Round 1: Ping Pong vs. Gingitsune, Witch Craft Works vs. Yowamushi Pedal

ping pong 2

Ping Pong the Animation – Episode 2

It feels strange to say it, given how superficially ugly the show can be, but everything about this episode of Ping Pong was beautiful. Its simultaneous exploration of Smile’s past and present selves turned him into the show’s most dynamic character in the span of twenty minutes. As if that miraculous transformation weren’t enough, Yuasa and company also found the time to check in with Wenge, foreshadow two major opponents in Dragon and Sakuma, humanize the eccentric Coach Koizumi, and tell the story of how Smile met Peco. And we’re just talking plot and character here; all of that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this episode accomplished. The script, the music, the humor, and even some great symbolism came together to produce a fantastic piece of animation.

When Smile first appears in this episode, it’s as a younger version of himself, trapped in a locker that’s been barred from the outside. It’s never explicitly stated, but we learn from this flashback that Smile was bullied as a child. He whispers to himself in the darkness, “It’s okay. I’m fine here. I want to stay here,” turning his prison into a shelter from the outside world. This is heartbreaking stuff, but a savior appears in the form of “the hero,” a winged silhouette that opens the locker door, defeats the monsters that lurk outside, takes Smile’s hand, and promises to come to his aid whenever he chants “The hero appears!” three times. The hero also made a brief (and perplexing) appearance during the premiere, but this time I had both the prior exposure and the context necessary to appreciate its significance. It makes sense that a quiet, nerdy kid like Smile would invent an imaginary friend to help keep his torturers at bay, so Ping Pong’s inclusion of the hero is a great method of exploring its main character’s psyche in a tangible way.

Back in the present day, there’s a new bully in Smile’s life, and his name is Mr. Koizumi. The high school ping pong coach is quick to recognize Smile’s enormous talent, but also laments his lack of competitive fire (as Wenge did last week), and so he sets out on a mission to harass, trash talk, irritate, and otherwise annoy his most promising player in the hopes that it will awaken something inside him. Koizumi is saved from outright villainy, however, by his quirky sense of humor and use of broken English. Fancying himself the husband to Smile’s wife, Koizumi calls him “Honey” and prepares healthy lunches to replace the burgers Smile is so fond of, an act of devotion which Peco can’t help but call “love.” We learn that Koizumi is also the high school English teacher in what might be the episode’s funniest scene, as he loudly pesters Smile to show up to morning practice while his class is taking a test. Romantic accordion music plays in the background all the while, making Koizumi’s “advances” less harsh and more humorous.

Things come to a head in a gloriously staged and scored match between student and master. Koizumi promises that if he loses, he’ll never bother Smile again, but demands that Smile be his dog (“Arf, arf, arf!”) if he wins. The match is fierce, and Koizumi plays with an aggressive style that borders on dirty, inspiring awe in those watching from the sidelines. The falling piano chords in this scene create an undeniable sense of tension, but also of foreboding, as Smile loses the first game 11-4, Koizumi mocking his softness and inexperience all the while. In desperation, Smile chants to himself three times: “The hero appears. The hero appears. The hero appears.”

But as we return to find Smile trapped in the locker once more, it’s not the hero who comes to his rescue, but a decidedly more ominous savior in a giant robot, the embodiment of the cruel, unfeeling play style that Smile keeps hid. “You feel nothing,” insists the robot. “No one can hurt you.” The glitchy electronic music that kicked in as Smile transformed from silent pushover to dispassionate brute sent chills down my spine. The tide quickly turns as Smile takes the second game, demanding that Koizumi stop hesitating between points, showing no mercy towards an older opponent. But Koizumi rejoices at his own success, even as he takes a devastating fall in the third game that leaves him unable to get up. Smile’s relentless drive to win finally showed itself, which is exactly what his coach had been aiming for.

And that’s actually where the story ends. Smile walks away from the game with his opponent still on the floor, ignoring his teammate’s shouts to come back and take Koizumi to the nurse’s office. There’s no easy resolution, and no lesson learned. Despite his status as the main character of the series, Smile is the villain of this episode. Rather than becoming the hero who he imagined might save him from darkness, he plunges himself further inside it. There’s so much more to analyze here: the show’s use of butterflies as a motif, whether the “hero” is actually meant to represent another character (I have a pet theory that it’s Peco), the duality of the hero and the robot – but I’ve written too much already. Just let it be said that I love this show, and that it took every ounce of willpower I possess not to marathon the rest of the series immediately after finishing this episode.

gingitsune 2

Gingitsune – Episode 2

This was the show about which I wrote the fewest words during First Impressions week, and nothing I saw here could stop that from becoming a trend. This was essentially a second first episode, re-introducing the characters and setting, reminding us once again that Gintaro likes oranges, and recycling the “main character is late for school” gag for the thousandth time in anime history. Once she finally arrives at school, Makoto becomes embroiled in a nonsensical conflict between the class vice president and the resident queen bee. Their grudge evaporates after they pay a visit to the shrine where Makoto lives, though, and Gintaro looks into the future to see that all three girls will be friends for a very long time. The script features such gems as, “We’re in high school. We’re not allowed to do as we please.” The art is nice, but that’s the one and only thing Gingitsune has going for it. In a word, this show is boring.

The Verdict: Do I really need to say anything here?

WCW 2-5

Witch Craft Works – Episode 2

My two big hopes for this episode were that the rabbit henchmen from last week’s episode would make another appearance, and that Kagari would become Takamiya’s mentor. Both of those things came to pass in this episode, and before the commercial break, to boot. My slight disappointment at the brevity of the rabbits’ cameo was easily overshadowed by Takamiya’s request that he become Kagari’s apprentice. Even though he’s your typical useless anime protagonist, he’s got enough common sense to realize his shortcomings, and he’s not too proud to ask for help. Kagari’s reluctance to teach him makes sense as well, stemming from her desire that he should live a normal life. The introduction of half a dozen new witches gave this episode a frantic quality that I’d like to see toned down, but I don’t imagine subtlety is in this show’s DNA. Still, there’s enough sincerity in the relationship between the two main characters that I’m able to overlook how goofy the show can be as a whole. And sometimes that goofiness is played to great effect, as in the ending theme, where miniature versions of the villainous tower witches sing a cute Japanese pop song while tied to various medieval torture devices.

(Apologies for switching to a different naming system this week. Since the characters refer to each other using last names and honorifics, I figured it was more appropriate.)

yowapedal 2-4

Yowamushi Pedal – Episode 2

Despite its seeding at #21, I was half expecting Yowapeda to wipe the floor with its opponent this week, so strong was my impression of its first episode. Unfortunately, its second offering was not as winning. Too much internal dialogue, the addition of an undesirable trait to Onoda’s character, and some dreadful saxophone music made this a grating experience. To elaborate on that second point, this episode took Onoda’s shy, nerdy personality and added crippling social anxiety to the mix. The girls who came to watch his race with Imaizumi were suddenly capable of giving him a panic attack, complete with seizure eyes and echo-laden thoughts of self-doubt. This isn’t the same bumbling but friendly character I remember from the premiere, and giving him that kind of severe anxiety just to provide a little extra catharsis later on is lazy writing. It could be that my impression of Onoda’s character was off from the start, but even if that’s the case, I’m not interested in Watamote + Cycling. Let’s get past this first race and meet some of the other characters, so this can become a true ensemble cast.

The Verdict: Neither show had a stellar episode, but at least Witch Craft Works lived up to my expectations.

NEXT UP: Watamote vs. Sekai Seifuku, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun vs. Knights of Sidonia