Re:flections on 2016 #01 – Tough Sells

Okay. I know I’m like three days late at this point. I wasn’t even planning to do this, because I wasn’t sure I could stick to it (or even come up with any ideas) for more than a day or two—and I still can’t say for sure if I’ll manage even now. But we’ll see.

Having a theme might help, I figured. So I decided to borrow from one of the year’s prevailing themes: shit that starts with “Re:” (it made more sense before I wrote it down, I promise).

Anyway.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you probably know I like Saki. I love Saki. And Saki is, in my experience, a somewhat difficult series to sell people on for a variety of reasons—whether it be the character designs, the ridiculous outfits, the fact that nobody wears underwear, Ritz’s apparent allergy to working on it, or just the sheer incomprehensibility of the game of mahjong. After 54 episodes, I still have only the faintest understanding of how the game actually works. The barrier to entry is on the high side, but if you can get into it, it’s insanely rewarding.

This isn’t a post about Saki, though. This is a post about Saki’s younger cousin, a little show this season called Scorching Ping Pong Girls (or Shakunetsu no Takkyuu Musume). They’re not actually related, no, but they both fall into this neat little subgenre focused on girls participating in insanely intense competitive sports where everyone generally has their own quirky superpower. Keijo!!!!!!!! is another recent example, with Girls und Panzer close behind (no real superpowers), and Chihayafuru sitting somewhat adjacent to them all (it has guys, and is a bit too chill for me to really count).

But I digress. Let’s talk ping pong.

When Ping Pong Girls started two months ago, I kind of hated it. Less than five minutes into the first episode, as we’re being introduced to the middle-school ping pong team that serves as our main cast, we’re treated to a faceful of this (if you’re not familiar with Japanese, “mune” means “chest”—often referring specifically to breasts). This fixation on adolescent girls’ breasts continued for the rest of the episode, resulting in what was an almost actively repulsive premiere. The only reason I stuck with it is because Mondays are a barren wasteland every season and I need a steady stream of anime every day or I’ll die of loneliness.

Over the weeks, as the girls actually started playing ping pong, I slowly warmed up to the show, though it still seemed to be doing everything in its power to push me away—from the continued focus on breasts (and the occasional butt shot from our bloomer-clad protagonist) to the character whose gimmick is identifying what kind of underwear her teammates wear (and then calling them that in place of their name). It was painful and frustrating and a real test of my patience (and I say this as someone who adores Strike Witches and was disappointed that Brave Witches isn’t nearly as trashy).

And then, several weeks in, Ping Pong Girls finally hit its stride. Going into the fifth episode, I was still cynical, but once the game between Agari and the captain began in earnest, the show dug its claws into me and never let go. With its ridiculous techno soundtrack and imposing adversary, the five-minute contest hit all the right buttons, evoking a kind of raw, intense excitement very few shows are able to give me.

The second half of the show maintained this momentum, transitioning into a five-game practice match with a nationals-level team and introducing our first real set of quirky, Saki-style superpowered players. Starting with Hanabi vs. “The Scorpion” Sasorida, we’re treated to four solid episodes of intenseexaggerated, and literally on fire ping pong, with a splash of heartfelt backstory and sweet, unexpected character development to round it all out. It did away with (most of) the objectionable content from its early episodes and focused on exactly what I want from my Saki-likes: good, wholesome, almost-certainly-not-reproducible-in-real-life, on-the-edge-of-my-seat competitive goodness.

Unfortunately, once Ping Pong Girls ends next week, it doesn’t seem likely we’ll get any more of the series anytime soon—with maybe a handful of people even watching it and the manga still working its way through regionals, the next tournament arc. But such seems to be the fate of most shows in this vein (especially Saki itself), so I’ve somewhat resigned myself to it.

I’m not actually sure if there’s a point anywhere to be found here, but I guess if I had to pick something, I’d say… I wish that Scorching Ping Pong Girls could get a re:do with all its worst bits scrapped so I could actually recommend it in good conscience. Because as much as I’ve come to enjoy the show (to the point where I’m trying to get my hands on the manga—though that’s proving rather difficult), it comes with perhaps one of the biggest “but”s of anything this year.

And that’s a real damn shame.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *