Ping Pong – 06

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There’s just nothing about Ping Pong that’s remotely conventional.

Boy, is this show ever ugly.  Stylistic choices aside, this is some of the most bare-bones art and animation I’ve seen in any anime – we’re talking about stuff approaching the level of the Togashi doodles here.  I’m not sure whether Yuasa is the only director who could have made this show visually interesting because it has an incredibly minuscule budget, or if he’s simply indulging his peculiar aesthetic to a greater degree than normal.  Either way, it is visually interesting – and it’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.

As I’ve mentioned before there is a kind of stark beauty in what Yuasa-sensei is doing here, and it manages to poke its head tentatively into the light once in a while.  For all the memorable characters arcs being woven here, it would hard for me to say there’s one I like more than that of Kong Wenge.  China continues to have a huge impact with minimal screen time, because his storyline is almost impossibly grounded, realistic and emotionally resonant.

That said, if you’d told me at the beginning that Wenge would be providing a lot of the positive energy in Ping Pong at the halfway point I’d have said you were crazy.  But that’s exactly what’s happened.  I see now that his story is being set up as a mirror to Smile’s just as Mereum’s is to Gon in “Chimera Ant”.  Wenge started out at the top of this little universe, and miserable.  Now he’s crashed to Earth and found a peace that seems to gave eluded him for entire life.  He parted friends with his government minder, he’s welcomed his mother to Japan for a Christmas visit, he’s acting as a mentor to his teammates and even ends up making wontons with all of them – and his mother – in the kitchen of his dorm.  The karaoke scene is another in a string of fascinating musical montages in Ping Pong, and it’s instructive both for Wenge’s character and the story as a whole (including the sea-mountain guy, who now says he’s going abroad).

Wenge’s arc is just one example of a larger theme in Matsumoto Taiyou’s story, where we’re taught that the initial impressions we have of people are often almost completely off-base.  Smile is now playing China’s role as the pitiless bully far better than Wenge ever could have.  Peco is on a downward spiral of self-pity, and Sakuma is nearing the end of his own table tennis journey of self-analysis.  The bullying captain of the Katase team is now the hard-working blue-collar kid trying to hold the team together in the face of Smile’s arrogance and condescension.  And Kazama is almost completely remote from his own team at Kaio, caught up in a world of ping pong stardom where ping pong itself is clearly not a high priority.

I don’t know if Wenge is going to factor into Ping Pong as a player again, but it seems very likely that Peco is.  He’s pretty much bottomed out at this point, getting drunk on liqueur candies and dumped by his girlfriend.  It’s Sakuma who gives him the push he needs – first with a rather harsh lecture about wasting his talent, and then a much more practical nudge – saving Peco when he jumps from the causeway and nearly drowns in the shallows.  The irony here is cruel – Sakuma has the desire and motivation to be great but lacks the talent (he’s tried learning to be a chopper as a sort of last-ditch bid to save his career, but accepted that it’s just not in the cards for him).  He’s had to watch Smile – who has the talent and lacked any desire to be great – pass him by, and Peco – who has talent but lacks the discipline to make the most of it – fritter it away.

Where does Peco decide to go when he picks himself up from rock-bottom?  To Obaba.  Their interactions have always been pretty cute and quite funny, but there’s an added layer of seriousness now – Peco asks her to rebuild him as a table tennis player from the ground up.  “Gonna propose to me?  Don’t do it if you don’t mean it.”  It’s a joke full of seriousness, because it seems Obaba knows what’s coming.  Obaba and Koizumi have a history, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how her training methods differ from his.  Peco was always the show horse, the hero – to Smile, to Sakuma – is he now being set up as a sort of avenging angel, with Smile as the bully that needs to be taken down a peg?

Of course the truth will be much subtler than that – Ping Pong just isn’t that sort of story.  But it’s going to be fascinating to watch this play out, that’s for sure.  Are there signs Koizumi is feeling pangs of guilt about where he’s taking Smile, or is he simply playing good cop to his own bad cop?  Smile seems more miserable and lonely than ever – he’s becoming the sort of person he’s always professed to hate, and he’s watched the guy he always idolized transform into someone who invites contempt.  Everyone has to play the lead role in their own story, and Smile has yet to reach that point – it’ll be when he does that we see what sort of person he truly is, and what sort of ending Taiyou-sensei has in mind for that story.

