“It’s stupid to stake your life on table tennis. I just don’t get it. It’s revolting.”
So says Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto in episode three of Ping Pong, an anime about people staking their lives on table tennis. As this quote might suggest – and as its unconventional animation confirms – Ping Pong isn’t the sort of sports anime interested in presenting an exaggerated, hyperdramatic version of its subject matter. While the series from Tatami Galaxy director Masaaki Yuasa isn’t above embellishing reality – an early episode features someone identifying a ping pong player’s prowess from the rooftop above their in-progress match – its primary focus is filtering an array of rich coming-of-age narratives through the titular sport.
The first thing you’ll notice about the show, though, is its distinctive animation. Rather than adopt the largely homogenous studio style of most contemporary anime series, Ping Pong is uniquely wrought from a combination of hand-traced motion capture, traditional hand-drawn animation and occasional CG. The net effect is antithetical to the sleekness of those aforementioned contemporary series, instead assuming a crude, almost deliberately ugly style. It might not be pretty – and it’s certainly not going to be to everybody’s tastes – but it’s incredibly expressive throughout.
Let’s get into specifics. As opposed to the typical rhythms of Japanese animation – a hodge-podge of fluid movement and cost-cutting stills – Ping Pong has a restless, stop-start rhythm that feels perfectly attuned to table tennis’ similar pacing (the parabolic, breakneck swoop of the miniscule ball; the dull thwack of rubber-on-plastic). Images are regularly splayed across the screen in splintered fragments; where split-screen is typically used to contrast moving images from different perspectives, Ping Pong instead freezes earlier frames as though recalling its manga source material.
Fundamentally, the success of the animation is in its simplicity. Having established three core table tennis teams, Yuasa uses a straightforward colour palette to distinguish them: our initial protagonists, Smile and his childhood friend Peco, are coded in blue-and-white of their Katase team. Chinese migrant Kong Wenge joins a team clad in brilliant orange and hard blacks, while the formidable, wealthy Kaio team – lead by the intimidating “Dragon”, Kazama – are inevitably emblazoned in rich purples. Nothing especially innovative here, of course, but as the series progresses – and the lines between characters and teams are irrevocably blurred – the colour palette gradually matures, with such distinctions increasingly irrelevant both narratively and visually.
That same simplicity is shared with the show’s narrative arc, driven by careful characterisation. While we spend plenty of time watching ping pong matches, as one would expect, the focus is not the particular details of the techniques or the strategy of the match, but how these contests inform their competitors’ personal growth. Simple, resonant themes of friendship, dreams, talent, depression and ambition are executed with rare nuance. Instead of setting heroes and villains against one another, Ping Pong’s approach is inclusive and thoughtful; for example, Kong’s initial arrogance eventually gives way a generous sensitivity, and Kazama’s apparent success – both on the court and as a businessman offcourt – goes hand-in-hand with crippling anxiety.
In fact, the psychologically-complex consideration of adolescent ambition reminded me most of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – not so much the whole thing as its insight into Hal’s attempts to balance his tennis talent with typical teenage challenges. Like Infinite Jest, the show reveals how psychologically damaging an intense focus on sport can be, and how it goes hand-in-hand with stark isolation – though it’s ultimately far more optimistic about the role sport can play than Wallace’s novel. The show also recalls Kiki’s Delivery Service – though maybe just because I rewatched that movie recently – in how it leverages a simple premise to enable a profound reflection upon the reality of teenage dreams.
As these comparisons suggest, Ping Pong is far from just another sports anime – in fact, it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve seen this year. Strongly recommended.