First Impressions – Ping Pong

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It was a given, but Ping Pong The Animation is quite unlike anything else on the schedule.

OP: “Tada Hitori” (唯一人) by Bakudan Johnny

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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.

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ED: “Bokura ni Tsuite” (僕らについて) by merengue

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  1. l

    Wasn't sure what to expect but was keen to watch it. And after watching it earlier this morning, I have to say that out of the 4 sports anime which premiered this Spring 2014 season, this sports anime is the most fascinating of the lot. The idiosyncratic style can be an acquired taste but it fits the material superbly.

    Right now, after just the first episode of each of the 4 series, I would rank Ping Pong The Animation first, followed by Haikyuu!!, Baby Steps and then Abarenbou Kishi!! Matstarou. Abarenbou Kishi!! Matstarou has the most to do to get anywhere close to the first 3 series. The next few episodes of the first 3 series will be most interesting.

  2. M

    I loved Captain Earth, NGNL and and Isshuukan Friends' respective premieres (and enjoyed Mahouka's a lot too), but this one took the cake as the best. It's a bit of a shame that so many shots were reused, at least in this episode.

  3. T

    Ping Pong is my favorite sports manga and I loved the first episode.
    Looking forward to your reviews.
    Every character has their moment that we can easly sympathize with.

    One thing about the Engrish: the coach is an English teacher( or you can say a Engrish teacher)
    As Obaa-san hinted, Smile and Peco's school isn't a elite school, asumming a public high school. Those kind of school usually have volantary coaches or oftenly teachers as coaches.

  4. S

    I was quite surprised by the language too. My guess would be that Wenge at some point will catch up with Japanese, but still, its remarkable hearing him speaking Chinese throughout the episode. Maybe this anime is also targeted for a commercial success in mainland China (that's a completely wild guess though). I just gladly accept any cultural exchange between these two cultures (as trivial as they may seem) given the harsh policitcal developments caused by hardliners in the governments of both countries.

  5. l

    The look caught me by surprise a bit. The "poster" sorta misdirected me into expecting something a bit more Studio 4°C. Still, it's 100% Yuasa in look/style, which is never a bad thing. Seem a nit too budget constrained in places, but overall it's decent enough.

    As for the actual episode, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Didn't have the same expectation going into this as I did for Mushishi, but Ping Pong definitely has the potential to rank close to it. As of right now, it's already light-years ahead of all the other premiers out this season.

    So I guess that 2 hits and 1 miss for me so far this season. Strikes being Mushishi and Ping Pong. Miss was Sidonia, which is a shame because I really like the manga. Maybe they should've gotten Yuasa to adapt Nihei's work instead.

  6. J

    I hope you realize that Shinbo is poised to be the chief director of a show that is pretty much destined to be the next big thing in Mekaku City Actors which starts tomorrow and is predicted to have all time record sales and popularity. Just figured I'd give fair warning that it's probably about to get a whole lot worse on that front for people like us that are growing tired of his runaway success of late (maybe I'm wrong but I get the impression it's the same for you as well) and who feel he's overvalued as a creative type on both sides of the Pacific and in need of a cold hard slap to the face. I've gotta say if this guy actually does end up establishing a hegemony and becoming the next big leading director in anime that others try to emulate (I'm starting to worry it's already happening) I'm probably out of following modern anime because I just don't think I can support a medium that enables and pushes a guy that seems so cynically "for the money and fame" and full of himself. I'd love to see Shinbo humbled more than possibly any other name in the industry, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon as long as Aniplex keeps giving him these big projects and teenagers keep buying them at record numbers.

    Anyway that's a separate issue. This really stood out to me visually as something wholly unique and not just run through a style filter like I feel Shinbo is prone too. It resembles the original mangas art style, but puts it's own spin on it that just kind of works. I love the rawness of the art style and how it's striking without being totally up in your grill like a Shinbo show. It allows room for the atmosphere and personality of the characters and the feeling of listlessness and frustration that life seems to be dealing them. Smile seems to be very much out of the grind of daily life, possible looking for something more to reignite his passion, while Wenge is frustrated that he put so much effort into his Ping Pong career and feels he did right by everyone but because of some mistake he made he's shipped off to play with Japanese players he feels are on a lesser level than his and won't allow his game to grow any further. Both people feel like they're just kind of frustrated and done with it all which is something I can relate to right now with the way real life (and to some extent just even the course of the smaller stuff in life that I usually enjoy like anime, games etc. which just aren't doing it for me as much as an escape mechanism of late) is going for me a bit. I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes and how these characters develop.

  7. R

    Eh, that's the thing with directors, anime, cartoons or movies. You've got people who love 'em and people who hate 'em. I'm not a huge fan of Shinbo's style, but it doesn't really detract for me either as long as he's adapting from a good source, or has a strong writer on board. It's basically just become a "Shaft thing" XD;

    That being said, one director's success isn't going to mean that the whole industry is going to start imitating him. The anime industry's always had diversity, even when different ages start (like right after Evangelion, where every show and their mother wanted to go edgy), and even if it does, it rotates back after a while anyways.

