A hero will appear
A review copy has been provided by FUNimation Entertainment
With the original manga by Taiyou Matsumoto in 1996 and the anime directed by Masaaki Yuasa, we have another retro anime adaptation. What does Moar Powah’s Inverseman think of this blast from the past sports anime? Find out!
Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto and Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino are two friends on their humble high school ping pong team. Hoshino is a stuck-up upstart aiming for the top and Tsukimoto is talented but barely finds any happiness in life. Together these two friends grow, learn of the competition around them, and little by little become not just better players but better people as well.
Right off the bat, the first thing that should stand out to you about Ping Pong is Masaaki Yuasa’s style and the overall art direction. The muted colors, pencil stroke like designs, and the dynamic animation show much love reminiscent of Tatami Galaxy. The art style is “ugly”, but its level of detail and distinct style unable to be replicated by other character design make it peerless. Couple this with the fluidity of the animation in all the ping pong matches and you have an anime that can be appreciated on a deeper artistic level. Though I will say sometimes there’s a shortcut taken with a few repeated flashbacks.
Even if you couldn’t get behind the art style, the characters and story will blow you away. There’s a certain message about competition and ambition that sails across in the anime. “Why do you play ping pong?” We see disgraced international students, heirs to sports legacies, coaches who play favorites a little too much, talent in hands that don’t want it; the whole gamut of ups and downs, joys and pains, of what it means to compete at anything shine through. I’ve personally connected with the anime thinking about my time on my college kendo team and anything that requires ambition. Sometimes the anime puts forth an absurdity that it tacitly acknowledges; just imagine making a whole high school dedicated to ping pong or metaphorical winged superheroes flying out of nowhere. The anime is rife with symbolism and wit, making its jabs where it can with its humor serving as a cover for the real underbelly of high-stakes ambition.
It’s in this high-tension environment our characters grow. We see the jealousy of Tsukimoto’s skill. We feel the pain in how Peco and other characters respond to loss after banking everything on one bout. We buckle with Kazama under the pressure to perform. There’s no cheap fix for it either. You won’t see a friendly bro-mantic rivalry that patches itself up in one episode, but rather the boys wrestling with their demons. However, because these resolutions are so hard fought, we in the audience celebrate with our heroes, and because even the supporting cast matures along the way, the payout feels organic and wholesome. By the time you get to the final episode, you come to appreciate how far all the characters have come from surly unlikable brats to something far more.
This is where I believe Ping Pong excels farther than most other sports anime that have become popular as of late (think Free!). There are no sweet saccharine anime bishonen, but rather you’re forced to accept the boys for who they are: awkward crude upstart teens. Just like how they must all come to terms with their lots in the life of ping pong talent. Not everyone starts out as friends or with even common decency towards each other, and not in the tsundere rival sense, but in an undercurrent of bitterness, perhaps one we can relate to at times. Again that mutual respect evolves out of the characters’ experiences with people who may have made mistakes, but genuinely care. The modern sports anime has its feel-good moments, but the emotional complexity and “no bull” style of Ping Pong make it something even greater.
The OST has its share of rock tracks, weird electronic beats, and good old silence. Hearing the OP drums up memories of 90s kid teenager boyhood, it works. The script is very convincing too with FUNimation having a good bit of fun, especially with the translation curve ball that is Chinese transfer student Kong Wenge. Micah Solusod and Aaron Dismuke as Tsukimoto and Hoshino respectively have great chemistry working off of two opposite-type roles. The set comes with commentaries on two of the episodes and some of the TV ads.
If you really want to see sports anime and coming of age done right, check out Ping Pong. Yes, it’s got a unique art style, but it creates one of the most “real” casts of characters I’ve seen in ages. We have 3D characters that develop over time. It doesn’t have the flash and dash of Kuroko no Basket or Free, but it doesn’t need it, you’ll be cheering along just as hard by the end of it. This would be one of my candidates for “anime of the year 2014” for sure. I give Ping Pong an A+ 5/5. Join me next time when I review bubble gum.
– Superb characterization and development in a touching story
– Unique and characteristic art style
– Intelligent wit and humor
– Flashbacks can be repetitive at times if marathoning
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