Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Ping Pong the Animation
BD+DVD - Complete Series
Smile and Peco have been friends forever. Peco, the troublemaking golden child, excels at ping pong, easily trouncing local opponents and declaring he's going to be the best in the world. Smile, reserved and distant, follows in Peco's footsteps, never letting his own ability dampen the brightness of his friend. But when new challengers appear in the imposing foreigner Kong Wenge and star Ryuuichi Kazama, Peco will find himself struggling to compete in a larger world, and Smile will be forced to ask himself why he plays at all.
Masaaki Yuasa is an animator's animator. Whether it's through contributing evocative slices to the shows of others in Space Dandy or Adventure Time, staking his own creative territory in originals like Mind Game or Kaiba, or crafting one of the best anime adaptations of all time in The Tatami Galaxy, he always shines in his own way. Yuasa demonstrates not just a singular vision (a vision enriched by his consistent team of collaborators, like Eunyoung Choi, director of the wildly creative plant-planet episode of Space Dandy), but also that he understands animation is a far broader and more potentially emotive medium than many shows allow it to be. His characters bend and twist with the curves of their emotions, his worlds bloom and collapse like they exist only as how life is individually experienced. Given the right material, Yuasa can create productions unlike any other director.
And somehow, despite all indications to the contrary, this simple story about Ping Pong and the boys who play it is exactly that right material.
As the cover implies, Ping Pong focues on five teenage boys, all of whom compete in the titular sport. There's Peco and Smile, the central pair, whose complex friendship forms the initial backbone of the series. Peco is all grins and sarcasm, equally comfortable extolling the virtues of various junk food products as he is trouncing fools on the Ping Pong table. Smile's name seems like it must be a Peco-prompted joke, as his face is a permanent emotionless wall - he supports his friend, but never reaches for glory himself, and seems to define himself as a “robot.” To this initial pair, the show quickly adds Kong Wenge, a chinese player who's equal parts pride in his own top-tier play and resentment at being shipped off to Japan, Manabu Sakuma, a vengeful former rival of Peco's, and Ryuuichi Kazama, the looming champion of the fabled Ryuu Ping Pong school, whose confidence in his play hides a complex relationship with his own destiny.
Across the course of eleven tightly packed episodes, these five champions bob and weave between each other, forming friendships and rivalries, losing hope and gaining pride, tearing each other down and building each other back up again. The first dramatic climax comes in the players' first regional tournament, where Peco suffers an identity-crushing defeat and Kazama reigns supreme; from there, Ping Pong continues to challenge all of its stars, with the nuance of the show's character focus continuously demonstrating that this is Not Your Average Sports Show.
Though the show's visuals will be the first element to grab a new viewer, it bears stressing how completely and successfully this show relies on the strength of its writing and characters. With only eleven episodes of screentime, it'd be easy for a story like this to focus on a simple failure-to-success story, or highlight one of these characters at the expense of the others. In Ping Pong, this is never the case. Though Peco's journey from brash confidence to sullen defeat and back to heroism is the linchpin, all five of Ping Pong's stars are fully realized people with fears, regrets, and strong individual personalities. Kong Wenge starts out as the sneering ringer, too good for his team and (he thinks) too good for Japan. Over time, we come to see the sadness that underlines his position, through evocative flashbacks to his mother and understated conversations with his trusted coach. Tempered by failure and realizing he may never return to China, Kong slowly grows to support and cherish his teammates, building a family of his own and becoming one of the most endearing heroes in recent anime memory. By the end, victory or defeat do not matter to Kong - he loves what he does, and he treasures the people he does it with. Kong's arc is a rousing and sensitively articulated heroic journey - and Kong is, by my count, the fourth-most-important character in this show.