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  1. N

    When it was revealed that the daughter of the Kaio coach was imagining her date with Kazama, I was gripped with a terrible fear that the same might be true for Wenge, and I knew that if that was the case I'd break down and cry.

  2. Yeah, that would have been brutal. Thank goodness it wasn't the case.

  3. m

    Man, you can think up depressing stuff. I'm glad it wasn't imaginary because otherwise, the message of this episode would have just been "Ping pong ruins people's lives."

  4. K

    Best. Christmas. Episode. Ever.

    I think the karaoke montage scene is my favorite moment of the show so far. The other moments in contention are Smile vs. Teach/Koizumi and the scene with Wenge & his coach after Kong's lose against Kazama.

    & lol at the Togashi comparison line.

  5. d

    The ugly art style is a deliberate artistic choice by Matsumoto. Tekkonkinkreet looked like this too.

  6. J

    I highly recommend reading the manga (maybe after the anime has finished airing). The art style is exactly the same, it's an impressive adaptation. I've been following behind since the last few eps (not reading ahead so as to not be spoiled) and it's really interesting to see some of the changes (considering how it originally ran in the mid 90's it's mostly technology updates, like Peco's scenes playing at an old-skool arcade being relocated and Smile with a Rubik's cube instead of a hand held console) and also when panels are (often) shot for shot. I love how they have embellished on the manga's themes and especially Wenge's story makes me emotionally well-up every time he's on screen. That whole karaoke montage was just so good. The running gag with that guy wanting to go places is also hilarious. I feel the anime is slightly more confusing narratively than the manga but not in a bad way per se, it just makes me want to re-watch it all the more.
    I'm watching about 17 shows this season (including carry-overs like HxH and AoD) but this is the only one I never skip the OP or ED of.

  7. I have actually read through the early volumes, and while Yuasa certainly keeps the basic look, I would disagree that it's an exact replication (not that such a thing is desirable in an adaptation). The anime is more stylized, has less background detail and generally uses more distortion (both in terms of facial features and perspective). There's also the matter of the animation itself, which of course isn't a factor in a manga.

    Bottom line for me – I would like this series even if it didn't look interesting because it's brilliantly written. But it does look interesting, and some of what Yuasa is doing is clearly a stylistic choice. But make no mistake, there's more to it than that.

  8. s

    Yuasa is what you'd call an anime surrealist and his art style definitely permeates most of what he does so id say that he has put his stamp on Ping Pong; it goes beyond just the art, merging itself with the presentation itself to transform what was originally a "different artstyle" into something that is surreal and psychedelic. Funny enough, the OP of the anime is also animated by another surrealist animator.

  9. j

    Oh of course I'm not debating the differences between the manga and how the anime brilliantly exploits the wonderful base style, I'm well aware they're different mediums haha, I was just personally more surprised than anything how eerily similar the "style" was (in my head that means how the panels are composed and how the anime is stylised, yeah I'm not proficient enough to explain it), as in what a wonderful mesh the original creator and new director have. I will admit to not having seen any of either's other works (they are high on my to-watch list thou) so I guess you can call me a pleb or whatever but it's just my impression as someone commending a great adaptation of an already great source. As you say, the story is enough but I don't find the anime "ugly" (I'm one of those people who loved what they did with Aku no Hana) so it's all great in my book.

  10. p

    Also loved that karaoke montage… Such an intelligent and gorgeous (seriously–I love the look) anime–it's just on another level compared to every other sports anime now, maybe every anime now. People often talk about character development in series in rather shallow ways, as if a character just moving from bad to good or vice versa shows great character development, but you also need a sort of psychological depth and reality for it to be truly impressive. But this show has managed to already present a whole group of well-rounded characters despite pretty minimal screen time for some of them. And the development in Peco, Smille, and Wenge is done quite subtly, without overt exposition, but with great integrity.
    Perhaps it's largely the great dialogue and banter (loved the "gonna propose to me?). Is that pretty much taken from the manga, does anyone know?

