You wish you were as good at ping pong as Ping Pong is at telling a story about people who play ping pong.
Smile and Peco have been friends since childhood, when Peco taught Smile how to play ping pong. But now that they’re both at Katase High School, playing for the same ping pong team, the world of table tennis isn’t as simple as it used to be. Along the way, they’re reunited with former dojo-mate Sakama, and meeting two ping pong powerhouses, Kazama and Kong Wenge from China. Over the ping pong table and through their encounters with each other and the wise teachers who watch over them, these five young men will discover how they want to live and why they want to live that way.
The Good and the Bad
Ping Pong the Animation does a lot of things well. Actually, to be more accurate — it does basically everything well. The way it tells its story, the way it paints the portraits of its characters, the way it manages the limited visual assets given to it there’s an acuity to this anime that would make it seems almost robotic were it not for the painfully obvious humanity bound up inside this finely tuned artistic machine.
The heart of that humanity really rests with the characters of Peco and Smile. Ping Pong is undeniably an ensemble story — there’s not a single character whose journey or presence isn’t important — but the two childhood friends are truly where Ping Pong reaches to ground its story in relationship, hope, and authenticity. And the ease with which it does so is astounding, as the strength of their relationship is established with an utter lack of drama or flair. There’s no need for Ping Pong to lean into heavy-handed flashbacks or monologues to establish the relationship between the two boys — rather, we simply see them interact with trust and just the twinge of awkwardness generated by their very different personalities.
And Smile and Peco aren’t the only pair of characters who interact with this sort of naturalized way. Because Ping Pong‘s characters are, individually, full-articulated people with their own hopes, dreams, and desires, their conversations with each other portray that same sort of fresh realness — as if they are truly acting as they see fit, instead of according to the plot’s script. Of course, these interactions work the other way, too, serving as the means by which we come to understand those very same motivations that make the character writing in Ping Pong so strong.
This symbiotic system isn’t just contained to the characters’ relationships with each other, however. It also extends to their relationship with the story, which serves both as a vehicle for the characters to grow while being driven forward by the characters simultaneously. It’s impossible to separate “plot” from “character” in Ping Pong — they’re effectively the same thing. Without the characters, there’d be no story. Without the story, there’d be no point to these characters. If that sounds like something that’s true for all stories, it’s really not. Ping Pong‘s not one of those grand plots that can be told with any characters plugged into the protagonist/antagonist roles. It’s a story of unity and being woven together. Extract one thread from the cloth of the story, and it all falls apart.
That may sound complicated, but it’s really not. And its core, Ping Pong is just a coming-of-age story, a story about a few young men discovering their paths in life via the sport of table tennis. This is a tale that’s been told time and time again, themes of identity and purpose and the meaning of life and our relationships with others that have been touched on by many prior stories. But Ping Pong truly is unique in how integral the path of each player is to the others’ respective journeys. They learn from each other, learn because of each other, and grow up to become five fine young men. And that’s a neat thing to see, especially when a show can pull it off with such panache as Ping Pong does.
Besides the storytelling itself, one of the other critical elements of Ping Pong‘s efficacy and and efficiency is the way it employs its visuals to intensify and clarify its poignancy. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa and bearing his distinctive “ugly” visual aesthetic, Ping Pong takes a lot of inspiration from the manga medium from which is is adapted. Overall, there’s not a ton of actual animation, but Yuasa’s auteur direction, use of visual motifs, and experimental manga-like panel editing just work. Every shot is deliberate and constructed in a way that enhances the meaning of the action—whether it’s the iconic shot at the end of episode 4 with the image of the two losers isolated in their respective corners of the screen or the oft-repeated shot of Butterfly Joe after his his defeat. There’s not a wasted second on screen, and Funimation’s Blu-ray transfer makes everything look vibrant, vivid, and impressive.
Sonically, Ping Pong is as flawlessly executed as it is visually and narratively, combining marvelous sound direction with a wide-ranging, energetic soundtrack that always seems to kick in at the perfect moment. The opening and ending themes — “Tada Hitori” by Bakudan Johnny and “Bokura ni Tsuite” by merengue, respectively, are both fantastic songs in their own right, but each of them capture a particular element of Ping Pong‘s spirit. Bakudan Johnny’s hyped-up vocals and guitars nail the youthful adrenaline of playing sports, while “Bokura ni Tsuite” nails the wistfully melancholic mood of the series’ more reflective moments.
Funimation’s on-disc extras for the set fall along the same lines as most of their offerings — a couple of episode commentaries featuring different members of the cast, clean versions of the opening and ending, and a pile of Japanese TV spots and commercials. Of these, the Japanese character TV spots were the most interesting, as each highlighted one of the 5 main characters in a compressed time frame, producing a fascinating summary of Smile, Peco, Kazama, Kong, and Sakama through their own narrations.
It might be a bit hyperbolic to say that there’s nothing wrong with Ping Pong the Animation as a show, but if it is, it’s not by much. It’s nothing short of a genuine masterpiece, crafted with the utmost skill and care. But, most importantly, the things it has to say are relevant, thoughtful, and important. All that’s really just to say — watch Ping Pong.
Final Grade: A+
This review was initially published on The Otaku Review. The original article can be read here.