Welcome back to Masaaki Yuasa’s Ping Pong The Animation! I wasn’t planning on doing a weekly, episode-by-episode analysis of this show, but if each chapter proves as dense and enjoyable as these first two, then I might not be able to help myself. This second episode almost immediately veers into an unexpected direction. We would anticipate, in the aftermath of last week’s ending, to see Peco in despair after his brutal defeat at the hands of Wenge, followed by some soul-searching and outside encouragement to get him back into the game. Standard sport narrative stuff. And while we do see some angst on Peco’s part, he springs back into the game with very little trouble or provocation. Both he and Smile know that nothing can keep him away from ping pong for long. Whether this is due to a truly resilient core or a façade of bravado, we’ll have to wait and see. Similarly, Wenge takes a backseat and shows up for only one scene, so it’s the quiet, brooding Smile who becomes the focus of the episode.
Visually, the show continues to capitalize on the ideas from the first episode (see: my previous post). The all-important ping pong color quartet (hereafter abbreviated as AIPPCQ) of red, blue, yellow, and green still dictates a large portion of the show’s palette, showing up in incidental yet nonetheless interesting places. Negative space encroaches into certain scenes, and overwhelming blankness hangs around for dramatic effect. The yellow filter from Wenge’s memories of China permeates all flashbacks, so it does indeed appear to function as a nostalgia filter, which commenter kuromitsu pointed out last week. Appropriately, the yellowing makes the past look like an aged photo album, but it could also be indicative of the sourness of these memories of loss and bullying. And of course, everyone’s favorite—the division of the screen into separate panels—is back with another strong showing, this time with some new tricks up its sleeve. Yuasa has an easily-distinguishable style as it is, but tics like these help define the look and feel of Ping Pong even further, such that even among Yuasa’s other works, it already stands out as its own show.
But lest you think that Ping Pong showed its entire hand in the first episode, this week treats us to some new visual cues to wrap our heads around. An important one is the color purple—largely absent in the first episode, it appears with fervor throughout and stands out precisely because it was so absent previously. Although present in small doses beforehand, it is not until midway through the episode that the show undergoes a radical palette switch with the arrival of Ryuichi Kazama, whose large expository onscreen text is itself purple. The soft violet lighting of the twilit evening follows Kazama and Koizumi’s conversation about Smile, and it fans out into Smile and Peco’s time spent together on the beach. Kazama’s uniform appears to be a dark purple, and Koizumi’s shirt later in the episode is a light purple. It’s an odd color choice, especially for twilight, which typically announces itself primarily with pinks and oranges, so it stands to reason that there is some deliberate justification for its use.
I can think of a couple potential reasons for why purple is used as opposed to other colors, and they both tie back to the focus of this episode: Smile. One reason is that purple is the color of royalty. Royalty, in this world of Ping Pong, is worn by veteran players who have proven themselves in competition (Kazama), and by people who are both skilled in the game and able to mentor Smile (Koizumi, and it could be argued the old lady at the ping pong club has purplish hair). Thus, purple is a sign of hope, an aspiration towards becoming ping pong royalty. In this way it could represent a harmonious relationship with ping pong, an ideal synthesis between the red of the paddle and the blue of the table that Smile may one day achieve. The second reason is along similar lines—that purple is there as a filter for an optimistic present/future in opposition to the yellow haze of bitter memories (purple being the complementary, opposite color of yellow). It is also of note that pinks and violets tend to pop out in this palette Yuasa has constructed. Look at how much the purple pen stands out in this shot, for instance; whereas every other object has its color matched at least once somewhere else in the scene, the pen stands alone. It is present while Koizumi daydreams over the potential of his new student, so perhaps it is a portend of great, unique things to come.
