This is review number two hundred and ninety one. Holy sh*t. Is this real? I’m close to three hundred? Anyways, this is part of the Spring 2014 lineup in the noitaminA block. It’s called Ping Pong The Animation. It’s an eleven episode anime about a bunch of people training for the prelims of a ping pong match. Of course, it goes deeper than that. So much deeper than that and I think that’s one of the reasons to love this anime. Let’s read on.
This anime is about a bunch of ping pong athletes trying their best to be the best in the world. Told from different perspectives, it follows the growth of the various characters as they learn to love the game and to love life in general. It’s a show about ping pong with passionate characters to root for.
Taking the Pants Off
I have to tell you right now that the mere mention of Masaaki Yuasa directing this anime is enough to get my hopes up. The reason is simple. Yuasa is a really great director. I love his style of visual narration coupled by the story’s gripping content. He has a way of making the adaptation unique without ever doing something to it. He just runs it through a crazy filter of artistic animation. It’s a certain kind of style that actually makes him quite famous for. I first fell in love with his style when I saw Tatami Galaxy. The author’s writing is untouched but the animation tells another story as it goes rampant unchained and formless. If this is the first time you’re seeing Yuasa’s strange directorial style then you’ll really feel alienated. It’s weird for the sake of weird but it also celebrates the brilliance of animation in almost every scene it produces. He just has this strange way of providing some of the best anime experiences you’ll ever have. This site wouldn’t really exist without guys like him giving us meaningful anime experiences. So, I admire him very much. When I heard of Ping Pong club, I just smiled. I knew this’ll be one hell of an anime just by looking at who is directing this show. Ping Pong might also be a tough sport to make interesting but I’ve seen a show excite me with the sports of karuta so really this anime had all the chances to do something big. It did just that. Ping Pong The Animation is one hell of an show. It featured a pretty odd sport but made it ten times more interesting. It injected tons of drama into the plot and provided a narrative so amazing that it’ll easily captivate you. It also features some of the best developed characters you’ll ever encounter in anime. If your heart isn’t breaking while you’re gently smiling watching the last episode of this anime then there is something wrong with you. I kid, this show just really gets to me. It’s one of the few shows I finished in one sitting this year so I just really enjoyed the entire thing.
Of course, browse through the screenshots scattered all throughout this post. If you don’t like it and you aren’t fond of unconventional styles like this then it’ll really be a huge distraction for you when you try the series. Yuasa’s style might seem a bit unorthodox but it’s actually a combination of a lot of animation techniques. In this anime, there is CG animation coupled by rough sketch hand drawn frame by frame animation coupled by live action footages filtered several times. It’s complex. By not abiding to any structural character design, the animation now seems formless as you notice the amount of effort poured into making something so unconventional. Most people will just be turned off by this though. It’s a normal reaction. You could argue that most people would not recognize this as anime since there are no moe eyes or handsome guys you could ship with each other. It’s also not practical so it may be a bit hard to enjoy the show. If you do give this anime a shot then notice that the animation is really just a canvas for the story. Sort of like a pitcher for water to be contained in. Yuasa’s intent isn’t to alienate audiences but actually to make them experience a different style of visual narration. His style is whimsical. The visual oddness might capture your glance but it’s the well-constructed story and the amazingly developed characters that’ll make you stay and keep on watching. I’ll be fair, his style started out rough and really pretentious. His earlier works like Mind Game and Tekkon Kinkreet didn’t have the stable story to support all the dizzying animation but it started to become friendlier as he keeps on developing his style. Starting with Kaiba, he is able to pour emotion in his work and this eventually made his style easier to appreciate. At the end of the day, it’s the story and not the visual madness that makes Yuasa a masterful director. So don’t let the visual wrapper steer you away. The present inside is actually very lovely.
