Smile, Sound, and Fury

smile, ping pong, ping pong the animation, smile playing ping pong

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.

ping pong, ping pong the animation, smile, makoto tsukimoto

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.

ping pong, ping pong the animation, kong wenge, makoto tsukimoto, smile

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.”

ping pong, ping pong the animation, kong wenge

plane, kong wenge, ping pong the animation

plane, ping pong, ping pong the animation

plane, ping pong, ping pong the animation, kong wenge, makoto tsukimoto, smile

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.

ping pong the animation, ping pong, kong wenge, makoto "smile" tsukimoto, smile, makoto tsukimoto





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.

ping pong, ping pong the animation, makoto "smile" tsukimoto, smile

“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.




  1. To add on to your analysis, the first scene which the tournament begins has the sound of the ping pong balls bouncing are totally synchronized, as if it’s planned from the start. I’m guessing it probably means that the rest of the players are off leagues in comparison with the main characters or it’s just a stylistic thing.

    1. Yeah, I absolutely loved that opening part of the episode and how it transitioned perfectly into the background music. I think it was more of a stylized introduction to open the tournament, rather than a display of skill, but thanks for mentioning this. It was another fantastic use of sound from this episode.

  2. I saw a ping-pong match on TV once, although without all the sound effects and music it wasn’t as exciting as this one. 😉

    Out of all the current Spring anime, which ones have you decided to keep following regularly(or close to it)?

    1. Professional ping pong matches (or the ones I have seen) become very intense. ^ ^ I like watching any sport where the players are really passionate about what they’re doing.

      In terms of spring anime, the two series I’ve sworn to keep up with weekly are Ping Pong and Captain Earth. Other series I’m watching intermittently are: One Week Friends, Mekaku City Actors, Haikyuu!, Baby Steps, Love Live!, and Mahouka.

  3. I can’t remember where I read this (I think on /r/anime’s discussion?), but someone said that it seemed like Smile was also using his humming to maintain a “facade” of calm and non-chalance towards the match – as if by humming, it would make it seem like he wasn’t being serious when he was. This is on top of everything else you said, which I do agree with.

    Anyway, I still maintain that Smile acted as a hero of sorts to Kong. However, based on how it may not have seemed like Kong wanted to be saved in such a way (rather than being saved by his own skills, he was saved by the mercy of his opponent), I don’t think Smile was a “true” hero. I add that Kong didn’t repeat a desire to be saved three times (a common refrain of Smile when talking about heroism) before Smile threw the match, which I think adds to the notion that Smile was a hero, but not a “true” hero.

    I’m rambling. I’ll shut up now.

    1. Ramble all you want. ^ ^

      I can definitely see that as something that Smile would do. When I was dumping my initial thoughts on this episode, I compared Smile’s hum to the whistle of “Twisted Nerve” that Elle Driver has in the hospital scene of Kill Bill Vol. 1. It begins as a small whistle and then is blended into the background music very well. The whistle is at the forefront and becomes very oppressive by the end of that sequence before the background music completely takes over.

      What I like about Smile as a character is his ability to affect those around him. He inspires a new “springtime” for his coach, who recognizes his potential. He defers to Kong in their match (not before proving his superiority) allowing him to move forward on the path to returning to China. He spurs movement in Ryuuchi “Dragon” Kazuma, who wants to recruit him.

      Lastly, there is Smile’s entire relationship with Peco, which seems to be strong sometimes and weak at others. Regardless of whether Smile is a hero in the truest definition (overcoming adversity for the greater good) he does consistently draw others to action. I’ve seen murmurings elsewhere of Peco being the “true” protagonist, and Smile being an antagonist or catalyst for his development. Even with the series having spent the past two episodes on Smile, I can definitely see this happening as Peco is always in the background. It is Peco who is crushed in the first episode by Kong due to his overconfidence, which Smile has been nurturing through his refusal to play Peco properly. Peco is also always watching Smile, from his match with Koizumi to his match with Kong. Repeatedly, Peco is amazed at what Smile can do when he plays offensively. At the end of Smile’s match with Koizumi, he tells Peco that he’s “going on ahead” which could mean that he’s going home without Peco, or that he’s figuratively making the move to surpass Peco. I think Smile could be the antagonist/catalyst for Peco to reach his true potential.

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