With every move that Smile makes, he affects all who are around him.
“Talented people who know themselves never crave anything. People who don’t know themselves are always the ones who struggle hard to win, because they want to prove something.”
– Jou Koizumi, Ping Pong: The Animation, episode 4
Jou “The Butterfly” Koizumi enters the self-proclaimed “springtime” of his 72 year-old youth thanks to the addition of Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto to the Katase High School Ping-Pong Club. In his own words, a coach’s life only has meaning when he has an athlete to guide, and Smile is the raw talent that he’s been waiting for.
In the premiere episode, Koizumi immediately recognizes that Smile is going easy on his childhood friend Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino. From that moment on, he only has eyes for Smile, making him healthy lunches, inviting him to special morning practices, and eventually challenging him to a match, forcing him to play seriously. This match in episode two precipitates Smile’s emergence as a dominant player.
Koizumi says that he wants to lead Smile to the summit of ping-pong, so the 16 year-old can see the view from the top. However, it’s hinted that forcing Smile to accept his tutelage could also be an attempt at reliving, or correcting a mistake made in, Koizumi’s own youth as a ping-pong player. Additionally, Koizumi’s laser-like focus on Smile, and Smile alone, has incredibly adverse consequences for the Katase High School Ping-Pong Club. With all of their resources dedicated to the growth of Smile, the rest of the team suffers immensely, receiving little to no instruction. Koizumi may have found his personal reason for coaching, but it comes at the detriment of the team as a whole.
“However, what I’m most worried about is my school, Kaio. Our team’s collective strength has demonstrably fallen. For Kaio Academy to be the impregnable fortress it once was, we require players on the level of Tsukimoto from Katase High School.”
– Ryuuichi Kazama, Ping Pong: The Animation, episode 5
Like Koizumi, Ryuuchi “Dragon” Kazama of the ping-pong powerhouse Kaio Academy has directed the bulk of his attention to Smile. Initially catching Kazama’s eye in a junior high match – against now Kaio Academy teammate Sakuma – Kazama describes Smile’s tenure at Katase High to be like “watching a swan among ducklings.” He is upfront about his desire to recruit Smile, and his aims are very similar to Koizumi’s. Both want to take Smile under their instruction and grow him as a player using him as a tool for their own goals: Koizumi for personal reasons, and Kazama to regain the dominance that his school once had. Unfortunately, also like Koizumi, Kazama’s focus on Smile comes at the detriment of his team at Kaio.
As people, Smile and Kazama share similar character traits, specifically an inner desire to hide themselves away from the spotlight. Kazama is shown in the bathroom by himself before a match, much like Smile’s flashbacks to hiding in a locker. One could argue that Kazama is a version of Smile that did not hole up, and was pushed from a far earlier age, with every resource available to those around him poured into his development.
Both Koizumi and Kazama’s actions regarding Smile draw our attention not only to how Smile affects them directly, but how their decisions affect those around them indirectly. Is Smile’s individual development as important as the development of their respective teams?
“It’d be a relief not to have any more dreams where I’m the only one without a ticket.”
– Kong Wenge, Ping Pong: The Animation, episode 4
Kong “China” Wenge left his home country of China somewhat disgraced in his own mind. He does not want to be in Japan and sees himself as a better player than the vast majority of his competition, until he encounters Smile. Their first meeting – where he notes that Smile is allowing Peco to win – somewhat inspires Kong, giving the Chinese player a reason to look forward to the high school qualifiers.
Smile thoroughly bests Kong in their matches; however, he allows Kong to win after hearing the desperation in both the voices of Kong and his coach. It is not mercy on the part of Smile, as much as it is an acknowledgement that the game in that moment means far more to Kong emotionally. The repercussions of Smile’s decision to purposefully throw the set are felt at all levels of the tournament. Kong is unable to leave without the impression that he was allowed the victory rather than earning it. With this seed of doubt planted, in addition to Kong’s attitude, Kong loses to Kazama, who goes on to win the qualifiers and, down the road, become the champion.
The Kong of episode five appears far more humbled than his arrival to Japan in the first episode. He decides to stay in Japan, even with his coach leaving to return to China. Similar to Peco, Kong has a good amount of natural talent that has somewhat been muddied by his feelings of superiority. Unlike Peco, Kong seems to have grown from the effects of his encounter with Smile.
“I worked hard! Ten times – no, a hundred, a thousand times harder than you!”
– Manabu Sakama to Smile, Ping Pong: The Animation, episode 5
Piggybacking on the question posed by Koizumi and Kazama’s treatment of Smile’s talent, is the struggle between talent and hard work represented by Manabu “Demon” Sakuma. Sakuma has put all of his effort into earning a spot on the Kaio Academy team. While this does put him ahead of childhood rival Peco, it is still not enough to beat Smile, who handily defeats Sakuma when Sakuma challenges him. Emotionally exhausted and stupefied, Sakuma disintegrates before our eyes when Smile tells him that he doesn’t have the talent for ping-pong and this is where Sakuma “went wrong.” He hits rock bottom, assaulting a passerby in anger, which results in a school suspension and his discharge from the Kaio Academy Ping-Pong Club.
“I want to be Number One on the whole planet, you feel me? I’m aiming for world champ! It’s my dream! We’re different that way, yeah? Losing is no fun for me, so whatever happens to other people I just want to win.”
– Yutaka Hoshino to Smile, Ping Pong: The Animation, episode 2
None have been so affected by Smile than Peco, who has incorrectly seen himself as more talented than his childhood friend due to Smile’s refusal to play him seriously. Unlike Sakuma, Peco does have natural talent but has put no effort into getting better, allowing his game to stagnate. There’s no doubt that Peco cares about ping-pong beyond the fact that it has boosted his own ego; however, his unwillingness to practice seriously has kept him at the same level for years, while those around him have pushed further. Following Sakuma’s destruction, Peco is shown throwing his ping-pong paddle into a river, bidding it goodbye. This comes after he sees Smile nearly defeat Kong, his own defeat to Sakuma, and the complete obliteration of Sakuma by Smile.
When placing Smile side-by-side with Peco, it’s difficult to tell who is the more naturally-talented player; however, all signs point to Smile. That being said, neither boy has stood on equal grounds with one another. When they were very young, Smile was untrained. As they grew older, Smile did not want to defeat Peco, coddling his emotions and artificially inflating Peco’s ego. Peco has not been forced to play up to his competition, and he has additionally been written off by Coach Koizumi, who has put all of his eggs in the Smile basket.
Each ping-pong team shown in the series has their own stand-out talent: Tsujido Academy with Kong, Katase High with Smile, and Kaio Academy with Kazama. These talents, thus far, have been shown to be superior even without hard work. Ping Pong: The Animation is drawing up a battlefield between talent and work ethic with Smile as the catalyst. When Smile flaps his wings, the effect radiates outward. The wild-card in this is Peco – whom I incorrectly predicted would use his defeat as a turning point – a raw talent with no polish or developed work ethic. While Peco admits that he doesn’t find losing “fun” – and is picked on by Sakuma because of this – Peco has been shown to love ping-pong more than that. As Smile continues to receive attention and affect the actions of those around him, one should spare a glance for Peco.