So anyways, this show is about ping pong. That’s the vague description of it. It’s really just about the game of ping pong but told through different eyes. The anime follows the different experiences of the various high school students playing the sport. They all have different styles of playing and they also have a different reason to play. They all share the same love to the sport though and this was really the main point of the show. This anime doesn’t focus on the sport itself though. While the anime still heavily feature matches, it never really went technical. They are no explanation of different hand positioning or shots. The basic rules of the games aren’t explained. Characters just play and the audience just watches it unfold. It isn’t your typical sports anime that entices the audience to play the sport as well. Ping Pong is just the game our characters love. The focus of the show is about the characters that undergo hardships, intense training, personal maturity and deeper understanding of the game and life in general. This show is interesting in the way it features its characters. It’ll lure you in with the subject of sports but it’ll keep on layering the plot with back stories, flashbacks and personal narrations that’ll really make you feel for the characters. As I said before, if you aren’t crying by the time the anime ends then there’s something wrong with you. This show has a nice way of balancing the sports element with all the drama that unfolds involving the different characters. The way it develop its characters is so amazing that even the most minor of characters was featured in a really smart way. It’s quite amazing how complex this rather simple anime is.
The focus is rather scattered though. It features a lot of characters. I think there are five or six characters featured and the show shifts from one plot point to another. The show would usually focus on the backstory of one character. The reason why he plays the game, his feelings towards it at the moment and the effort he gives forth to improve himself. The show would build up all of these things to try and develop the characters heavily. It’ll come to appoint where the audience would eventually rally behind them despite their actual role in the show. He might be a minor character, an antagonistic personality or a recognized main character. The anime will make you understand each and every one of them. The plot points leads to a climax where two characters meet each other in game. One of them will win while another will lose. As each realizes their situation, everything built up until now will then be injected in the match. The personal story the show built will be injected to create drama that makes the confrontation more memorable. The interesting part is how each side is then explored afterwards. The winner’s feelings will be taken into account while he is continually fleshed out. The losers are given the same treatment. No one is just tossed to the side. Every experience our characters taste is incorporated to the story to continually flesh them out. It’s a simple approach to storytelling but it’s really complex at the same time. After all, the show is balancing five or six plot points without it ever feeling confusing or overwhelming. The collective experiences coupled by the sports elements soon make up the wonderful content of the show.
This anime has four main plot points in it. These are the stories that were continually focused on during the entire run of the show. I said the show has five or six characters featured in it but some of their plot points were resolved rather early while these main ones eventually make up the story of the series by themselves. Ok then, the first one is about Makoto Tsukimoto. His nickname is “Smile” and he’s a rather cold person. He doesn’t care for much, he doesn’t laugh or show any other emotion and he would rather just play his video game than do anything meaningful in his life. He is part of the ping pong club though along with his childhood friend, Peco. The coach of the club soon notices that Smiles has the potential to be an amazing player but he often holds himself back because of trivial reasons. He is also a very kind player who keeps into account the feelings of his opponent in every match he participates in. He is so soft that he would even throw the entire game away just so his opponent won’t be humiliated. He claims that he just play ping pong for fun but his coach knows that’s not what he really wants. Under his guidance, Tsukimoto is given an intense reason to be better. He started training hard and soon become better at playing the game. His empathy for his opponents and the reason he doesn’t smile is eventually explored by the anime. He is a really interesting character because he is often considered a robot by other people. His uncaring personality is unusual in a game driven by passion. Tsukimoto seems to lack any passion in anything and he is just someone that prefers to run away instead of facing everything. As the show progresses, Tsukimoto’s personality changed though. The coach thinks he is destined to do big things and it seems Tsukimoto is convinced greatness is just a part of playing the game. The person everyone called a robot is now ready to unleash his best to anyone that stands against him.
Then there is his best friend, Yutaka Hoshino better known as Peco in the show. He is the happy go lucky guy that simply loves ping pong. He is also crazy talented but it was his love for the sport that the show focuses on. Peco is also really immature. In the start of the anime, he would act like a spoiled brat claiming that people who work hard at being good has no chance against the ones that are truly talented. Peco is arrogant but for all his trash talking, Peco is always crying like a child when he is defeated. Throughout the series, he would declare that he would quit his club after a humiliating loss. He would throw away the game to do something else as if lashing out like an angsty teenager. His immaturity nicely stands out as well whenever he would interact with Smiles. The other guy is super serious and the contrast between them is really what makes their friendship interesting. Peco’s immature personality gradually changes though. Upon hearing that Smiles has decided to play the sport seriously, Peco suddenly had a fire lit inside him and decided to embrace the sports once again. As I said before, no one stays the same in this anime. They experience a lot of wonderful things that make them grow into a better person. I think Peco’s personal journey is something you’ll love about the show. I honestly didn’t think much of the guy at first. I thought the anime just featured Smiles but you’ll be amazed how Peco fits in the overall picture. For such a happy go lucky, lazy and stupidly rebellious person, I think his growth is something to be really admired. It was also pretty sweet when he realized why he enjoyed playing the game in the first place.
