The Spring 2014 Anime Preview Guide Ping Pong the Animation
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
When I started this episode, I was underwhelmed. By the middle of it, I was hooked. Ping Pong the Animation follows three members of high school ping pong teams at two different schools. Peco is confident and happy, Smile never does and is sort of laissez-faire about the sport, and Wenge is a champ from China who is not happy about having to spend time in Japan with inferior players. He does, however, see a lot of potential in Smile's playing, and suddenly finds himself thinking that maybe this semester won't be a total waste after all. Conveniently, they are on different teams, so he'll be able to face off against the boy he wants for a rival.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to this episode is the artwork. It isn't what we think of as traditional “anime style,” and in some cases can come off as positively slapdash. (See screencap above.) Backgrounds are sparse or nonexistent, and the colors are uniformly washed out, with even the sky being white instead of blue. It works once you get into the story, but before it catches you, the art comes off as a bit of a detraction. Animation is nicely done, with movements being smooth and athletic, which also helps. Most of the characters look very normal, which feels very positive, but it also makes the one guy who looks like his hair is growing into moose antlers stand out more than he perhaps needs to.
A major highlight here is the interaction between Wenge and the Japanese. Wenge only speaks Mandarin Chinese, so he comes with a translator. The translator has to do a bit of creative interpretation, as Wenge's statements are rarely complimentary. This is pretty funny, especially if you've ever found yourself in a similar position. The rest of the dialogue is pretty basic, but this gives me hope that things will improve. As a first episode, Ping Pong shows definite promise. It is a bit hampered by the first ten-odd minutes, but it really looks as if this one is going to keep on getting better.
Ping Pong the Animation is available streaming on Funimation.
Review: The shock of Ping Pong isn't Masaaki Yuasa's avant-garde direction, or mangaka Taiyo Matsumoto's unmistakably odd artwork. Rather, it's that a meeting of such demented talents should produce something so… normal. Visual fireworks aside, Ping Pong is a pretty straightforward sports series: just two friends, a sport they love, and the fated meeting that teaches them the mysteries of table tennis. The first of the friends is Smile, so called because he never smiles. In fact he never exhibits much of any emotion. He's a dedicated, calculating player. The second is Peco, a brash and talkative type who plays on instinct and inborn talent. According to most who know them, Peco is the superior ping-ponger. Together they sneak out to watch a Chinese powerhouse, who then teaches Peco a harsh lesson.
Actually, we get a lesson too, in that final ping pong match. What we learn from Wenga, the Chinese player, upends what we think we know about Peco and Smile's relationship—that of frosty hard-worker and his naturally gifted firebrand friend. Theirs is a more complicated relationship—especially on Smile's side—than their initial (and expected) roles would lead you to believe. It's also an emotionally sound relationship, with each side getting something from the other that they lack on their own. Ping Pong may be straightforward, but it's hardly simple or shallow. Yuasa and Matsumoto pack a lot of character and relational texture into a pretty tight timeframe. And they deliver some smoking table tennis action too. (And I don't mean that facetiously.) Peco's first match is all impish monkeyshines; his second a mercilessly brutal beat-down. In both, Yuasa's rubbery full-motion animation lends rough-hewn grace to Matsumoto's worm-lipped designs and weird but wonderful energy to their ping ponging. It would be impossible to top Yuasa's uncanny masterpiece The Tatami Galaxy, but this should be an interesting experiment nonetheless.
Ping Pong the Animation is available streaming at Funimation.
Rating: 4 (of 5)
Review: First, let me be clear that I am not at all a fan of Ping Pong. I also thoroughly detest the kind of visual style used here; it is rough and ugly to my eye. It may be well-animated and the framing of scenes and their progression is handled with expert skill, but that does not overcome abhorrent visual aesthetics.
