Most anime I watch, I don’t feel terribly compelled to write about. Usually, I think, this is simply because most anime I watch don’t really warrant sharing my viewpoint. Besides the fact that my readership is limited as it is anyway, is one more voice on the Internet shouting at you to go watch Your Lie In April going to compel you to do so? If you’re the type of person who reads these kinds of blogs in the first place, probably not, as it’s likely you’re well aware of the critical acclaim such anime have received. You’ve already made up your mind, and have probably heard all the hype surrounding those types of anime anyway.
Maybe you’ve heard of Ping Pong The Animation, maybe you haven’t. I’m a poor judge of figuring out what is popular in the anime world at any given moment, as my only real exposure to anime besides through friends and my own (limited) research is through AMVs, whose reflection of anime popularity is probably dubious at best these days. Going by that standard, Ping Pong is almost a complete unknown, as there are only five videos on the .org that use it, and all of them multi-anime videos. A cursory YouTube search brings up a few more, but for all intents and purposes it seems that Ping Pong did not get very widespread notoriety, which is a real fricking shame, because holy crap guys and girls.
Given that I have no real interest in sports anime of any kind, this is an anime I never would have watched of my own free will had it not been for whispers on the Internet here and there of its supposed greatness. I heard this from friends as well, and having watched The Tatami Galaxy earlier in the year, I was convinced that director Yuasa Masaaki’s stuff is worth investing in. I was far from disappointed — in fact, Ping Pong ended up being one of the best anime I’ve watched all year. I wasn’t surprised, given what I’d heard and read, but that didn’t make the simple fact of thoroughly enjoying this from beginning to end any less impactful.
The story begins by introducing Smile, a table tennis prodigy who never (surprise, surprise) smiles or really seems to show any emotion at all. His only real friend is an energetic, narcissistic teammate by the name of Peco, who for all intents and purposes is as good if not better than Smile when it comes to table tennis. The anime uses this premise as a jumping-off point, but as it goes along other characters are introduced and by the end are getting as much, if not more, screen time than either Smile or Peco.
This was, in fact, one of my favorite aspects of the show — as things progress, we’re treated to intricate backstories of all the major characters. The single best part about this anime, though, is the fact that it flips the usual character construction archetype on its head. Our protagonists are not particularly likable; they’re not quite unlikable enough to be considered antiheroes, but they’re a far cry from the usual lovable loser cliche that litters most fiction. There’s a time and place for stuff like that, to be sure, but in this respect I found Ping Pong to be most refreshing.
Similarly, the “antagonists” (inasmuch as there are any in this show) are not really evil, or dislikable, or even bad in any way — in fact most of them are sympathetic people who simply approach the same sport from completely different directions. The various interactions between these characters throughout the anime accentuate their differences, and I liked every single character at one point or another throughout the series; what’s more, I disliked every character at one point or another as well. To find such an egalitarian treatment of all characters is rare; to make it work this effectively is even rarer.
This was one of the most challenging aspects of the anime as well. Ping Pong stresses the idea that every person, regardless of who they are, is going through something that you probably don’t know anything about. We as humans tend to demonize the actions of people we don’t like based on our own (often completely false) preconceptions of who they are or what they should be, without taking into account everything that brought them to where they are now. In sports, I imagine this can be an even greater temptation given that you’re already supposed to see your opponent as the “bad guy”; he needs to be beaten, you need to win and he’s trying to stop you. Ping Pong rejects this temptation to make such a clear and unrealistic distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys”, and instead chooses to paint every character as a flawed human being. What starts out in the expected black-and-white quickly bleeds to grey.
To be fair, Ping Pong does do plenty of things by the book. Smile, despite his completely flat demeanor, is still a lot like most typical anime protagonists — he’s a loser who is uniquely gifted in one specific area, he doesn’t have any desire at the beginning of the show to use his talent towards any meaningful goal, and he lives alone*. Beyond this, the story builds in the expected way, with the various characters going through their individual training regimens in preparation for the Final Ultimate ShowdownTM.
Even so, when this actually happened in the final episode, I found myself caring very little about the outcome; the anime had done such a good job at constructing believable characters at this point that I was much more interested in how the final match played out between the two characters, rather than what the actual result would be. I walked away from the anime feeling immensely satisfied and justified in the time I had put into it.