Blood smells like iron.
This is one of the most intriguing parts of the anime for me. It’s a saying that Peco and Smiles used to talk a lot about. One of the biggest features in this show is the friendship between these two characters. I love how this particular saying changes meaning in the run of the anime. At first, it is just a nod to the robotic personality of Smiles. Since he is a robot then his blood will smell like iron. I just thought that it was a nice saying to encapsulate Smiles as a character. He was called a robot all his life so I just thought it was natural that the two best friends share this idea between them. As the show progresses though and the characters are fleshed out, this saying began to take a whole new meaning. My blood smells like iron. It’s actually something Peco and Smiles used to say when they were kids that relates to how they first met. It goes deeper than that since they both grew up playing ping pong and it also relates to their love of the sport. Smiles have also considered Peco as someone special and this saying relates to that as well. It’s really such a powerful saying and I love how the anime was able to flesh out even such a simple sentence. Anyways, this particular saying captured the relationship of the two characters. This bond between them is special because the two of them are now playing serious ping pong and it’s only a matter to time before the two of them face off with this particular saying hanging right up their heads. To be fair though, I think their relationship wasn’t featured very well. It was established early on but then it just randomly came back sometime in the middle of the story. The buildup was rather bleak as the show focuses on other characters. I honestly didn’t know where this story between friends was heading and, while there was foreshadowing of sorts, I felt like it didn’t quite give us enough to back up the emotionally charged climax this plot point had. I wish they’ve could’ve done more flashbacks and witty dialogue between the two. There were enough to get the idea of the plot point but not nearly enough to make it as masterful as the rest of the plot points in the show.
One of the better ones presented would have to be Kong Wenge’s story. He is also known as China and he was sent to Japan after not qualifying for the Chinese national team. He is a super arrogant bastard but equally as talented. He craves a good matchup and his abrasive personality refuses to acknowledge people with talent below his. As much as he is a massive d*ck in this anime, I still think he is one of the most human characters you’ll ever come across with. I say that in a sense that he fights hard, wins hard and also bleeds hard. Being sent to Japan felt like a curse to him but excelling in the Japanese ground might give him one more shot at the brass ring he failed to capture. China is considered the best ping pong country in the world so Wenge has a lot riding in almost all of his matches. This is really what makes him one of the more interesting characters in the show. He may be arrogant but, during every match he plays, the show always inject that heart breaking story of how this poor guy just couldn’t fulfill his dreams. Wenge is a character who seems to always fail at grabbing the brass rings. He presents an interesting story of those poor individuals who try to bounce back after losing hard. Wenge’s plot point is beautifully romanticized by the show. He left home, left his mother behind, failed at nationals in China, got dumped in Japan to coach a mediocre team and somehow things can’t seem to be right with his predicament. I also quite like those scenes where his mother sends him some care packages full of candy he admittedly hates. You see, Wenge doesn’t stay an arrogant prick too long. Defeat humbles a person and this happens to Wenge as well. He grows as an individual afterwards and the anime just keeps chipping away at him. He act cold towards others but that doesn’t stay long and I often find myself crying at how wonderfully presented his story is. I also find myself smiling whenever he has matches with stronger characters. The narrative is so engaging and you often feel for the guy having worked so hard yet the brass rings just keep slipping off his hands. You can’t help but just smile hoping he does better next time. Wenge is interesting though because he just takes everything in stride. He bleeds hard but the wound eventually heal and he’ll get right back up again. It gives you an idea how human this character truly is. Life might get him down but he learns from it and often comes out a better man. Gawd, that’s some deep stuff for a sports anime.
