The Fall 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Scorching Ping Pong Girls
How would you rate episode 1 of
Scorching Ping Pong Girls ?
What is this?
Agari Kamiya is the ace of her junior high school table tennis team, and she knows it. She loves playing the cool-headed leader and soaking up the adoration of her underclassmen, and she's fired up about making it to nationals in the next big tournament. Just as everything seems to be going her way, a new transfer student arrives and shakes up the club's hierarchy. Koyori Tsumujikaze may be shy and a bit of an airhead, but her natural talent is a major threat to Agari's position as the team's ace. Will they become best friends or bitter rivals? Scorching Ping Pong Girls is based on a manga and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Mondays at 2:05 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
I am not a fan of sports anime in general, have never had more than a passing interest in ping pong, and am not overly enamored with heavily moe titles (though I don't automatically hold anything against them, either). Hence I wasn't expecting much out of a series that pretty blatantly pitches itself as “cute girls do ping pong.” Perhaps that's why the first episode actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise for me.
That being said, the pleasant surprise doesn't come from the artistry. This is a flat and bland-looking production in every respect, one which seems to delight in emphasizing the bustiness of a couple of cast members. The animation is also mediocre, although it does successfully convey the spirited nature of one key match between the new girl and the club's bustiest girl. It also emphasizes how sweaty the girls can get in a tough match, though surprisingly, the production actually passes on playing that up for fan service factor. The girls' character designs are also a fairly typical array, providing a wide range of different takes on cute which should allow just about any otaku to pick a favorite.
No, the surprise comes from the writing. Instead of taking the more typical angle of the talented newcomer being the main character, we actually follow the story mostly from the viewpoint of the established school ace who starts to feel threatened by the newcomer as her ability becomes more apparent and her popularity grows. Instead of the newcomer being brash, she's timid when she isn't focusing on ping pong. The tack the writing takes on the established ace is also interesting: she's motivated primarily by the adulation she gets for how good she is, which doubtless means that she will have to rethink her connection with ping pong as the newcomer starts to unwittingly siphon away her attention. Sure, it's simple and straightforward, but it also leaves a lot of room for character development. A potential long-term conflict is also established in an opening scene which shows an unknown school taking down a traditional powerhouse, though how this is going to eventually connect to the focus group is unknown at this point.
Beyond that, though, the humor and cumulative cute factor works just well enough to get me mildly engrossed. Director Yasuhiro Irie's other directorial credits include Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and Kurau Phantom Memory, so he has a proven track record at sussing a lot of value out of what might at a casual glance appear to be pretty basic material, and that seems to be happening here, too. If this turns out to be a fairly weak season then I might even see myself watching more of this.
I think we've successfully established that I have a very low tolerance for moe, which makes Scorching Ping Pong Girls a real mixed bag for me. On the one hand, there's a good sports story here. The reigning champion of middle school competitive ping pong has been dethroned, opening the way for up-and-comers to make their marks on the ping pong stage. Second year Agari is more than ready to take that chance. She revels in her position as her school's ace player, and we get the definite feeling that this is incredibly important both to her identity as a person and her self-worth. Then one day she befriends new student Koyori, a timid, puppy-like girl who completely changes once she picks up a ping pong paddle. The minute she begins to play, she brims over with confidence and has the chops to back that up. Suddenly club captain Munemune-sempai is declaring Koyori the ace, and Agari's confidence takes a major nose dive. She's clearly torn between wanting to be friends with Koyori (who needs all the help she can get away from the game table) and needing to be the best player her school has. It's a very real middle school dilemma, and Agari seems genuinely caught between a rock and a hard place of her own making.
But then there's the rest of the episode. The art is bland to the point of being forgettable, the characters are color-coded, and each girl is given a visual quirk that's meant to make her memorable but instead renders each and every one of them annoying. Agari is seemingly obsessed with up arrows to the point where even her hair ties resemble them, Koyori's puppiness is driven home by all of her puppy accessories, Hokuto has a bunny theme with a carrot on the top of her head and a rabbit tail under her hair, and don't even get me started on Munemune. (“Mune” means “breast.”) All ancillary team members are given brown hair to render them visually unimportant, and to add insult to injury, the animation of the game play isn't all that terrific. It feels like any other “cute girls being cute” show.