As much as I can praise the story and presentation, I have yet to address the elephant in the room: the animation. Watching Ping Pong takes a certain mental preparation. It’s animated in an unusual and tremendously striking way, much like Yuasa Masaaki’s two other major works, The Tatami Galaxy and Kaiba. Unlike those two, which are surreal and beautiful in their own ways, Ping Pong is much grittier in its approach. It’s jagged, highly stylized, and at times uncomfortable to look at. The animators play loose with the rules, changing proportions and fine detail with reckless abandon. The color palette is dreary and pastel; there are absolutely no vibrant colors throughout the whole series, further separating this anime from the crowd. It’s not “pretty”, but it’s “not pretty” in the same way that Flowers of Evil is “not pretty” — it still manages to catch your attention and hold it hostage for each episode’s 22-minute run, keeping you constantly wondering where the animators are going to take you next. Nothing is guaranteed, except that you really don’t want to look away.
The sound work in the anime is, like pretty much everything else, very good — the OP and ED songs are both excellent, although completely different styles. The music throughout the series is also done well, although I rarely noticed it all that much — an indication of competent sound engineering at the very least. The music within the episodes is mostly some variation of generic techno and it doesn’t vary too much, but it works well and that’s all I really need from something like this.
It is worth devoting a paragraph or two to praising the voice acting, which is something I rarely think twice about unless it’s particularly good (or bad). In Ping Pong, it’s phenomenal. Specifically, Bun Yousei, who voices one of the prominent auxiliary characters, Wenge Kong, deserves special recognition for his role, especially his Chinese. Now, I’m not a Chinese speaker so I guess I can’t comment on how good it would sound to a native, but to my untrained ear it sounds quite convincing and fluent. Until I looked it up later, I was sure that they had hired a native Chinese speaker to voice Wenge’s character; I was surprised to find out he’s Japanese. His ability to convey emotions so naturally in a foreign language was actually probably what ended up making him my favorite character in the series. Usually, imitations of other languages in anime end up sounding incredibly flat, if not outright goofy, but it was handled wonderfully with Wenge here.
As long as we’re on the subject, I feel like I need to also give a shoutout to Yara Yuusaku, who voices Jou Koizumi, Smile’s coach and mentor throughout the series. His character is voiced superbly, oscillating between Japanese and random English phrases on the fly, and giving Jou a quirky morphology on top of his already-quirky old guy personality. He’s one of the most fun and interesting characters in the whole series, helped in no small part by the fantastic voice acting and dialogue afforded to him by the writers.
There’s simply so much about Ping Pong to explore, and admire, and enjoy. If it does anything wrong, it’s only on account of what it does right: By expanding the focus off of one or two main characters and onto many, our emotional investment as viewers is stretched equally thin. But given the context, I’m having trouble really thinking of this as a problem. It’s just a different way of approaching storytelling, and in a sea of “feels”-y anime, something that doesn’t force those feelings down your throat is welcome every now and then.
I mean, I like anime that force those feelings on me; a lot of the time, I don’t even mind it when it does so in a somewhat manipulative way (see: Say “I Love You”). The only reason I’m bringing this point up at all is because Ping Pong had more than enough opportunities to give in to common tropes and to play up the typical sports-y melodrama that I’m at least used to seeing in American media, and if it had I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it and would have still liked this. But it didn’t; it circumscribed so many of my expectations and still managed to tell a story that was compelling and hard-hitting without being overly emotional. It was proof that impact doesn’t require a really deep emotional response from the viewer, or at least that such emotion doesn’t have to be engineered and planned. Maybe it wouldn’t be right to say that this didn’t have an emotional pull; I think it’s just not the kind I’m used to.
Hey, what do you know? This anime espouses self-discovery on top of everything else.
…Yeah, you should watch it.
Personal value: 8/10
*Seriously anime creators, why. This is probably one of the most annoying tropes in the entire medium when dealing with high school or middle school-aged protagonists — like, I get that it gives you freedom to let these kids kinda do and go where they want, but come on. Unless I’m incredibly ignorant of some Japanese cultural thing where millions of Japanese children are living completely on their own by the time they’re teenagers, let’s stop it.