Another character beautifully presented is Ryuichi Kazama. He is also known as Dragon because of his beastly ability to out power his way to winning. Kazama is considered the best player in the series and his team is considered the best in Japan. They hold themselves in such a high standard that losing at a prelim would automatically get you kick out of the ping pong club of their school. Kazama’s school, Kaio High, has had a long tradition of being a dominant presence in ping pong scene and he is determined to keep the tradition going. Throughout the anime, he keeps on constantly trying to recruit Smiles in his team because he knows the dude has talent and his teammates lack them. Harsh but Kazama doesn’t care. Winning is all that matters and you might as well die if you don’t’ do your best to win. Kazama is portrayed as this hard ass in the anime. He trains to be better and he thinks of nothing else. Kazama is so obsessed with his ping pong that it literally consumes him. He doesn’t consider the feelings of his teammates and he also doesn’t care much for the cute girl that’s been beside him all this time. I think they’re first cousins though so I’m glad he’s consumed with other things. The show romanticized Wenge’s plot point. The anime somehow made Kazama’s very bleak and gloomy though. Kazama stands on top but he stands there alone. He is a hard ass for a reason though. He is obsessed with ping pong for a strong reason though and he also keeps up a high standard for a very important one as well. I think the image of Kazama standing alone in a bathroom stall is the perfect image to encapsulate his plot point. The reasons behind his actions is something very deep though and serious. At first, you might think it’s a bit repulsive that he would act cold towards others but the show did a good job of presenting his story. It’s heart breaking in a way but also very endearing. It’s not like Wenge’s case though where you would give a comforting smile to the dude. For Kazama’s case, you would give a pitying smile because that’s just how he is. Pitiful. Can you imagine how awesome the narrative is if the most hard ass and intimidating character in the show comes out as pitiful? Kazama is beautifully fleshed out as this unlikeable character eventual becomes an endearing force in the show.
Lastly, there is also a story concerning two Kaio High members. They’re both different but I think the content of their story is pretty much the same. It’s about people who worked hard versus people who are naturally gifted. It’s one of the main themes of the show. In the show, it is established that ping pong is a game for the naturally gifted and not the hardworking people with zero skills. This is just one side of the coin though but this is explored more closely with Manabu Sakuma and Masayuki Sanada’s plot point. Sakuma is also known as “Demon” in the story. He is a childhood friend of both Peco and Smiles. They both played in the same ping pong dojo and soon grew to love the same sport at the same time. Sakuma eventually wanted to get better so he entered Kaio High in hopes of being close to his idol, Kazama. He works hard to get better at the sport while Peco just goes around happy go lucky and Smiles thinking little of it. The tables turned though when the two began competing at ping pong championships and Sakuma learns just how big the gaping hole between him and his talented friends is. His weird eyes often distract you from it but his plot point is one of the more heart wrenching stories in the anime. He worked really hard to get where he is at and he gave his life for the sport. It’s very sad seeing this guy break apart at the thought that all he worked for his entire life is just crumbling away like a castle made of sand. He didn’t just scream out his objections, he even lashed out at others and himself. His plot point featured one of the saddest aspects of the naturally gifted vs. hardworking athletes angle of the anime.
Sanada’s plot point is more like a supporting story for Kazama’s. Sanada is the second in command for the ping pong team at Kaio but he doesn’t always agree with Kazama’s decision. He thinks that Kazama’s obsession with the sport is a bit excessive. He thinks Kazama lacks compassion for a lot of things. The fact that he just let Sakuma ruin his life just didn’t sit well with Sanada. He also doesn’t think that Sakuma should be ignoring his fine ass cousin. He has a cute girl at his side yet he is too blind to see her affections towards him. Sanada wishes to one day beat Kazama so he’ll be the one with all the glory. He’ll be a recognized athlete and he will also get the girl of his dreams. With his bushy eye brows, he swears to be better than Kazama somewhere along the lines. Sadly, Kazama is talented while Sanada worked hard to get where he is today. Much like Sakuma, Sanada is met with crushing disappointment. Unlike Sakuma though, he took his defeat in stride and eventually learn to respect Kazama and his hard ass outlook in life. Sanada’s plot point established how much of a hard ass Kazama is and I think it was also the time where the show fleshed out Kazama revealing why he strives perfection at every aspect of his life. In the long run, Sanada is really just a guy meant to be defeated by a much more important character but the show still managed to make even such a miniscule character look important.
