Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ping Pong!

So this weekend was the Chuutairen again (apparently called the Shinjinsen for fall) and it was super tiring but exciting.

Part of the reason it was super tiring is that I was stupid and ended up staying up late both Friday and Saturday night (until, respectively, 2am and 1am) so I felt like I zombie when I got up around 5:30am to prepare lunch and get to the school by 6:45am.

At any rate, it was exciting because this time around two of our students got certificates! An ichinensei girl got 5th (along with three others) and a ninensei boy got 9th (again, along with three others). The Japanese ranking system seems strange to me since rather than competing for a definite ranking, they award multiple prizes/certificates after 1st and 2nd. For example, the two semi-final losers were both awarded 3rd place instead of having to compete for it. Similarly, the four quarter-final losers all got 5th place, and the four losers from the round before that were all awarded 9th place.

But anyway, despite my confusion over the ranking thing, I was really happy that the ninensei boy, Maiya, got 9th! He's my favourite student from that grade, and he's also the one who had a really tough loss during the summer Chuutairen. It was probably a little bad of me, but I made it a point to follow his games. Even though I was on the other side of the gym cheering for another student at the time, as soon as his game was announced, I left and went to get a better view of Maiya's game. (The student I had been cheering for was well on his way to winning, but still...)

This particular game (his second) was particularly stressful to watch because it was eerily similar to his last heart-breaking match. His opponent was, like last time, from the strongest school, Tomari (although it was a different guy this time). And, once again, he won his first two sets without too much difficulty and lost by a fairly small margin in the third. Even though I could see from his play that he had gotten a lot stronger (he made some really spectacular plays throughout the first three sets), given his past experience, I thought that this game would be the biggest test of his character growth. Would he be able to brush off memories of the past and regain his composure to win?

He also lost the fourth match (this time, though, by a fairly small margin) and I got really nervous by this point, thinking it was going to be a near-total replay of that unfortunate game (where he lost his composure and the match), but he managed to keep his cool to win (albeit by a fairly small margin) the fifth and final set for the match. As one of the Kirita students who was cheering with me described it, it was a "giri giri win" (meaning he just barely made it). I can't be sure, but his expression of happiness and relief after winning the match made me think that he also felt he had overcome his disappointment from the last Chuutairen.

Although his third opponent was also from a strong team, he was able to win fairly convincingly (with only a few bad moments in the final set) in three straight sets.

His fourth match determined whether he would be able to go to the quarter-finals or not. Unfortunately, he lost in a hard fought match, but he definitively showed his character growth when he came back up to the gallery after the loss.

He had looked a little upset when he lost (another ninensei boy--one of his better friends--commented that he was probably crying), but when he came back up he was very composed. I told him "otsukaresama" (an acknowledgment of someone's hard work/efforts) and, a little later, "yoku ganbarimashita" (you worked really hard). To the latter, he gave me a bit of a puzzled look and said something along the lines of (roughly translated): "Not yet. I can't (or won't) cry because I still have a match." In my confusion over the ranking system, I had thought that he had either already earned a certificate or was completely out of contention for one. It turned out, though, that, like last time, he still had another match and if he won that, he would get a certificate for placing in the "top ten."

When I realized that he was in the same situation as last time and how focused on the next game and calm he was, I felt this huge burst of pride/satisfaction/happiness at seeing how much he'd grown since the summer. The fact that he went on to win that "top ten" match was really just icing on the cake. ^_^

Anyway, apart from the performance of one of my favourite students, there were a few other interesting things at the tournament. I noticed during the practice this morning that even if you knew very little about table tennis, you could tell by watching the practice which students were considered "top dogs." Since there aren't enough tables for all the students to practice on at the same time, the way practice work is that four students practice at a table at a time: the two pairs rallying make an X-pattern across the table. Four other players (two other pairs) await their turns behind the players using the table. When a pair's rally ends, the next pair steps up to the table while the original pair chases down the ball. This means that there are typically six to eight players at a table.

When I looked down at all the tables, however, I could see that there was a table with only four players practicing; it was occupied by two pairs from the top school, Tomari--they took first, second, and one of the third prizes for the guys' individual games in the summer, as well as first place in the team competitions. I saw a couple of pairs wandering around looking for tables, but rather than joining the Tomari table, they went to tables that already had eight people practicing!

Next to the Tomari guys' table, there was a table with seven girls. Four of the students were doing the normal switch off, but the other three girls were different: one girl always stayed and the other two practiced with her. Even if that girl missed the ball, the girl partnered with her would go chase after the ball (usually the person who misses retrieves) while the waiting person would step up to allow her to continue practicing. This girl, as you could guess, was the girls' first prize winner from the last event.

So yeah, even though I was really tired, thinking about the table dynamics helped to keep me awake and interested during the practice.

The last (well, chronologically the second, since all the stuff with Maiya was at the end, and the practice stuff was first) interesting thing was an incident during another of my ninensei boy's match. This particular student is quite a character. He's really tall, but he never stands or sits straight. Even when he's walking, his shoulders and slumped and he's hunched over! Apart from his posture, he also doesn't speak clearly. He speaks in a mumble and uses improper Japanese (not to mention English). For example, when calling home after an event to ask his parents to pick him up, he won't identify himself or greet them properly but instead just says "ittekoi" (a rough, dictatorial way of saying "come")! My JTE has described him (and I agree with her descriptions!) at various times as "an alien," "an injured soldier" and "an octopus." It's hard to explain, really, but he's the most unique character I've ever encountered.

Anyway, so this student, Takumichi, won his first match. I was a little surprised because his style of table tennis play is similar to his normal carriage (kind of boneless and lethargic), but it was understandable since he was against an ichinensei student. In his second match, though, he was pretty thoroughly outclassed. He lost in three straight sets by very wide margins each time. But yeah, during one of the sets, I happened to turn to watch him (another Kirita student was playing at a table in front of me, whereas Takumichi was to my right) as he made a rather desperate shot.

Apparently he assumed the shot wouldn't go in, so, for reasons unknownst to me, he turned around and started walking away from the table (even though it wasn't a set/match point!). But the thing is, the shot DID go in, and his opponent returned it! So of course Takumichi gave up the point. In fact, he only turned around when his opponent's return shot bounced off the table past him! I was so shocked that he would just walk away from the table like that, I actually YELLED "BAKA! Saigo made akiramenai, Takumichi!" (Idiot!! Until the very end, don't give up!) After I got over my surprise, though, I immediately saw the ridiculousness of the situation--not only his play, but my own behaviour in calling him "BAKA!" so loudly in public! =P

So, all in all, it was quite a memorable Chuutairen!

And, on a random, but related note, I highly recommend the Ping Pong movie! It's based on the manga (also excellent!) by Taiyo Matsumoto. It's an entertaining but...thoughtful? (don't know if that's the right word) story about friendship and the search for a hero in the competitive world of high school ping pong!