    That being said, I'm super looking forwards to Mekkaku City Actors, because I've been a huge fan of the series long before the anime was announced. And I'm certainly not going to write it off even if a director I DID dislike was helming it (at least not without a fighting chance). Shinbo might be successful, but when he adapts series with large fanbases, he's inheriting those fans.

  8. K

    Is it really all that likely that Mekakucity Actors will have record sales? The existing fanbase is skewed toward young, teenage girls who would have no trouble buying albums every few months but DVDs/BDs…? Not as likely. It's definitely going to be the most popular spring anime with Mahouka though.

    Aniplex probably chose Shaft over A-1 due to Shidu's existing style being better adapted to Shaft's.

  9. R

    I….wasn't really sure at ALL what I was expecting when I went into this, except for the fact that I'd probably get Kaiba flashbacks. Which I didn't, mostly (I think Space Dandy managed that one more) but I walked out still not really know what I was getting. That was….well, it was a sports anime for sure but so wholly unlike the other ones I've read (granted I tend to err towards the shounen side of things). It was interesting, that's for sure, but I'm just not used to it. We'll see what happens XD

  10. K

    The animation threw me off initially, since it was not what I was expecting at all. It definitely did get a lot more interesting with the introduction of Wenge and his translator/ coach. I really like the contrast between Wenge and Peco; both are quite arrogant and have the skills to back it up, but Wenge was a lot more likable for me. I 'm really looking forward to seeing Smile break out of his shell/ self -imposed handicap.

    The voice actor for Wenge was excellent. It's very refreshing to hear Chinese characters played by actual Chinese actors. I also loved how the Chinese coach had an accent when speaking Japanese; it adds a lot to the authenticity of the story. Details like this always make me appreciate a series more. It would have been brutal if they cast someone who couldn't speak Mandarin well for such a major role.

  11. M

    Sooooo…not bad. Probably the most restrained I've seen Yuasa. Stylistically, a healthy fusion of Kemonozume and obviously Tekkonkreet. I agree that things picked up when Wenge walked in.

  12. J

    Yeah, that's what I though too, IT's pretty restrained for him, Tekkonkinkreet and Tatami Galaxy were both waaay more eclectic. He's got a lot of pretty stable shots, like in the train, and he keeps the speed for Ping Pong, and leaves the rest a lot more slowed down.

    In a weird way it reminded me of the recent Sakamichi no Apollon, but that probably as more to do with the types of shots during the action, and some rotoscoping. But probably also because the time given for reflection on the characters.

  13. Yuasa had nothing to do with Tekonkinkreet – the connection is the mangaka.

    Also – I wouldn't swear to it, but I didn't see anything that looked like rotoscoping in this episode. I do think Yuasa and Watanabe have a certain narrative overlap – neither one of them is afraid of silence, for starters.

  14. R

    Ping Pong has won me over. It's not because of Yuasa's style but the dialogue and Wenge.

    I do appreciate the details and aesthetics in animation a lot. However, in anime, I'd love to see authentic characters that come with depth and potentials and masterly writing that sparks imagination and flows with logic. Most importantly, I'd love to see how every element is weaved together to tell a story that lets the creators' ambition, passion, and hours of detailed work shine through our screens and tug our hearts. Shin Sekai Yori, Uchouten Kazoku, Kyousougiga, and Chihayafuru are recent examples that had me fallen madly in love with.

    Ping Pong isn't there yet — it's too early to tell in just one episode — and I have to admit that Yuasa's style takes me a while to get used to. However, he does give us some swift movements and interesting facial expressions. The Wenge and Peco sequence was good and exciting to watch.

    What has got me in the premier is the dialogue — it brings the characters to life and let their emotions come through. I yearn for more after watching just one episode. Wenge is very well acted. Perhaps I can understand Mandarin slightly…if people speak very slowly. Wenge comes across arrogant — or extremely proud because of where he's come and what he'd achieved — but his frustration and despair come so alive in the script and the acting. That makes this character interesting to watch — an ambitious and confident player who lacks talent, as opposed to Smile who has talent but lacks ambition.

    I have to applaud to whoever wrote the script and chose the VAs. Not only do we have real Chinese VAs who can act but a real Chinese script that flows and means what it's supposed to mean. Wenge's translator is also interesting. He's also well acted in Mandarin, and he speaks Japanese, too — that's rare in anime.

    I definitely will keep Ping Pong, and I rank it above Haikyuu and Baby Steps — the other two shows that I for sure will watch along with Mushi-shi. I hope that Yuasa's style won't get in the way — so far it's not — and if the writing and dialogue can keep up, I think I will have an interesting and different sports show this season.

  15. Z

    Interesting. That makes two people now who have put this one above Baby Steps.

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