There aren’t a lot of side characters in the show. Some of them just assume a role though but the anime still manages to make them three dimensional. There is Smile’s coach, Jo Koizumi. He’s a rather whimsical seventy plus man who is persistent on making Smiles achieve his full potential. I love his little speech of how the ball chases you while trying to convince Smiles to up his game. At the latter part of the series though, it is revealed that Mr. Koizumi is actually an accomplished ping pong player but life is funny sometimes and it plays some pretty mean tricks on people. This accomplished player is now a coach of a ping pong club training a rather talented individual. There is also this character named Obaba. It’s Japanese for “old lady” and basically, she’s just an old lady that runs the local ping pong dojo. She is a chain smoker who decided to train Peco after he had his life straightened out. Much like for Mr. Koizumi and Smiles, Obaba sees the potential in Peco and hopes to bring it out. She is also personally related to Mr. Koizumi in some way and I think their little side story is pretty fun to listen to. There is also the club president of Peco and Smiles club. I don’t remember his name but he’s the creepy dude that has his hair in a weird pigtail. He mostly just yells at other members but he also had a small scene in the show where he is working his ass off for his family. It’s also a nice way to make a character three dimensional. He really just acted like a brute in the anime but I think my heart smiled when I saw him working hard at Christmas Eve. It was a powerful scene despite lasting for mere minutes. There is also Yurie. She is the cousin of Kazama and the distant love interest. She is often seen just driving her awesome red car around. She is a local model as well who really just wants the bald headed hard ass to notice her. Sadly, all she gets is rejection. It’s sad seeing her try hard for a guy that doesn’t care. Then again, they’re cousins so it’s all good. The rest of the cast are just nameless team members or spectators. They really have no important role other than to support the main characters. With that being said, there is this one minor character that I quite like. He fought Smiles in a prelim match and lost. He then decided to go to the sea and it’s since been somewhat of a running gag to see him pursue other things. He mentioned that he and ping pong no longer agree with each other so he decided to go to the sea. He then went to the mountains and then went overseas only to end in the same place as before. It’s funny because he is really just a nobody but he seems to have this little minor story that I can’t help but love. I can tell this is Yuasa’s handiwork injecting such a character in the story but I can’t be sure since I’ve never seen the manga.
This is a really wonderful anime. I really had no doubt that Yuasa will deliver something amazing. This isn’t his first work featured in noitaminA so I just trusted the dude will stay consistent. That’s honestly the mark of a talented director and studio, for that matter. If you keep on delivering entertaining shows then you obviously know what you’re doing and exactly what your audience wants. I love the story as well though. The manga is created by Taiyou Matsumoto who also gave us Tekkon Kinkreet. I honestly did not enjoy that movie but the themes of different aspects of life are also prevalent in that movie. The way he made ping pong such an interesting subject is pretty amazing though. I’ve only ever seen one ping pong anime and I really did not like it. It’s called the Ping Pong club and it’s an old toilet humor anime. It was before Ecchi was Ecchi so it’s just one perverted anime with very little ping pong in it. I watched it as a dare. My classmate knew I love anime so he gave me three rather repulsive titles to watch. We both saw all three in one sitting and I couldn’t last watching Ping Pong Club. It was old school garbage. Don’t ask me what the other two are. Anyways, Tatsunoko Productions is really trying their best to stand out. I love that in a studio. Between Gatchaman Crowds and Ping Pong The Animation, I think this studio is something to look out for. They think differently with the shows they release. It’s a shame their releases are sporadic but they’re picking up the right momentum. I can’t wait to see their next offering. I hope it’s as awesome as these two shows. Fingers are crossed.
Sight and Sound
Character design is pretty funky. It’s a bit hard to describe but Taiyou’s character designs are always unconventional. It’s one of the reasons why I think his works matches well with Yuasa’s crazy style. I’d say they’re formless as well. They often look, I guess, more human than your typical anime or manga character. There is a huge emphasis on what a character looks like. A more realistically detailed nose, big floppy ears to the side and rather daunting details that makes a character look odd. The faces might look weird but I think the body proportions are still nicely intact. The muscles are nicely detailed and I love how each page of his manga feature complex poses that vividly capture the intensity of the matches it features. The body postures are nice and the way the racket is handled is also pretty great. He loves to be different though and I think it’s a bit distracting at times. Intentional shaky lines, inking odd spaces of the panel and the use of too many panels in a page just seems a bit overdone. Those things are just minor though since the amount of detail work in the manga is still crazily impressive. It’s a good thing Yuasa was able to capture the character design quite well and manage to create something wild with it. Worry not. There is no sign of rotoscope in this anime. The characters come from a manga and Yuasa just strain them through different crazy filters. Rotoscope is actually a lazy style of animation. Tracing something isn’t really all that great. Yuasa’s works always has effort in it and, while he does use video footages, he makes sure to do something with it than just tracing over it.