If Scorching Ping Pong Girls can spend more time on the actual sport of ping pong and Agari's internal struggle with whether it is more important to her to be the best or to have friends, then there's real potential here. But if it instead tries too hard to be cute and plays too much with oh-so-adorable character quirks and names, then there's really nothing to make this stand out. It would be possible to strike a balance between the two, but this episode doesn't manage it; that doesn't mean that it won't get its act together later on. So right now this episode stands with as a big question – will it learn to balance its elements? Will the sports drama win out, or will the moe? I'm not sure it's worth finding out.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of Scorching Ping Pong Girls. On one hand, its character designs and sense of humor suggest that it's a “cute girls doing cute things” comedy where club activities are just a springboard for cutesy jokes. On the other hand, the way it sets up a genuine rivalry between its heroines implies that it wants to be a serious sports anime. This episode does a decent job with both approaches, but they don't play particularly well with one another.
To the show's credit, I like what it's doing with the relationship between its two main characters. We get a chance to see Agari in her happy place, basking in the attention and admiration from her teammates, right before Koyori shows up and throws a wrench into the gears. There's an obvious and potentially one-sided rivalry brewing here, as Koyori is having way too much fun playing with everyone to notice that Agari's giving her the evil eye from across the room. If it's developed right, this dynamic could make for an emotionally charged storyline about a clash between natural talent and hard work.
The trouble is that it's hard to take all this seriously when it plays out against a backdrop of overly cute characters and silly boob jokes. Every scene that doesn't relate directly to Agari and Koyori feels like it comes out of a completely different show. It's the kind of ditzy humor that you'd normally get from a school club comedy series, and boy does it ever derail the serious stuff. It's not that the comedy is particularly bad; if anything, it's par for the course as far as that genre goes. It's just that the series appears to be torn between two different genres at the moment, and that split personality makes it hard to really get into either side of the story.
If I had my pick, I'd like to see Scorching Ping Pong Girls go all in on the sports stuff. Even with the overly cute characters, it picks up an extra doze of visual zing whenever the girls start playing for keeps. All the ingredients for a compelling sports anime are there, and the challenge will be finding a coherent middle ground between the serious rivalries and the more lighthearted scenes. If the two halves can start working together, this show has some potential. If not, I just don't see it holding up in the long run.
Scorching Ping Pong Girls does not make the best first impression. After an opening scene that features a bunch of characters we don't know lamenting being defeated by another group we don't know, the first meaningful scene of this episode is all awkward fanservice and choppy character designs. Fanservice isn't really my thing in the first place, but there's a difference between good and bad fanservice, and Scorching Ping Pong Girls does not offer much. Its character designs are blocky and unappealing, and the bouncing boobs of their initial ping pong matches don't look or act anything like actual boobs at all. My initial classification of this show was “meaningless club activities plus clumsy fanservice.”
The show takes a while to escape that label, but by the time our first heroine Agari is being directly contrasted against new ringer Koyori, it's clear that there's more here. Agari is confident and proud, and when she's asked why she loves table tennis, all she can think of is the praise of her underclassmen. In contrast, Koyori is timid and afraid of being singled out, but she clearly loves ping pong for its own sake. It's easy to see that although they're initially framed as rivals, Koyori's honest love of the sport will ultimately impact the way Agari sees herself. It's a classic conflict, but this episode sets it up very well, strongly establishing Agari's personality and contrasting her against Koyori through neat tricks like parallel narrative scenes.
On top of that, the show actually seems pretty reasonable as a sports spectacle, too. Scorching Ping Pong Girls certainly doesn't have impressive animation, and its direction is pretty flat as well, but Koyori's final match against an upperclassmen is imbued with parsable mechanical conflicts. Koyori is initially overwhelmed by her opponent's power, but learns to take advantage of an understandable weakness, and eventually triumphs. If Scorching Ping Pong Girls continues to emphasize the uneven matchups of its players, it could also hold consistent appeal as a traditional sports show.
All that said, the writing isn't particularly profound, the humor's pretty simplistic, and the awkward visual style does the show no favors. There are certainly things to enjoy here, but unless the fanservice is itself a draw for you, it's unlikely they'll be enough to keep your interest. Scorching Ping Pong Girls’ premiere stands on the borderline, its potential appeal largely coming down to whether a reasonable sports narrative and sweaty t-shirts are enough to overcome some otherwise shoddy workmanship.
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