Anime Review: Ping Pong the Animation

Ping Pong the Animation is the most serious sports story this side of anime. Maybe that isn't such a good thing.
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  1. Anime Review: Ping Pong the Animation
    Because who’d want to watch something called Table Tennis the Animation?

    Series Title: Ping Pong the Animation
    Release Date: 2014
    Genre: Sports
    Director: Masaaki Yuasa
    Writer: Taiyo Matsumoto (Manga)
    Studio: Tatsunoko Production
    Number of Episodes: 11

    The series stars best buddies Smile and Peco, both of whom are insanely gifted in the sport of ping pong. However, their attitudes towards the sport couldn’t be any more different: while Smile doesn’t care much for winning, Peco most definitely takes his losses to heart. Smile’s known for not smiling, while Peco’s famous for always having a blast when he plays.

    They love the sport, but can’t be bothered to care about the official tournaments their school tries to make them join. That all changes when Chinese player Kong touches down in the country for the tournaments, while Japan’s very own Dragon takes an interest in one of our heroes.

    Pictured above: Kong, the real hero of the series.

    Like Straight Out of a Comic Book
    The first noticeable thing about this series is its art style, where everything is frenzied and frantic, and games are handily split up into panels for an easier flow of action. This works well for the show, as this zany approach makes sure a shot is never lazy. The animation’s visible flexibility complements this well – pair the characters’ exaggerated movements with the funky art style, and you've got something that’s almost like a comic book.

    Just wait 'till you see what the next issue's like.

    While nobody has any special, out-of-this-world moves, the exaggerated art style makes each play look exciting. The action is quick, smooth, and matches every bounce of the tiny ball across the miniature court. When the characters become invested in the game, so do we. At several points in the series, you start wondering if the fans are really so passionate at the games. Only in an alternate, bizarro world can ping pong be the main attraction of anything – but because there’s hardly anything normal about this series, it’s the only one out there that can show you exactly that.

    More Kamehameha than Tezuka Zone.

    Holding Out for a Hero
    For a sports anime, Ping Pong isn’t a big show, as the series only really focuses on the development of four or five characters. Where most series of sports teams would go out of their way to give everyone and their water boy a name and a sob story, Ping Pong is content with letting the story linger on its main cast.

    However, the story is only really about Peco – anyone else, no matter how compelling their story, is forced to rely on Peco’s influence and style of play to really move forward. For the first part of the series, you’re led to believe that Smile is the series’ main character. But by the time the second half rolls in – surprise! Turns out it’s been Peco this whole time.

    The problem with this main character switcheroo is that, by the time you become invested in Smile’s story, you suddenly become forced to care about his louder counterpart. Through Smile, we learn that Peco is some kind of superhero, and we’re made to believe the same – even when Peco’s done little to earn the title.

    Even following Smile around eventually becomes a chore. He's an intriguing character at first, because of his paradoxical nature alone – while he has heaps of talent for the sport, he has zero motivation to win it. But as the series goes on, and as he starts playing for real, he becomes less mysterious and more boring instead. His character gets a brief surge of life at some crucial point in the tournament, but it’s only because he’s suddenly declaring his hero worship for Peco. Just like that, we’re forced to accept Smile’s gradual fadeaway into the background.​

    If Peco says it, then it must be true.
    Like any comic book, Ping Pong is littered with larger-than-life characters, each with superhuman abilities and obligatory angsty backstories. For these guys, any moment where they’re not whacking the little ball is a moment of pain and suffering. Ping pong is serious business and nobody seems capable of enjoying life beyond it.

    Luckily, they don’t really mope for long – the frenzied pace of the games makes sure you get a breather between the lonely monologues and existential drama.

    Unfortunately, you almost wish they could delve deeper into these characters’ stories. While the show reveals much about their suffering, it hardly shows the same effort in resolving them. Characters momentarily dwell in their misery, only for them to get over it just as fast. Even main character Peco does his own fair share of moping, but rebounds fairly quickly anyway. It’s unfortunate that some of the more interesting character arcs were hurriedly resolved, in order to make way for Peco’s insecurities.

    To humanize the hero and make him more relatable was not what this series was made for. Instead, what it does is show the audience how the hero advances to save the day, despite the challenges he faces. Peco’s the main hero of the story, and the series doesn't let you forget it. Everyone, no matter how great their strengths, and no matter how interesting their stories, ends up relying on Peco to save them. It would have made for a good moral if the series had more than just eleven episodes. But because the series’ run was so short, everything had to be hurried along towards some kind of acceptable resolution.​

    Where does it all go? Why am I even here? What is life? What’s with all the fish?

    A Crisis of Moderate Earths
    One other major factor I took issue with was how rushed the series was. While the art style was something completely new and different, and there were many good set-ups to darker storylines, much of the problem lay in how these arcs were resolved.

    In the end, all this led to some very problematic morals, most prominent of which are that of the world’s cruel mentality, and the reality of talent – or lack thereof.

    Larger-than-life characters alienate anyone not on their level, and never fail to remind you that talent is the only real requirement to succeed. There’s a character here who relies on hard work and puts in a hundred times more effort than anyone else in the show – but because he has no ounce of talent for the sport, he’s gently nudged off to the side. There’s the momentary kicking and screaming in protest, but for the most part, this character grows to accept it as his ultimate fate in life. Thus, he becomes resigned to living a life of mediocrity, while his former rivals continue to glow and surpass expectations.

    By alienating the more normal characters, the audience, in turn, becomes alienated also. As the series progresses, you’ll find yourself blending in more with the crowd, instead of sympathizing with these characters as they take to the courts. By the end, we’ve all been reduced to mere bystanders in the world of Ping Pong.

    Well, someone had to say it.
    This is how the course ends for anyone else in the series not named Peco. They work their butts off to achieve something great, run into a wall, meet Peco, and then finally see the light. It wouldn’t be so problematic if Peco was a better-written character, with more presence and a less irritating personality. It would have made for a richer story if he was someone with more redeeming qualities than his talent in the sport.

    However, Peco isn’t any of these things – and yet, it’s Peco everyone looks up to. In the end, everyone ends up getting saved by Peco. Because of this problematic handling of his character, it sends out an equally-problematic message as well: if you aren’t strong enough to save yourself, then you’ll just have to wait for somebody else to come and save you.
    Or you could maybe just find a different sport to play.
    In any other show or story, it would have become easier to accept Peco for who he is. He’s a good kid with a genuine love for the sport – and because everyone else takes it so seriously, the whole series becomes a roundabout way of telling you to just live life and enjoy it. Despite your daily challenges, there’s bound to be that one hero you know who will lift you from the shadows.

    Perhaps the problem lies more with the series’ limited running time of eleven episodes. Due to its short run, not a lot of aspects about Peco were truly fleshed out – if there was anything to flesh out in the first place. At the same time, there was so much done to set-up the dark backstories of these characters, that little time was left at the end to properly resolve them.

    If only the show took its own advice.

    The Verdict
    This isn't to say that the show is completely terrible. Despite its flaws and problematic implications, it’s still a series I can recommend, if only for its different, more mature take on the sports genre. Watch the series for its funky art style, its dark portrayal of the psychological toll of sports competitions, and its compelling characters.

    At the same time, I’d advise you to watch out for its bleak commentary on personal talent, its rushed flow of events, and its lacking portrayal of main character Peco.


    And another thing – why isn’t this guy the main character again?

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