Often neglected when speaking of an animated sports series – or anime in general, for that matter – is the use of sound. Not the soundtrack itself, or the actual sound effects, but the use of them within the specific narrative of a series, in tandem with the visuals.
In episode three of Ping Pong: The Animation, Eriko Kimura turns in one of the more impressive pieces of sound direction that both supports and amplifies Masaaki Yuasa’s visuals and Taiyo Matsumoto’s story. The moment is Smile’s coming-out party.
Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto, who had previously acquiesced to others and allowed them to win, finally unlocks his personal ambition. In the scene above, he hums a song to himself in a stairwell where childhood friend Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino finds him. They banter back and forth, with Smile holding nothing back. Peco chides him for abruptly turning in his defensive chop for a more aggressive, offensive style of play. Smile asks if he’s jealous, to which Peco responds that he may be. The entire conversation, like most of their conversations, is laced with a background that we are still not yet privy to; however, one thing is abundantly clear. Smile will not let Peco win anymore.
He continues humming this song, tapping his foot with each beat. This continues through his introduction to Kong “China” Wenge. The visuals in the above screenshot change as each frame slides into place, almost always falling on the second beat of Smile’s taps – one, and on two, a new image often appears – creating tension prior to the start of their match. Wenge has looked forward to playing Smile specifically, and Smile is now ready to compete. Smile’s humming fades, leaving the scene absent of ambient noise or music, before Smile’s voice is heard loud and clear, “Do your best, Kong. I’m good.”
Kensuke Ushio’s music kicks in as Kong takes the spotlight. Kong easily overtakes Smile. The music continues as Kong speaks of how Smile’s environment is to blame for his rusty play. Jet engines are heard as the visual representation of what is at stake for Kong – admission back into professional table tennis in his home country of China – with plane imagery overtaking each of his shots. Kong wins their first match handily. As his coach takes him to task for his sloppy play, Kong shrugs him off, saying that he expected too much.
At the tail end of this conversation, Smile begins to eerily hum again. Having used the first match to take in Kong’s style of play – additionally, calibrating his new racket – Smile goes on the offensive, holding out one long, drawn-out note. The humming becomes oppressive, heard above all in-game sounds: human grunts, the rustle of clothing, athletic shoes squeaking against the floor, and the sound of the ball bouncing off of the table. Even when ambient noise is heard from the crowd, Smile’s humming persists.
It only continues to grow in volume throughout the next two matches, both of which end in Tsukimoto’s favor. The sound becomes heavier and heavier, while gasps of shock and murmurs from spectators continue to be heard. Smile’s song crests as he transitions from humming into louder, “Dum, dum, da-da-da-da-da, dum.” before subsiding once more into a duller hum.
“You know, Tsukimoto. I hate the way you play. Your technique is magnificent, but it disgusts me to watch you always consider your opponent’s feelings.”
-Ryuuchi “Dragon” Kazuma to Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto, Ping Pong: The Animation, episode 3
What halts Smile’s momentum are the shouts from Kong’s coach, reminding him that it’s all over if Kong loses here. A close-up of Smile’s ear reminds the audience that – although it’s unlikely that Smile knows or understands Mandarin – he knows exactly what is at stake for Kong, due to his previous conversation with Ryuuchi “Dragon” Kazuma. And so the spell is broken. Smile’s humming ceases, replaced by a heavier background music track. He goes completely on the defensive and Kong wins, advancing to the fourth round with his dreams of returning to China intact.
I am guilty of neglecting to mention sound direction often. When recommending Ookiku Furikabutte to someone, rarely do I mention how well the series uses the taiko drums and cheers of the ouendan, background music, and silence to convey the tension in Nishiura’s first-ever tournament game against the baseball powerhouse Tousei. When recommending Mushishi to someone, rarely do I mention the exceptional use of silence and sound in the third episode, “Tender Horns,” and how cupping one’s hand over their ear sounds like lava flowing. When recommending Touch to someone, rarely do I mention how Kazuya Uesugi’s emotional state is so well-characterized by the classical music record he chooses for his turntable that day or, like the other series previously-mentioned, how the series’ use of crowd noise and silence can break a viewer’s heart.
Going forward, when recommending Ping Pong: The Animation, I will be sure to mention the fantastic job that Eriko Kimura has done. Along with Kensuke Ushio’s music, her deft hand compliments Yuasa’s direction beautifully.