The show only finds time for all this character development because absolutely zero scenes are wasted. This doesn't mean the show feels rushed - it simply means every line tells you something about a character, and every confrontation between two players changes something in both of them. This cuts to the heart of what Ping Pong is all about, since, as you may have noticed, I haven't really been talking about Competition or Victory. Ping Pong's characters care about winning, but the show itself rises to make points beyond the field of battle. Failure is actually necessary and welcome in Ping Pong, as it is through failure that we grow, and become more than what we were. Through Smile's robotic front, we learn the importance of friendship, and of having people who trust in your worth. Through Kazama's gritted teeth, we see what the fear of failure can do to a man, and what strength can be found beyond it. And through Peco's irrepressible attitude, we ultimately learn that through success or failure, it is love of what you do that will bring you glory in the end.
But the fact that this show stresses the value of failure doesn't mean its matches aren't tense and exciting. On the contrary - it is in the heated fights of these characters that Yuasa's imaginative animation shines brightest. Every match in Ping Pong is essentially its own emotional world, a visual setpiece brought to life through bold direction and creative art design. One match frames Smile as a robot humming into action, slowly calculating his opponent's actions until their fate is sealed while gears whine, circuits drone, and binary code floods the screen. Another sees Kong being overwhelmed by Kazama in the form of a literal dragon, a giant who presses Kong into the corner of the screen before transforming into a serpent that strangles his last hope of going home. Visual creativity and the expressive potential of animation are a constant in Ping Pong, starting from the diverse animation styles present in the opening song and continuing up to the final frames.
Equal credit must be given to Taiyo Matsumoto's wonderful original character designs. Yuasa isn't above leaning on the strengths of the original manga - in fact, many scenes of Ping Pong actually split the screen into a diverse flurry of segmented manga panels, each jumping briefly to life as the show conveys the frenetic pace of serve and return. Both matches and personal moments are given equal care in visual execution, with Ping Pong even finding time to break into silly visual jokes (Kazama's way-too-intense commercial for Ping Pong shoes is a particularly great gag), heartbreaking visual montage, and an occasional dolphin rescue (don't jump off bridges in your shoes, Peco). Consistent visual metaphors tying together the show's themes are the cherry on top of a show that essentially embodies what anime can accomplish visually.
That sure is a lot of praise, but hey, we haven't even talked about the show's sound design yet. And we should, because it's fantastic - Ping Pong's highlights are generally holistic accomplishments, with narrative, visuals, and sound design pulling equal weight. One early episode conveys half its drama through the incessant squeak of sneakers on wood and paddle on ball. Another scene builds its drama through the slow-rising hum of Smile's Hero Song, a sound that gradually drowns out his opponent's panicked thoughts. And perhaps the show's best moment is a mid-series karaoke montage, a scene that ties all the characters together as they each struggle down their solitary paths. Ping Pong's music and sound design aren't just good, they're indispensable - they are a critical part of the show's aesthetic whole, rollicking opening song and contemplative ending included.
Ping Pong comes in a slipcase and standard bluray case, which contains both DVD and bluray copies of the show on four discs. Somewhat surprisingly, the release comes with a full dub, and though standout performances from the original like Peco's nasally swagger, Kong's cool (and smoother Mandarin), or Smile's indescribable coach aren't quite matched by the English track, it's a reasonable effort overall. The localization smooths over the nuances of some personalities, with characters like Smile coming across as more sullen than the original's emotionally distant, but if you strongly prefer dubs, it works. The collection also comes some commentary tracks featuring the English language voice director and basically all of the main cast (Smile, Peco, Kong, Kazama, Sakuma, and Smile's coach), who go into the show's almost indie film appeal and unique style, as well as the conflicts of dealing with Kong's bilingual script. Textless opening/closing songs and various trailers are also included.
Overall, Ping Pong is a triumph of artistry and treasure of storytelling. It's one of the shows I'd recommend to really demonstrate what anime is capable of, and yet it's light and engaging enough to be enjoyed by almost anyone. Highly recommended for all fans of anime as an art form, or just fans of good stories told well.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Poignant storytelling, creative art design, propulsive direction, and resonant sound design come together in a brilliant, can't-miss package.
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