And yet I still cannot hate on Ping Pong as a whole. The story it tells is a fairly basic one, about a cocky, lackadaisical newcomer who gets put in his place by someone he has never met before: someone who is considerably better at his sport of choice than he is. In this case the cocky newcomer is Hoshino (aka Peco), who frequently skips his school club's practice to instead hang out at a local ping pong dojo and play for money and bad-mouths upperclassmen because they aren't in his league. He decides to skip one day to check out another school which is supposedly getting in an expert Chinese player, Kong Wenge. Kong is full of discontent for being relegated to what he sees as a ping pong backwater and takes his frustrations out on Peco when the latter insists on challenging him in a match, with ugly results for Peco. However, Kong is much more interested in Peco's quiet friend Makoto Tsukimoto (aka Smile), whom he could tell was holding back in a match with Peco that he and his coach overheard. In Makoto, Kong sees a rival potentially worth his time and effort.
Not exactly an original story, but Ping Pong works because it is well-paced and remarkably thrilling to watch while mostly avoiding the overblown histrionics so commonly seen in sports anime. Most importantly, the dialogue is smooth and natural. These sound like real people, and listening to them talk makes most other anime dialogue seem artificial and stilted by comparison. That still may not be enough for some (like me) to overcome their distaste for the visual style, but a quality achievement has to be at least recognized when it comes up.
Ping Pong: The Animation is currently streaming on Funimation.com.
Review: Most anime that receive middling scores in the preview guide do so because they are generic, middling shows. Ping Pong the Animation is not one of these examples, and indeed, I would like to give it a much higher score than just-above-average, but it just doesn't quite feel like the sum of its parts. At the end of episode one, I couldn't help but sum up my feelings as "This is a curiosity." So I gave it a score befitting a curiosity, with as many great and unique elements within it as weak and alienating ones.
That said, every anime fan should give the first episode a try and make up their own minds, regardless of any critic's scores. (This would apply to any anime in a given season, but there's only so much time in the day.) If time ought to be set aside to try something unique, it's definitely Masaaki Yuasa's re-imagining of Ping Pong, a well-loved sports manga. (Not to be confused with Ping Pong Club, a different well-loved sports manga.) The original manga's art definitely lends itself to Yuasa's surreal, gruesome, and formless animation style, and the resulting episode is extremely interesting to watch. Not fun, though. Fun is maybe not the word I would use. Definitely interesting, though, at least on a directorial level, but then there's that narrative.
Under Ping Pong's distinctive (and potentially divisive) animation style is a story that's a little hard to sink your teeth into. Top school ping pong players Peco and Smile (nicknames of course) are bored with the lackluster talent in their school team and decide to skip out and spy on a rival school's activities when they run into an embittered transfer student there, China. (Guess where he's from? On that note, there's a ton of spoken Chinese in this episode, and it along with the more restrained Japanese voice acting sounds refreshingly authentic.) China's a much stronger player than Peco, but Smile refuses to play him, and indeed, keeps his thoughts on the game to himself as much as he can in contrast to the arrogant, enthusiastic Peco. This is obviously going to be a story that builds slowly with characters not tailored to be immediately likable, but unless you're immediately enamored with Yuasa's style, the narrative burn is almost too slow up front. It even seems actively uninteresting compared to the two more conventional sports titles this season. I dunno, I might be the problem in this case. Plenty of people tout the brilliance of Yuasa's Kaiba, and that project left me feeling tepid as well. His work can be alienating, and this noitamina effort clearly leans more prestige project than commercial confection, which is always a risk.
The last anime that bucked stylistic convention this hard was Flowers of Evil (whose director is returning to Mushi Shi this season, so hey.) Flowers of Evil's anime adaptation may not have paid off in the long run, but it made a stronger impression of genius up front than Ping Pong has, with its dynamic style overshadowing a seemingly conventional and not too gripping story. The best advice I can give is to watch and decide for yourself if it's just too weird or something you've always secretly wanted. I know I'll be returning for a second episode before making any firm decisions.
Ping Pong the Animation is available streaming at Funimation.com.
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