes, it most certainly delivers in that regard. Ping Pong is glorious in its ugliness, but it’s a style that works perfectly in the show’s favor. The characters aren’t idealized dolls, they’re human in all the fascinating ways that make us so unique. Yuasa’s usage of imagery is impressive on almost every level. While the animation itself is limited at times, likely due to the staffing issues that plagued the anime’s production, Yuasa’s art direction more than makes up for it. Segments like Peco and Kazama’s match show exactly what the man is capable of crafting.
And I absolutely must give a shoutout to Kensuke Ushio’s stellar soundtrack. Throughout its entire run, Ping Pong has consistently impressed me with its music, ranging from upbeat hotblooded tunes that perfectly accompany the sports sections to the subtle tracks that make the vital character moments all the more impactful. The whole finale already had me on the verge of tears, but it was the accompanying music that brought me over the edge.
However, what made Ping Pong truly so special was how enthralling of a character piece it was. Where Ping Pong occasionally falters as a true blue sports anime, it more than makes up in its ability to weave a heartfelt narrative filled with nuanced and complex characters, each with their own ambitions and beliefs. Ping Pong never once tries to lead you by the nose or get in your face about explanations, like so many (especially LN-inspired) anime. We watch and learn about the characters’ growth through their actions and words. We don’t need someone explicitly telling us why Kazama is so anguished by the sport, what drives Kong so hard, or why Smile purposely loses to Peco. These are things we glean from their organic development as people. It made the anime genuinely satisfying to watch, and a breath of fresh air in so many ways.
But all the same Ping Pong was a surprise I’m not sure anyone could really see coming. It’s a gem that I’m sure many will miss because of its distinct art style and generic premise. This is a shame, because Ping Pong is the best anime I’ve watched this season, and considering what’s on the horizon, could easily be my personal contender for anime of the year. It is a transcendental piece of work, taking the aspects that make the sports genre so enjoyable, and incorporating them into a character drama that is simply unmatched.
In all its ugliness and charm, Ping Pong is the most beautiful anime of the year.
Love ya Ping Pong.
Ping Pong was beautifully ugly. There has never been an oxymoron that has made so much sense. Through The Tatami Galaxy I quickly became a Masaaki Yuasa fan. His rough style lends a completely unique feel to any work he touches. I think such a dirty, more realistic art style worked perfectly for this kind of story. It’s to the point where I can’t even imagine such human characters animated in a more traditional manner. The roughness also did a great job of giving the symbolic moments more weight without having to use a huge amount of detail.
Another thing that turned this anime from good to memorable was a fantastic soundtrack. A rousing score is something every good sports show should have, and Ping Pong made no exceptions. However, instead of grand pieces that stimulate pride in the heroes, both of our protagonists received leitmotifs that encapsulated their personalities and the way they played ping pong. Nothing would get me more fired up this past season than hearing Smile’s robotic techno piece. The advent of The Hero’s Song through Peco’s second wind brought all of the energy needed to compliment that comeback. It just goes to show, you can never underestimate the power of music in a visual medium.
Despite superficially being a sports anime, it doesn’t take very long to realize the main goal of Ping Pong is to tell a deeply engrossing character drama and coming of age story. Each character starts out broken in different ways, and is built back up slowly through the love of the sport. Kong and Peco have arcs of redemption, differing in who they are redeeming themselves to.
For Kong, his journey is in becoming comfortable with failure, and realizing the greater fruits of camaraderie with his team. In Peco, he finds himself behind the friend he always felt superior to, and in renewing the effort that gained Smile’s respect, the two of them can once again play together as equals. Smile starts out detached and unfeeling. Peco is his only connection to the sport, and as Peco proves himself unworthy, he begins to feel no enjoyment in playing. However, as he sees his rising popularity change Peco, it drives him to be worthy of being his equal when they do finally see each other again on the court. Kazama is the most detached of these three. He stands on the high tower as champion, and sees no joy in it. Ping pong is an obligation put upon him by his family. It’s not until he finally finds a worthy challenge in Peco that he remembers the joy he felt when learning the sport from his father.
As I’ve said before, it speaks volumes to the focus of Ping Pong‘s story that the final match doesn’t even matter in the context of the sport itself. It brings us through a short journey in the lives of these characters, but one that changes the way they all live their lives forever. It is the combination of so much talent that makes Ping Pong shine as a new hope in the ailing brand of noitaminA. Ping Pong has firmly established itself as the litmus test of quality for this entire year, and come winter time, it will take a truly notable surprise to dethrone it.