On that note, object symbolism appears in a big way this episode. It’s unsurprising, with a title like “Smile is a Robot,” that our first glimpse of Smile is that of his younger self trapped in large metal cage. He was forced into the locker against his will, but Smile is revealed to be a person who accepts this fate and twists it around into a choice of his own. A choice to hide from competition, to run away from commitments, to retreat into his shell. It becomes obvious that it was not Peco who ran away from Wenge’s challenge last episode, but Smile. Although his past self is rescued by a mysterious hero, the present-day Smile does not appear to be a far throw from the child in the locker.
In contrast, the other major symbolic players in this episode all relate to flight and freedom. The hero who rescues Smile wings him away to safety. Butterflies show up around Koizumi—in his letter to Smile, on his shirt, and in his final battle, peppered with visions of monarch butterflies. Another apt metaphor for Smile would be that of a boy in his cocoon, a boy who has spun walls around himself to shut away the outside world, so the butterfly could be a sign of his emergence back into the world, as a being filled with grace and poise. The fact that it is a monarch butterfly makes it another signifier of royalty as well. But this is not enough for Koizumi. He doesn’t want Smile to be a butterfly, whose beautiful wings are nevertheless too fragile to sustain Smile for the distances Koizumi believes he can travel. No, Koizumi would like Smile to be more like the hawk patrolling the seaside sky above Smile and Peco. The hawk is powerful and ruthless, and it is able to vent some of Smile’s frustration. Notice how it swoops down on an unsuspecting girl and swipes her hamburger, as if in retaliation to the the swiping his own burger earlier. Koizumi wants Smile to be as aggressive and competitive as possible, and the hawk is a much more appropriate fit for that image.
The episode’s real strength, however, comes not from its inclusion of these symbols so much as the manner in which they are used. Their execution is minimal at first, yet they become more prevalent and more obvious as the episode continues, culminating in the match between Smile and Koizumi. It could be argued that the rapid flashing of the monarch butterfly ruins its subtlety, and I’d agree, but to the extent that subtlety is not that scene’s endgame. The entire episode is a rising action towards this climax, when the visual cues of the cage, of flight, of violet scenes, and of Smile’s frustrations come to a head as he surpasses even Koizumi’s expectations. Smile is not a butterfly. Smile is not a hawk. Smile is not a boy waiting to be rescued. Smile is a robot. The hero never comes, so Smile must embrace his identity and use it to escape. Blood doesn’t just taste like iron; his entire body it made of it (note the fantastic contrast between those two images, both in terms of color and typeface). He can fly, but on his own terms, and that means rockets.
Smile’s robot transformation is a powerful scene, and it deserves to be seen in motion (gif courtesy of http://secretotaku.tumblr.com). It’s also a puzzling scene full of strange implications and dichotomies. It’s funny that it’s only when Smile embraces himself as a robot that he is able to do something completely illogical, in contrast to his tendencies at the beginning of the episode. More seriously, however, the way the scene ends, with Koizumi unconscious on the ground, makes the viewer wonder whether Smile has truly conquered his insecurities in the ideal way. In one respect, Smile gives into the identity mockingly thrust upon him by his peers, but it also feels liberating because he himself appropriates the term and uses it as a source of strength, complete with the whirr of gears as he victoriously removes his glasses (a great touch). But what makes it different from hiding in a locker because other people put him in there, and is it better to be a robot ping pong competitor than a human ping pong player? It is good that he is finding his own strength, but what will happen if it comes at the cost of his childhood friend and implied savior Peco?
Smile got a lot of character development in this second episode, but I doubt we’ve reached the end of his arc. In fact, the episode both visually and dramatically establishes Smile as a foil for Wenge. He’s the blue oni to Wenge’s red oni, if you will, so I’m sure there will be plenty of conflict to come. Also, I haven’t commented much on it because I don’t know if I possess the vocabulary, but Yuasa excels at picking fascinating and captivating camera angles to further add color and texture to his scenes. Just admire this overhead shot of a young Peco, or this simple flat angle of Peco bisecting the ping pong games in front of him, and consider that Peco wasn’t even the focus of this part of the story. Ping Pong remains rich in character and smart in execution, and if Yuasa can keep this up we may be bearing witness to his strongest work yet.