Tag me behind-the-times, but I finally came around to watching Ping Pong at the beginning of this year after several peers’ rave reviews and a lull in my own schedule. A few factors stopped me from watching the series when it first aired: subject, art style, and my own busy schedule. I learned the basics of the sport in grade school and never progressed beyond that point; while I thought the ping pong scenes in Forrest Gump were fantastic, I didn’t take any further interest in watching professional matches. I was also turned off by the art style, despite having overlooked it in another Yuasa Masaaki directed work, The Tatami Galaxy. When asking via Twitter what backlogged shows I should watch, Ping Pong overwhelmingly won.
I had very little exposure to table tennis outside of P.E. classes in grade school. An early impression of the sport was that it was a game of children. It’s not surprising given the playful name “ping pong” reminiscent of the sound the ball makes as it bounces, and the seemingly simple instructions and game play. I even considered it a kiddy version of tennis, as “table” infers a smaller field than a full-sized court–smaller fields for smaller bodies. I didn’t think twice of the difficulties of successfully hitting the ball back to my opponent, much less bouncing it within the boundaries. But as anyone who has faced against even a slightly competent player can tell you, there is much more to ping pong than the serve and return.
When I finally watched professionals play on stages televised from China, I was appalled at the speed and distance of movement. Some players stood several feet away from the edge of the table, their hand whipping up and down almost faster than my eye could follow. There are a range of play styles, and even the paddle grip varies between people. I naturally hold the paddle in a shakehand grip, like Smile. As a lefty, I can never make up my mind on whether to use my left or right hand. Either way, the results are abysmal! I have neither the talent nor the drive to work hard and improve myself–a balance that forms one of the pillars to Ping Pong‘s character development and plot.
Tsukimoto Makoto, nicknamed “Smile” by his best friend, gives no glimmer of the reason for his label. His constant demeanor is a somber one. He passes through almost all aspects of life with very little emotion reflecting on his face or in his voice. Even when standing at the table with paddle in hand, almost no signs of exertion, joy, or despair make themselves evident. It makes perfect sense why other peers refer to him as a robot, even if that is far from the truth. His colorful and action-packed dreams of a superhero, as well as his friendship with Peco, make it clear there’s so much more going on in his head than outside appearances tell.
Then there’s Hoshino “Peco” Yutaka, a table tennis prodigy with an attitude and grin as big as the sun, and a non-existent practice regimen. As grating as I find his over confidence and carefree approach to life, I also can’t help but be infected by Peco’s laughter and need for adventure. He has all the makings of an incredible player, yet lacks the necessary routine for the higher stages. When trounced by others more dedicated to the sport, he places the blame on everything and everyone but himself.
Ping Pong follows the two best friends on their paths to the top, and masterfully displays their individual transformations from start to finish. I quickly forgot my aversion to the art in favor of my focus on the characters and their journey. Once I felt in tune with them, the art style actually endeared itself to me through its shaky movements and intentionally raw feel. Knowing the players and the story now, I can’t imagine the art any other way.
While I mildly regret not riding the hype when this series first aired, I also feel that watching it on my schedule without others’ influences helped me more appreciate the unfolding tale of friendship, self discovery, and growth. Now that we’re over a year from its run, I am finally proudly including Ping Pong among my most loved shows for the year, and even of the decade.