OP: “Tada Hitori” (唯一人) by Bakudan Johnny
There are a lot of things one might say about Ping Pong, not least of which is that it represents yet another distinct type of sports anime on a calendar that’s incredibly rich with them at the moment, or that it comes from an award-winning manga by Matsumoto Taiyo (Tekonkinkreet). But any discussion of the series starts and ends with director Yuasa Masaaki (who’s also handling series composition). Yuasa-sensei is a truly singular figure, as much as anyone can do so representing a true “auteur” in anime, in that his series are instantly recognizable and recognizably Yuasa. You know, kind of like Shinbou Akiyuki if he were interesting.
There are those who consider Yuasa a true genius and some of his works (The Tatami Galaxy or Kaiba as recent examples) to be all-time classics. I’m not one of them, though that doesn’t mean his talent is lost on me. I generally tend to favor directors who don’t impose their own style on everything they touch to the point where everything else is secondary (compare it if you like to a winemaker who flattens out the effects of weather and terroir to make a recognizable style every time), and I generally find Yuasa’s style to wear on me by the end of a series. But there’s no denying he has a unique and fascinating sensibility, interesting taste in subject matter and that his shows are never generic or boring.
That roundabout introduction brings us to Ping Pong, an anime about a sport that’s quite popular in Japan (especially at onsen ryokan, for some reason) and exponentially more so in China but as far as I know has not had an anime centered on it in recent years (though it has had memorable scenes). I played it a lot as kid on basement rec room tables, but I know almost nothing about it as a competitive sport – the lingo of the player introductions was mostly lost on me. Nevertheless it’s an interesting and dynamic game to watch when played by those really good at it, and it’s a better fit for Yuasa’s art and animation style than one might have thought.
The core focus of Ping Pong The Animation seems as if it will be on three people, all high-schoolers (well, that’s hardly an anime revolution in itself). Most important seems to be Tsukimoto Makoto (Uchiyama Kouki), universally known as “Smile” because he never smiles. Or laughs, or gets angry – he just plays on his PSP and occasionally hums to himself. His best friend is Hoshino Yutaka (newcomer Katayama Fukujurou) universally known as “Peco” for reasons I don’t know yet. These two have just joined the Katase High School Table Tennis Club as freshmen and instantly become its best players, much to the displeasure of the third-years. Smile dutifully shows up for club and rarely speaks unless spoken to, Peco prefers to spend his time at the dojo next to the station (run by Obaa-san Nozawa Masako) hustling pigeons for easy money, and isn’t shy about telling everyone how great he is and how he’s going to move to Europe as soon as he graduates.
The first half of the episode is mostly spent in these two locales, watching Smile and Peco interact with each other and Peco piss off everybody else. Their playing styles reflect their personalities – Peco is a “Hitter”, all aggression and attack, while Smile is a “Chopper” who relies on backspin and guile to wear down the opponent. It’s immediately apparent that Smile is sandbagging when playing against Peco (this is proved out later) for reasons that aren’t as immediately apparent. This is interesting, though pretty abstract stuff – a lot of dialogue and Yuasa’s characteristic oddly angled close-ups – especially of the club advisor Koizumi Jou (Yara Yuusaku) who for some reason despite his Japanese name is prone to slipping into very bad Engrish.
It’s with the arrival of the third character that Ping Pong really hits its stride. This is Kong Wenge (Bun Yousei) – universally known (to Peco) as “China”. He’s a Chinese transfer student at a rival high school, a former table tennis power in decline that’s paid Wenge to come to Japan and restore their glory. Wenge is edgy, arrogant, and undeniably talented – it seems he was kicked off his prefectural team in China for reasons unknown. The best scene in the episode comes when Peco and Smile come to spy on China and end up playing each other in the empty gym (Peco with China’s paddle) and China and his manager/translator listen in on their game, perfectly analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each player strictly by the sound of their ball-striking. It’s here that we learn that Smile is the real talent of the two, and it’s he that interests China immediately as a potential opponent – but it’s Peco who takes up China’s challenge instead, and is thoroughly humiliated – an 11-0 skunking.
As always, it’s not that easy to get a handle on a Yuasa series right away, but I find the dynamic between these three interesting. I like the fact that Tatsunoko has cast a Chinese actor as Wenge, and given the perpetual state of tension between Japan and China I’ll be very interested in seeing how that side of the story is portrayed here. The OP, ED (directed by Yuasa disciple Choi Eun-Young, who directed the stellar “plants” episode of Space Dandy) and BGM are all excellent, and the look of the series is classic Yuasa – restless, free-form, often monochromatic, disjointed. This is what you always get with him, so it really boils down to whether the story is going to be compelling enough to keep the Yuasa stylizing from becoming exhausting. Early indications are pretty good – the manga is very well-regarded and I can see why, and it seems to suit Yuasa’s aesthetic very well. I expected one of the most interesting premieres of the season here, and that’s what we got – now comes the hard part.
ED: “Bokura ni Tsuite” (僕らについて) by merengue