When I reached my senior year of high school on our track team, the three previous years of hard work, sweat, and vomit finally gelled into something that resembled a slightly above-average distance runner. Throughout these years, there was a runner from a rival school whose name was murmured amongst my teammates like a benediction or curse, depending on what they wished to express. Rumors had her training with U.S.A. Track and Field, and as our seniors prepared to pass the torch, they warned of her prowess and skill. This led to her constant presence in our minds, where the few souls talented enough to make it onto the varsity team – placing them next to her on the starting line – were immediately grilled following their races. I knew the exact meet, Reading versus Lexington, when we too would share a start time.
Presence from a teammate or an opponent can swing momentum in one of two ways. The first time that Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino met Kong “China” Wenge, they line up on opposite sides of the table equally full of scorn and bluster. Kong thoroughly trounces Peco, leaving him emotionally and physically exhausted. Kazama similarly defeats Kong at a later date, dashing his dreams of returning to his home country of China. In both cases, the victor is one who dominates their opponent through intimidation as well as superior skill. The presence felt has a negative affect overall.
When the two meet again, both Peco and Kong have grown far beyond the people that they were in their first match. They retain their cockiness and confidence, but have newly found respect for themselves and their opponents. Instead of one overpowering the other, their collective presence raises the level of play exponentially. As they face each other a second time, they lead by example, pushing each other to greater heights.
Additionally, the two parallel each other in leading their peers by example. Following his defeat to Ryuuchi “Dragon” Kazama, a humbled Kong stays in Japan and vows to improve the Tsujido Academy ping-pong team. He is shown not practicing, but coaching his teammates up. Kong’s new presence changes his entire team dynamic from one foreign superstar brought in to carry an assembly of incompetent kids, to true teammates who cheer for each others’ success. The few times Kong is shown practicing by himself leading up to their next competition, he uses a robot that was graciously given to him as thanks for his coaching efforts, which have subsequently led to a lack of personal practice time. At the competition himself, Kong is quick to tease his teammates while raising their spirits at the same time. He tells them that talent could lie dormant in any of them, waiting for hard work to bring it to the surface.
In their second encounter, the series quickly cuts to shots of a young Kong, biting down on a medal much like the young Peco of previous episodes. Piles of junk food are also shown. The message is that Peco and Kong are similar individuals. Ones whose raw talent and presence can both intimidate and inspire others.
“I wanted your talent, I copied your style, your racket, your form, everything! But I couldn’t be you! Everyone in our class admired you. To us you were . . . you love this sport more than anyone!”
– Manabu “Demon” Sakuma, to Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino, Ping Pong: The Animation, episode 6
As the eighth episode of Ping Pong: The Animation reaches its conclusion, Peco is revealed as the hero that Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto has been waiting for. It’s heavily hinted, through quick visual cuts, that it was Peco who pushed Smile and Sakuma along as children, inspiring them with not only his natural talent but his love of the sport.
When I, along with my distance running peers approached the track, we expected a domineering giant, who would tower over us as we trembled in fear and awe, much like Kazama. A girl to stare us into submission, while we mentally acquiesced the race to her superiority. As we pulled off our warm-up sweats, nervously dragging ourselves to the starting line, we were greeted by an exuberant girl of average height. Smiling, she shook all of our hands and told us to have a good race. She radiated confidence, but calmed our shaky nerves. Collectively, we realized that this was not another girl, but The Girl.
We all ran our personal bests that day. She still annihilated us. As we all flopped onto the grass next to her, gasping for air like fish out of water, she genuinely congratulated us on our efforts. It was the most enjoyable race of my running career.