I think I’ve said too much about the animation already. As I said before, it is pretty outstanding for the simple reason that it has a lot of effort behind it. His formless style often means that a single frame would be created just to see a movement go wild. There are a lot of scenes where a character doesn’t blink and only his mouth moves but then there are also scenes where the camera follows the ball and you see every shape contort and deform as each frame passes. Doing such a technique requires detailed frame by frame animation since there is no such thing as uniformity in the movements. It’s freaking hard to do this considering the amount of effort given to just a single scene. The incorporation of different camera angles and complex ping pong movements makes it all the more complex. Yuasa ups the ante by utilizing CG movements to certain close ups, applying actual ping pong matches re-animated and still being closely faithful to the manga. It’s insanely complicated and complex. There are also certain scenes where the anime captures the visual storytelling in the manga. I mentioned the use of too many panel in on a page. The anime apply this as well by using cross panels and even multiple cross panels to narrate a certain scene. I quite love how a panel would be motionless as if you’re reading an actual manga. It doesn’t end there though. The over exaggeration of certain matches also display complex animation movements that is formless demanding frame by frame attention. As a fan of animation in general, I really love those things that really celebrate the beauty of animation and I think Yuasa’s work does just that. It often remains unappreciated though but you can easily spot effort and those who can will easily appreciate what Yuasa is doing.
I also love the way the show incorporating a fluent Chinese native to do Wenge’s voice. Seeing him speak full Chinese with Japanese subtitles on the bottom looks pretty cool. They went the extra mile to authenticate the character and I appreciate that little detail to make such a character more memorable. His trash talking in Chinese is pretty cool to listen to. Most anime would lazily just do a rough dialect by a random VA but this show took the effort to capture Wenge’s awesomeness and I appreciate it a lot.
The anime’s OP is “Tada Hitori” by Bakudan Johnny. I am freaking in love with this song. It is super energetic song about not giving up. Despite the buzzed up rhythm, I quite love how most of the lyrics are rather gloom. It talks about being stuck in a rut all alone in this world and then the last line talks about no way in hell will I ever give up. T’s a really fun song I currently have on loop while I write this review. The OP sequence is insane. It features frame by frame charcoal sketches and a few complicated animations done in crazy filters. It features the two best friends as they gear up for the prelims with a few amazing animations to accompany it. The last scene with Peco blowing a balloon bubble gum is my favorite as it features some amazing animation in it. Also notice the running scene with Peco and Smiles. Smiles run behind Peco while the scene ends with him jumping freely while the camera pans up to an airplane in the special. It’s basically a nice summary of the relationship between the two but it’s all ambiguous stuff. I love the little nod to the characters though.
The anime’s ED is “‘Ano Hero to’ Bokura ni Tsuite” by Merengue. This is a really cool song featuring the singer’s lovely voice. It really sets the pace for the song and it really stands out among other things. It’s an ambiguous song at best and I really suck at interpreting these things. The title is about a hero for all of us but I’m not sure if the lyrics quite capture that. It’s a cool song nonetheless though. The ED sequence features a rough sketch animation of a view of the sea by the highway. It has a complex animation of the landscape moving, the vehicles passing the ones the point of view is in and other things like the wild colors dancing on certain frames. I’m not sure if it’s a video footage filtered but it looks cool either way.
8/10 “A wonderful story about passionate characters experiencing life and learning how to grow as better individuals.”
The way the show balances the sports aspects with the heavy character driven story is amazing by itself. Yuasa’s crazy animation stamp is just another reason to love it even more. The complex story coupled by the simple approach to the narrative is something to really admire. If you love character driven stories then you’ll love this show. If you enjoy those shows about life and learning from it then you’ll like this show a lot. If you love sports both technical or not then I think this one will appeal to you as well. If you’re a fan of either the noitaminA block or Masaaki Yuasa then you should this one out. It’s a deep show with a lot of life lessons to ponder on. I recommend it.