Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ping Pong the Animation - Review

Year: 2014
Studio: Tatsunoko Production
Genre: sport, drama, slice of life

The Spring of 2014 really stood out as a season for sports anime and the water is surprisingly deep with all sorts of fishes. I had the most expectation for Ping Pong and was most surprised by it at the end of the day. I suspect if the anime had adopted a different visual style, one that's more conventional, perhaps it would have been more mainstream, but I find the deformed and static animation oddly captivating. It's a Masaaki Yuasa anime alright, with all his trademark ugliness and visual symbolisms intact. The thing with Yuasa is that there is no one like him. His highly experimental works are meant for art houses and a small audience of esoteric taste. Likely not many people would remember him many years down the road but to the few who are open-minded enough to appreciate what he has to offer, Yuasa is truly an inspiration and a gateway to a whole different kind of world.

The best kind of sports anime doesn't just focus on the thrill of competition but also the psychological and emotional growth of the characters. Ping Pong is phenomenally written in that aspect and it ranks among the best without a question. At the heart of Ping Pong is a coming of age story told through the eyes of several individuals of different background and sporting mentality. The main duo Peco and Smile and their respective struggle ultimately drive the story, but the supporting characters are successfully developed and equally memorable. I would go as far as to say Wenge and Kazama are even more empathetic character than Peco and Smile in many instances. They are emotionally relevant and their internal conflicts make sense. And the fascinating thing is I had no idea how their stories would play out and wrap-up.

The fact remains that all characters go through considerable changes. Smile, who was very much a spectator of competitive ping pong and not a challenger, who didn't have the motivation to win, eventually comes to terms with his talent and cultivates it. At the end of the day, Smile plays because it's something he shares with Peco, and when Peco gives up on the one thing they both thought important to their world, the one thing that fostered their friendship, Smile feels disappointed and betrayed. Of course, all this seemed rather ambiguous until Smile reveals that his hero is none other than Peco. He reveres him and firmly believes in his strength because it was Peco who first showed him strength by being brave enough to challenge the bullies. 

Then enters Kong Wenge, the game changer and the catalyst. By completely and utterly crushing Peco during their first confrontation, he sends Smile and Peco off to a different path – however temporarily – from the one they were previously on. I think Wenge has one of the most badass anime entrance ever – cocky, and entitled to be, and completely overwhelming in presence. There is a certain thrill, albeit cruel, in watching him dominate and tower over Peco. But right when we are basked in the illusion of absolute strength, Wenge is knocked down from his pedestal by a unexpected, ego-crushing defeat, and we are keenly reminded no one is good enough to be infallible, even the best will be one day be out-played, out-talented and surpassed. 

Here is a fascinating observation, Smile does believe in an infallible hero, one without weakness and more importantly one not allowed to have weakness. When Smile plays Peco as his final opponent in the last round of the inter-high tournament, he pushes Peco to the edge in order to rekindle his competitive spirit even at the cost of injury. Peco is Smile's hero whom he immortalized. His belief, almost warped and naively idealistic, seems to contradict the other statement the story makes – in that defeat is both inevitable and acceptable, as illustrated by Kazama. For the better part of the story, Kazama comes off as a forbidding guy whose approach to the sport is overbearing and devoid of emotions. It's obvious he doesn't enjoy the games even though he strives to be the strongest. He is drowning in the fear of defeat, the kind of fear that traps him in the mentality that winning is the only purpose to any competition. I suppose Kazama also finds a hero in Peco but for a completely different reason than Smile. Through playing Peco and eventually losing to him, Kazama is freed from his cage of fear. Defeat erases his burden and grants him freedom to enjoy the game for what it is. 

The concept of heroism has many facades in Ping Pong and that nuanced exploration makes Ping Pong such a fascinating show. As I already said, it's a decidedly ugly show in style, yet it's so breathtakingly beautiful and oddly moving at times, like when Wenge sings with teammates during Christmas or when Peco opens the locker door to find Smile inside. I have to say Wenge is probably my favourite character. He's cool, edgy, brimming with confidence but still humble enough to accept his own shortcomings. Pretty much every scene with him in it is spot on. The ending adds another interesting spin to the story. Smile does not become a professional player but Peco does, and Kazama gets replaced by Wenge in the Olympics due to "injury". Maybe winners can only be birthed from a marriage between talent and motivation.

No question to it, Ping Pong is one of a kind. It's incredibly under-budgeted but makes excellent use of what it does have – a talented, imaginative and risk-taking team.

Overall Score: 9/10

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