I am producing a brand new show called Anime Streaming Showcase (or A.S.S. for short). I take a look at the massive amount of anime scattered among the internet across various streaming site and say if it’s worthwhile. Is it binge-worthy, should you add it to your queue, or should you hide it and bury it?
Who would have ever taught that a show about table tennis would lead me to compare it to HBO”s Game of Thrones? That is the true beauty of Masaaki Yuasa’s “Ping Pong: The Animation”.
Tatsunoko Production has a long running history in the anime industry. They were innovators and were likely a nostalgic factor for many older anime viewers in the eighties and nineties, with shows like Macross and Gatchaman. Those shows were essentially the start of the US anime boom due to licencors getting the properties then re-purposing and editing them to appeal to US audiences. The ethics or issues with that are for another time. Tatsunoko, despite a lot of prominence many decades ago, they’re certainly a resilient animation studio; still continuously putting out series annually. For me personally, most of their productions are either a mammoth, striking hit, or a colossal, substandard miss. In 2014, Tatsunoko claimed a place in the former category with director Masaaki Yuasa’s Ping Pong: The Animation. Adapted from a 1997 manga by Taiyō Matsumoto, Ping Pong tells the interweaving story of several ping pong players from Japan and one who’s been kicked off of his Chinese team and has transferred to a Japanese school to redeem himself. The focus of the series is around four distinctive characters and styles: Makoto/Smile is the no-nonsense player while his lifetime rival Yutaka/Peco is the carefree, but all-around cocky player. Both are a part of the Katase team. Meanwhile Ryūichi/Dragon is a dominant force that leads the Kaio Academy and Kong/China is the Tsujido Academy transfer set to redeem himself in Japan before returning home. It’s a rich, diverse cast, with the elders and coaches rounding out the rest to help keep the cocky youngsters in line.
Ping Pong not truly stands out in its character approach, development, or growth and I often, proudly, consider Ping Pong an allegorical “Game of Thrones”. Now, unlike Game of Thrones, Ping Pong has no central protagonist/antagonist, but you will like/hate all of the characters for various reasons. I also understand that Ping Pong will never have the reception GoT has, nor will it reach the same level, but it’s an apt observation. It’s completely arguable if the show’s as good as Game of Thrones, which goes without saying, and that’s not what I’m here to dispute. What I’m ultimately appealing is that despite the fact that characters will not die or be killed forthwith, they will grow, learn, & change your perception of them; all in a respectful, believable and intelligently manner.
Another arguable caveat of Ping Pong is its splendid animation style. Using the avant-garde, unique, almost rotoscoped look that few series do anymore these days, Ping Pong sets itself apart with rough but fluid style. Players move a little jaggedly, but the animations still come off as believable and help maintain the illusion of a realistic presentation. There are no over-the-top motions or action ever implemented; just real action being transformed into beautiful art. Art director Kevin Aymeric and key animation director Shinya Ohira truly help present Ping Pong in a light that immediately sets itself apart from nearly anything else you’ll be watching. The team at Tatsunoko isn’t new to this exaggerated-realism, as they did it previously, albeit in much smaller increments, in their 2013 series Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta. As well studio Zexcs who also did a very similar, more-heavily rotoscoped style for their 2013 Aku no Hana adaptation of the manga of the same name. I am a fan of both of those series, as well as the animation style of rotoscoping, but it’s a special style; a style that benefits from the less is more motto. Of course none of this praise of the animation matters if the story and plot are lackluster and not worth stomaching.
Luckily Ping Pong is one of the best slice-of-life/sports anime I’ve ever seen. Confession time however, I’ve seen only a handful of sport anime, but the one’s I prefer are more along the line of Ping Pong than any of the other overly exaggerated iterations out there. Series like Giant Killing, Haikyuu!!, etc tend to be more the speed of Ping Pong than anything else. Meticulous, well-approached matches and vital attention is paid to in Ping Pong. Most of the matches aren’t as straightforward as you would imagine however. Since the show is only set for one cour (season) the matches are more internal conversations and soliloquies than outright shown. The actual battle playing out is only a modicum of the true mental test showcased. It’s a refreshing alternative than to simply show the sport of ping pong being played, and the acting is believable and tolerable; bonus!
There’s a hubris in most of the players as they all deem themselves the best. Ping Pong will carefully accentuate each character’s strengths and weaknesses over the eleven episode experience. The majority of this first set of episodes is focused on Smile, who’s arguably the best player in the series. His biggest obstacles is himself because he’s so apathetic to his own talents and future that he oftentimes is he only obstacle from succeeding. He’s willing to sacrifice a win in order to appease his opponent and their wishes. Smile’s personality may seem clichéd and obnoxious, but in the context of Ping Pong’s storytelling, it works and is well understanding. Peco is almost the polar opposite of Smile; he’s outright obnoxious and touts himself as the best, and his series of episodes show that his touting isn’t what’s going to win him games; he needs to actually improve himself. Dragon and Kong definitely have received their character development too. It’s actually quite ingenious how the tales interweave and are told at the same time without being overbearing or shoved down our throats. Ping Pong has some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen. There’s rarely a dull moment, as it’s constantly moving to a climax.
Although Ping Pong is only one cour, I enjoyed the journey immensely. Although sports anime are rarely on my list of series to pick up, Ping Pong: The Animation will be a series I add to my shelf the moment I can. You can stream it, in its entirety, via our friends over at Funimation subbed and dubbed, while Crunchyroll has the sub.
Like most people here, I’ve been watching anime for many, many years. I owe blocks like Toonami for getting me into the medium. Shows like Dragonball Z and Ronin Warriors shaped my beginning years, while shows like Neon Genesis Evangleion and Cowboy Bebop showed me that there’s some true artistic ability and expression found within anime (moreso than big burly dudes punching and screaming for hours on end). I now try to watch anime showcasing many genres and storytelling. Anime is just another great, creative medium for telling stories, and I’m happy to share my thoughts on the series I enjoy with you!