*shrugs* seems like a fair match
It’s that time of year again: secret santa time! Thanks to Reverse Thieves, anibloggers all over get the chance to give an anonymous anime recommendation and receive an anime anonymous recommendation. I was given the choices: Ping Pong, a Digimon movie, and Brigadoon. Thanks for the choices, secret santa person! You, like all other people who get me as a secret santa, were intent to try and get me into mecha. I usually try to oblige that sort of earnest request because I feel like I might discover something great, but episode 1 of Brigadoon fell so flat that I didn’t want to risk waiting for it to get better for 26 episodes. So that was out. I didn’t want to take the easy route out and watch a Digimon movie (of course digimon is good stuff!), so I thought I’d go for Ping Pong. Considering how it’s aligned with my tastes so perfectly, I’m surprised it slipped by me while it was airing.
That’s part of the joy of secret santa, discovering hidden gems or shows you completely missed.
Many sports anime strive to differentiate themselves from each other, but ultimately they tend to fall into similar patterns. Even when you compare series featuring all kinds of sports, the base concept usually doesn’t change much. Basically, they have different flavours, but they’re all ice cream in the end. Ping Pong is like an entirely different dish. That’s not just because ping pong is an irregular sport choice, but because of the way Yuasa Masaaki (director of Kaiba, Tatami Mat Galaxy, and some of the weeeird episodes of Space Dandy) spun the whole thing on its head.
To me, ping pong is not really the main topic of Ping Pong. Bananas, I know, but stay with me here! There are ping pong matches, of course. However, the focus isn’t on winning tournaments, teamwork, training and the technical aspects of the game. It’s not really an action show. Compare this to the likes of Kuroko no Basuke, Haikyuu!!, or Yowamushi Pedal – all great sports anime, but the main point of the story is seeing everyone get as far as they can in the competitive world (i.e. TO WINNN EVERYTHIIING!!! GUTS!!). Character dramas are integral to the story for these kinds of sports shows as well, but it’s always something that happens within the context of the sport. In Ping Pong, the sport is a vehicle for telling the life stories of a group of high school boys and how they achieve their life dreams in general. The end goal isn’t to win: it’s to find happiness. In the case of the main character – Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto – it’s to learn how to smile again.
We focus on two main boys with very different personalities. Peco is a feisty little bugger who runs his mouth at every chance he gets, skips practice, and basically thinks he’s hot shit when it comes to ping pong (and he kind of is). Smile is a robotic, taciturn boy who never smiles. However, he is a better player than Peco but he chooses not to do his best to coddle his friend’s ego since he doesn’t care one way or another if he wins or not.
Baby Peco and Baby Smile
However, Smile can’t hide back his talent forever and he soon shows Peco just how weak he has become over the years thanks to slacking off. Peco has a devastating reaction to this. I won’t just regurgitate the plot here because that would be boring and spoilery, but the gist of it is that it quickly becomes clear that even if you’re a prodigy, you will be surpassed if you never put forth any effort. It also toys with the idea of those who are basically anti-prodigies – those with no talent – doing the opposite and working their asses off to try and make up for it. Either way, the end message is that if you want results, you can never be complacent. It doesn’t matter if you’re a genius superstar or a near-sighted kid with no co-ordination. You have to work hard to get results.
It’s a really positive show that shows all the different issues athletes go through when they’re training and how they overcome them. For Smile, it’s learning how to give a damn about winning matches. For Peco, it’s how to deal with losing for the first time and accepting that he needs to work hard to get stronger. Then you have all the side characters who go through such a wide breadth of mental blocks that at least one will resonate with anyone who has ever played a sport seriously. It’s incredibly touching to watch them all pull through it, and even characters that seem like total assholes at first become as lovable as a box of mewing kittens.
“I think I hear someone dumb enough to almost die over pong pong”
My favourite side story was that of Kong (often just straight-up called “China”), a player from China. He’s moody and a bit of a hotshot since he used to be on China’s national team. Used to is the keyword here. He was kicked off it for poor performance and sent to Japan to compete against people he scornfully deemed to be talentless garbage. We almost always see scenes of him with an airplane sharing the shot, which signals various things as the series goes on. First, it signals his desire to return to the Chinese National team. Later on, we realize Kong has been homesick this entire time, and whenever he sees airplanes, he’s thinking of his mom.
I’ll avoid spoilers again, but after some stuff, Kong takes solace in re-connecting with his mother who he hasn’t seen in years since he joined the National team. My favourite scene of the whole series was watching him make dumplings with her and his new ping pong team together on Christmas. The mother only speaks Mandarin and his team is all Japanese, but everyone finds a way to communicate their glee at the amazing feast she cooks for them all. It’s a beautiful show of how Kong has finally found what really matters to him: a sense of being home. His journey isn’t just about overcoming his faults as a ping pong player, but how his experiences mold him into a better and happier person. And this deep story is all just for a side character!
Now, while I’m selling this as a character drama that just so happens to have ping pong on it, I still have to talk about the ping pong. It’s undeniably there, supporting all this character growth. But, to be honest, the ping pong scenes aren’t all that great. Maybe that’s another reason why I’m latching onto the character arcs so much. The action just doesn’t work and the ping pong matches rarely rile me up. I found this was mostly due to the overuse of the split screen effect, which makes it hard to tell what’s happening. This is compounded by the fact that no one ever explains the rules of the game at all. Not even vaguely! Yet they will namedrop raquets that have pips-out penholder grip style with ancient fairy bloodtree magic runes set in the handle and expect us to pick up on it. Going back to the action, the ping pong matches look choppy and not as exciting as watching the usual flow of a sports anime. The whole point of watching a sports anime over a manga is that you get to visualize the motions properly. With all these still images, I might as well be flipping through a manga. The matches only became exciting once some of Yuasa’s more bizarre imagery came into play. Those were real treats and I wish that surrealist approach was used more often. Other than that, watching the ping pong matches wasn’t as effective as say, watching a fast-paced volleyball game in Haikyuu!!.
(Side note: Speaking of Haikyuu!! I couldn’t help but compare Smile to Tsukishima from Haikyuu!!. I mean, get this: Smile’s real name is Makoto Tsukimoto, he also wears moon-themed things to match his last name, he has the exact same seiyuu as Tsukishima, he also wears glasses, he’s also rude, and he also slacks at a sport he loves and has to be pushed before he exerts any effort. There is absolutely no point to me comparing them, but they are so similar I just had to include it…somewhere…)
My secret santa chose this series for me precisely because I enjoy sports anime and tend to like flashy, stylistic anime (one of my favourite anime is Kuuchuu Buranko and I can’t say I’ve seen a single anime that looks as freakishly offputting at first than this one). Yuasa’s works are known for their flowing style prioritizing movement and emotion over minute details, which makes all his works look really sketchy but also incredibly dynamic. I feel like this style would have worked better without the stilted split screens coming into play so much, but other than that it was great for giving all the characters a unique look. It makes Ping Pong even more memorable. While the sports aspect was not that great, I really got into the character drama and found it to be a solid series in the end. Thank you so much, secret santa, for taking the time to choose this for me!
Merry Christmas and happy new year everyone!