Ping Pong: The Animation is far from being your normal sports anime. Rather, it is an insightful coming-of-age tale of four high schoolers and how the sport shapes their lives.
Ping Pong begins as the story of two high school freshmen, Peco and Smile. Peco is a ping pong wunderkind of sorts, able to beat anyone he has ever come across with seemingly no effort at all. Smile, on the other hand, while good, is content to sit in Peco's shadow as his number two. Yet, after their first interschool tournament, it is Smile who everyone seems interested in and Peco who is left on the sidelines.
So while the anime has a high school ping pong club as its setting, it really isn't a story about ping pong. Rather, it is a coming-of-age story where ping pong is the catalyst for the main characters growing up.
When it comes down to it, there are four main characters in Ping Pong: Peco, Smile, Ryuichi, and Kong—each of which grows to adulthood through the struggles they face inside and outside of the sport.
Peco has always been the best—beating adults in Ping Pong ever since he was in grade school. To him the sport is great fun. After all, he always wins. But when he moves on to high school, he is forced to face players of, if not more talent, then at least of more developed skills. And after his first loss, he gives up completely—deciding that not losing is not fun so he is done with ping pong. Thus, having lost his goal in life, Peco's arc follows him as he searches for new meaning.
Smile, on the other hand, while having real talent bolstered by hard work, has no desire for fame or fortune. He is happy to let his friend bask in the glory. However, he finds himself thrust into the spotlight when he wins against some of the country’s strongest, even as Peco loses. Without Peco to hold him back, Smile could become the best in Japan—if he cared about the sport or his talent.
Ryuichi is the man at the top: the Japanese and world champion. He is the heir to both a ping pong dynasty and a sports supply corporation. He is the captain of the best ping pong team in the country and dates a teenage supermodel. ...He also locks himself in the bathroom before each match, suffering from panic attacks. The stress upon him is immense and watching how it tears at his soul is painful to watch.
Kong is the final of the four main characters. Trained nearly from birth to be a world class ping pong player, he was a member of the Chinese youth national team—until he was recently cut. His only hope to return home and reclaim his spot on the team is to win the Japanese national championships. But if he fails, he will be left without a purpose in life, left exiled in a country where he doesn't even speak the language.
So as Ping Pong is more about personal growth than the sport of ping pong, it also lacks many of the typical sports anime tropes. There are no special attacks or techniques that have more to do with fantasy than sports. More than that, Ping Pong is far faster than most sports anime in its pacing. Instead of a single match taking up several episodes, Ping Pong will cover an entire tournament in just a single episode or two. In fact, the 11-episode series covers more than a year—hitting all the pivotal moments in each character's lives, of course.
The art style is likely to be the most polarizing aspect of Ping Pong. Unlike the crisp, clean, animation of most anime, Ping Pong looks like nothing so much as a sketchbook brought to life. The characters constantly flutter in size and shape and details disappear at any sort of distance, leaving them as blobs. However, this animation style actually fits the subject matter very well. Not only does it work perfectly for the imagination-filled aspects of the anime, but for action-filled ping pong matches as well. The animation also has the fun habit of splitting onto a manga-page-like split screen, showing the same piece of action from different angles or focusing on different characters.
But while this animation style works well for an anime like Ping Pong, I suspect some watchers will find it so aesthetically unpleasing they are unwilling to watch—which is understandable, though no less a shame.
Simply put, Ping Pong: The Animation is an excellent coming of age anime. The problems that the main characters face throughout the series are both real and relatable; and seeing how they grow into their own through ping pong is an excellent use of a sports setting. And while some of you may be turned off by the animation, I challenge you to give it a try nevertheless. It would be a shame to miss out on an anime as well done as this just because of aesthetic reasons.
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