  11. N

    Also loving the series and its characterisation and how the style builds such strong initial traits and preconceptions only to then blow them in sometimes unexpected, yet natural feeling ways. Interesting mix of craziness, style while being down to earth. I don't analyse media enough to make any valid comparisons but ping pong reminds me a little of the animation morphs from one thing to another. Though, the story and message is far clearer here!

  12. m

    I've always loved having Wenge on screen, and now him singing in japanese… oh yea!!

    I really love the human relationships in this show.

  13. S

    So did Smile and Wenge switch roles? It’s like they became each other’s person from the first episode: Smile gets obsessed by the game and increasingly self-centered, yet also very lonely, while Wenge softens up, has a good time with his mom and new friends, but his hunger to be the best seems to be gone.
    Guess the question the show poses is: which lifestyle is better, the one aiming for success or happiness? I’d say each has their positives and negatives, so it really depends on the person you’re asking. If Smile and Wenge are content with their choices in life, then no objections should be raised.

    It was also good to see Peco and Akuma getting over their depression. The bad experiences will make them stronger.

  14. j

    I don't think staring at cake alone in a dark room on Christmas eve can be considered "better" in this case…

    The whole robot thing in the beginning was referring to Smile, who has a good heart but needs a hero (Peco) to save him from his rough exterior which only causes harm and destruction around him.

  15. I'm certainly not getting the message that Smile is content in any way, shape or form.

  16. S

    I believe Smile is trying to achieve something grand and makes sacrifices on the way in order to reach that goal. A certain kind of payoff that makes him want to go through the mud. A success that justifies his hardships. He may feel unhappy at times, but I think it’s possible that he’s content with his progress towards his goal.

  17. t

    I don't know…Smile doesn't seem to have a certain goal. he just follow…the coach or pattern or whatever. as the show itself simply put – he is shut kinda like a robot. he is programmed to win every opponent and like an oiled machine he keeps himself in shape. I don't see anymore progress he is making in ping pong or something. he just…plays. like a computer opponent in any game you might think the hardest level of course.
    of course I can't say he is happy with his choices because it doesn't seem so. but is he sad?is he actually feel a bit of bitterness or loneliness? I don't see it but maybe deep down…and in comparison to Weng – is he happy?well you could say it seemed so in the last ep, but it also doesn't. sure, he is with his mom and it seems he is bonding with everyone else. but true happiness?maybe a reluctant happiness because it's the best he has for now.

    as I see it, there is a cloud of bitterness for everyone here – Weng, Sakuma, Smile and even dragon and Peco. and we'll see how they keep walking with their own choices for better or worse.

  18. N

    Don't forger captain Ota, there's no bitterness as having to work on a holiday when everyone else is having fun

  19. R

    Ping Pong is an A+ show. Everything looks so deformed but feels so natural, smooth, and real. It has a bigger message, and it tells it in an artful, subtle, believable, and realistic way.

    Yes, Enzo, Wenge a brilliant character — I'm impressed by him since the premier. As little screen time as he gets, he manages to fascinate us every time he shows up. It's so nice to see his transformation, and I really like how the show gives us the tidbits of his daily life — the emotional impact is gradual, subtle but deep.

    Ping Pong is so different from other sports shows, and I'm almost calling it a character show now. What also sets Ping Pong apart is how it approaches being stronger. Being strong by working hard is such a common theme in manga/anime — and most of the time the protagonist wins by just doing that. Ping Pong, however, tells us something different. Whether you're a prodigy or a commoner, working hard is a given, but sometimes there's a limit to human potential — and you can no longer be stronger no matter what. The key is how you're going to approach that. I really like how Ping Pong gives us the cruel reality but also tells us that it's not the end of the world. Life can sometimes be bigger than a dream — it depends on how we look at it.

    Ping Pong, to me, has really good directing and writing behind to give us what we're seeing today. I have a couple of thoughts… For people who like trying unconventional animation styles and will sacrifice good storytelling and characters for showing off their talents, please check Ping Pong out and learn from it. For people who like aiming for big themes and will sacrifice characters and good writing in a heartbeat just to tell the world how smart they are, look no further and learn from Ping Pong. Because we, anime fans, are busy and can no longer feed ego and afford nonsense.

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