I have decided my on-going posts about the work of Masaaki Yuasa will be called the Yuasa chronicles. It is something I can use to justify calling this a series of posts and then due to this it motivates me to continue. I haven’t seen all the works of Yuasa so this also motivates me to remedy this and as new works come out I can add them to. I was also thinking of doing a piece combining a couple of his one episode things like Space Dandy or Adventure Time. None of that matters today though, cause today, today we are talking about Ping Pong.
First off, we have to start at the beginning so I have to mention how badass this shows intro is. I normally am not into the whole metal cool guy intro, I am one of the few people who wasn’t a big fan of One Punch Man S1's OP.However, this one is just unbelievably cool. It uses multiple art styles, but the stark black and white one that goes first is my favorite. Then it switches into a almost pencil like style that becomes more and more detailed, there is just a lot to like about this OP.
Just like with The Tatami Galaxy, with Ping Pong I plan on working my way through the show bit by bit exploring relationships and events until the end when I reveal the grand truth about the universe Ping Pong has to tell. First off though I have to talk about the art style and the animation. When I started watching this show originally I was turned off by the simplistic almost childish art style. What I realized when I tried to watch it the second time around (yes this is the second Yuasa work it took me two tries to get through) was that the art style allowed the characters to be incredibly expressive and the animation for a TV show to be uncharacteristically smooth. Of course they still used common tricks like a slide show format at times some of the ping pong matches are gorgeous due to the expressions competitors are able to make and the smooth flow the matches have at their best.
[SPOILER WARNING GOING FORWARD, THE SHOW IS GREAT GO WATCH IT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT]
There are to me four main characters of interest in Ping Pong. Of course the two main characters in Peco and Smile are two of those characters. Also though there is the Chinese ping pong exile commonly referred to as China and the ping pong prodigy with the weight of the world on his shoulders in Kazama, also commonly referred to as Dragon. All of these characters in the shows short 11 episode season go through their own set of trials and tribulations. Despite longer shows failing to develop characters each one of these characters we truly get to know through our short window into their life.
China is coming from a place that not a lot of people have experienced. He is trapped in a land that is foreign to him, doing something that could change the course of his entire life. He gets to Japan and believes in his superiority and natural ability to easily get him to the top, ignoring the people around him. However, when he finally goes to the tournament he faces off against Dragon and something unbelievable happens to him. He loses. He needed to be flawless to earn his spot back on the Chinese team and he came to Japan and lost. This is a humbling moment for China, who now starts to actually work with his teammates and try to help them improve and forms bonds with the people in Japan.
He trains harder and harder trying to go further and faster and better, but in the end it isn’t enough. He still loses, but along the way he realizes, that his poor mother and upbringing doesn’t define him. He realizes how lucky he is at the opportunity he has been given and the loving support that he gets from his mother. After the show has it’s time skip it shows that eventually China realizes his dream and has made the Chinese Olympic team.
Dragon is inevitable, or at least that is how he is portrayed early on in the show. A ping pong playing machine who has been raised since birth to become the single greatest player in the sports history. He has been raised and dealt with high expectations his whole life, and eventually that gets to a person. Dragon plays ping pong to make his family proud. He has an entire company resting on his shoulders and that is what makes him how he is. He has to keep working because stopping would mean failure, one loss means total failure. However, when that one loss finally comes, it isn’t anger or grief that Dragon feels, it is relief. Dragon doesn’t continue to play ping pong after the time skip, he moved on. He never truly loved ping pong and now he gets to do other things with his life, has escaped that pressure. Good for him.
Now to take a look at the core of Ping Pong which is the relationship of Smile and Peco. Smile and Peco have been friends since they were little, Smile was picked on and actually got the nickname Smile because he never actually smiled around most other kids. However, with Peco he became quick friends, Peco would save him when possible, would be his friend, would make him smile where others couldn’t. Peco taught Smile ping pong and for years could beat him with ease. However, with their natures, by the time the show starts Smile can win, but he always lets Peco win.
Even their ping pong style was a big indicator of their personality. Smile is robotic, calmly hitting the ball back from well beyond the table, time and time again. He never presses, he just waits for the opponent to make a mistake. He has always been robotic and Peco has always been the one that saved him. Just like The Tatami Galaxy the relationship is what anchors the show especially in the case for Smile. He relied on Peco and we later realize that so many of Smile’s weird little idiosyncrasies tie into his relationship with Peco. His waiting for the Hero’s return (more on this in a minute), his humming, the flashbacks to someone wearing a mask. His relationship with Peco is incredibly important to Smile even if he will almost never actually show that.
Peco is different though, as good of friends as he and Smile are, Peco acts indifferent and rude to Smile at times. He takes for granted their relationship and only really comes around on this towards the end of the show. The other main theme of the show is the Hero’s return, an event christened as such by Smile, likely inspired by his video games. He is waiting for the triumphant return of the long dormant hero, a hero who in this case is Peco. Peco used to love ping pong, with everything that he had, he worked extremely hard to improve. Eventually though he quit trying to grow. He would beat up on people he knew he could beat and never challenge himself. He had such a fragile psyche, and their relationship had worked in a different way for so long that Smile even though he knew he could win would let Peco win.
Peco’s fall came when he lost, and not to just anyone, to someone he used to absolutely school growing up. Peco used to love ping pong, and now it was just something he did to pass time. The hero’s return is when Smile sees that Peco again that changed his life and saved him, the one who never let his passion go. It takes time, but after the loss, Peco realizes that he still loves ping pong and begins to train to try and become the best again. In the semifinals of the tournament, we see Peco and Smile face off, and Smile knows the Hero has returned. Peco has regained his passion and his infectious love for the sport.
The themes of Ping Pong are two fold to me, first up like Tatami is the power of relationships, a common theme for Yuasa. However, there is also an aspect of living your life to the fullest and loving what you do. That passion and pure joy you get when you do something you love is something that you never want to lose and I’ve never seen anything convey this as well as Ping Pong. A story about something so simple as some guys playing ping pong, but it is one of the most emotionally expressive anime that I have ever seen. This show is a perfect example of how it doesn’t matter the medium or the driving force of your story, it can still tell a beautiful tale. Ping Pong the animation, like Tatami Galaxy is one of the best anime of it’s generation and it is something that people should be watching for a very long time.