“He’s got to have a hole in his defense! He’s reading me — he’s predicting my moves. Show me your weak point! I just can’t afford to end here!” Think these lines are from the latest battle shounen? Wrong: they’re from none other than Ping Pong: The Animation! If the theme of table tennis doesn’t pique your interest, looking at the show’s creators certainly should. Masaaki Yuasa, known for making great creative anime, teams up with Taiyou Matsumoto, a mangaka with similar experimental tendencies: the harmless fun-filled game of table tennis suddenly got a whole lot more interesting.
The very first minutes of the show seek to impress: large shots of the protagonists’ table tennis hall, full of life and 2.7-gram balls hitting the table and players doing racket moves. Each chop, smash and drive is animated with shocking accuracy and from the best angles. All of this on watercolour backgrounds with resplendent palettes. Think the show’s misshapen character designs do not fit the subject matter? Well, quite the opposite! The ill-proportioned art style not only allows characters to be easily animated from the tilted angles that make this series so full of life, they also explain why racket moves can be animated so accurately. With proportions and shadows being no object, Yuasa’s hand moves the characters with real dynamism and diversity.
One of the first scenes in Ping Pong.
The frequent use of panelled shots saves budget and adds to the dynamism of the matches.
One of the many instances where the show uses an abstract animation style to reflect the players’ state of mind while hitting the ball.
The series progresses with various table tennis matches, art and animation carrying the visual impact while spot-on writing keeps each match and point varied and suspenseful. But not late in the series does it become clear that Ping Pong is not just about sports — it’s also a powerful coming-of-age story with very engaging characters.
Ping Pong opens with Smile, an apathetic player who sees table tennis as simply a way to pass time. His polar opposite, Peco, is an energetic, eccentric boy aiming to play in the Olympics and Smile’s best friend since childhood. The anime spotlights a series of high school tournaments where Japan’s best players gather. Kong, an accomplished player from China, has set to conquer Japan to make up for his rejection from his home country’s team. Kazama, a member of the renowned Kaio Academy, is on an invincible streak. The stakes are high for those with a reputation, but both Smile and Peco are just starting to make a name for themselves.
For an 11-episode run, the series juggles many characters effortlessly. While Smile and Peco are predominant, plenty of time is allowed to others like Kong, Kazama, even the coaches as we explore their desires, ambitions and conflicts related to table tennis. For example, with Kazuma we are faced with the monotony of being the best, the hard work it requires and its consequences on private life. Kong offers the heartwarming story of how an elite player from China gradually comes to respect little Japan. Peco, introduced with lines such as “hard work is for chumps with no talent”, learns to believe otherwise throughout the series.
Smile, Peco, Kong, Sakuma, Kazuma… each of them come to rethink the way they approach table tennis and their reason for playing. All in different ways, the characters find the approach to table tennis that brings them the most joy and peace. The spectrum of table tennis covered is huge — through older characters we even gain insight into the money-minded aspect of the sport. As an 11-episode coming-of-age story, Ping Pong is surprisingly complete and cathartic.
Peco loves sweets. His nickname comes from the mascot of the Fujiya confectionery stores.
What’s even greater about Ping Pong is how expressive its screenplay and dialogue is. For example, in a setting where top performance is imperative, smoking is tacitly rejected: there’s a scene where a character lights up a smoke, communicating his desire to stop playing competitively. Another character takes his cigarette off his mouth, and though they say nothing of it, it furthers that other character’s will to make him play again.
Consider the insert song segment in episode 6: this scene has no spoken line, yet it is one of the most meaningful. Kong opens the sequence singing the insert song at a karaoke with his team — showing us his development from spiting Japan to opening up to Japanese players and learning their language — and the scene continues with various shots of the other characters’ occupation on Christmas Eve. Smile’s part is poignant: unsurprising for a character shown to enjoy solitude, he is all alone at home, contemplating the Christmas cake his coach gifted him. But from Smile’s lonely gaze and the candles he paid the effort to light we can tell that the boy does cherish what little warmth others give him. We begin to empathize with him. Not present in the source material, this karaoke insert demonstrates Yuasa’s amazing directing skills in combining spot-on soundtrack, perfect pacing and compelling shots.
The scene in question. The part with Kazama’s girlfriend is interesting, too: we are led to believe that she is having a happy date, but it turns out that Kazama missed her invitation while training restlessly (another very telling scene). The images of her date are revealed to be imaginary and her happy smile turns bittersweet.
The scene with the boy deciding to go abroad is also worth noting: he’s a minor character with two scenes excluding this cameo, but he is still given a meaningful backstory (hinted at here, explored later on): this shows that the main characters in Ping Pong are not the only human beings and that the less important opponents Smile and Peco encounter go beyond being just extras.
Helping Ping Pong transition between matches and character introspection is a diverse and excellent soundtrack. Pounding drums set the tone in pre-game sequences to stir up anticipation, and the next moment whimsical keyboard keys accompany Smile’s scattered thoughts and memories. The show has a song for every moment and emotion, each used exceptionally and making for a complete audiovisual experience.
It’s amazing what Ping Pong accomplishes in its short 11-episode run. It chronicles the heartfelt physical and emotional journeys of multiple characters and delivers a conclusion brimming with heart yet grounded in reality. All of it conducted in an exciting, creative fashion in the perfect marriage of both Taiyou Matsumoto and Masaaki Yuasa’s talent. The harmless, fun-filled game of table tennis did get a whole lot more interesting.
And here is the Quiet Discourse collaborative review I was so excited to write! I am leaving you with this sample of the Ping Pong OST. Writing and editing were BigSimo, Stellio and myself. mosaic, RMNDolphy and syshim helped out with editing.
The original MAL review can be found here. For the version on this blog, I added the videos and images as well as the small commentary accompanying them.
I hope you enjoyed reading this review!