By Teresa Navarro
Ping Pong the Animation is a sports anime unlike any you’ve seen before.
While many beloved series focus on the trials and triumph of a character or ensemble, Masaaki Yuasa (Devilman Crybaby, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl) dives deep into the psyche of an athlete, and illustrates the good and the bad that comes with it.
Adapted from a manga by Taiyō Matsumoto, Ping Pong follows the story of Katese High first years, Tsukimoto Makoto (Smile) and Yutaka Hoshino (Peco). While Smile has never been at the top of his game, his new training regimen takes him from amateur to almost unbeatable. Peco, on the other hand, is a true ping pong prodigy, though his vanity sometimes gets in the way of his success.
Instead of focusing on multiple teams as characters themselves, Ping Pong explores a handful of individual experiences. Throughout the course of the show, these characters grow, explore their emotions and find success in their determination.
Viewers come to know and understand Smile and Peco, but also Ryuichi Kazama (Dragon), a power player, Manabu Sakuma (Demon), an overcompensating childhood rival of Peco’s, and Wenge Kong (China), an exchange student seeking former glory.
Through these characters, Ping Pong challenges stereotypical character tropes. Imagine a sports anime that shines a light on “power schools” and humanizes them, while also playing to the underdog story common in the genre.
In Ping Pong, protagonists like Smile and Peco and antagonists like Demon and Dragon are given equal footing. They are shown to be incredibly hardworking and are packed with talent. Much like a ping pong table itself, there’s symmetry.
Montages show off the incredible animation of the series and illustrate just how long and arduous practices can be for those that want to be the best. For these players, ping pong is their livelihood, their escape or their ticket to a better future.
Through the game of ping pong, we’re shown the drive and power of Dragon, the fortitude of Demon and a path to redemption with China. But because the show goes to great lengths to show the mutual respect of the sport among the show’s “heroes” and “villains,” the concept of “good vs. bad” becomes warped.
As with any extra-curricular, school and family life can get in the way. But for some of these players, family is a priority. Characters are shown mentioning working for their family business or leaving because they have to attend cram school. Family and inter-personal relationships are important, but the series shows just how complicated balancing all of it can be.
Sports television and film often isolates characters to just their teams and coaches, and though most of these characters have families they mention, they are rarely shown, playing favor to the sport. This often causes tension if family does get involved and causes rifts between characters and their support systems.
In Ping Pong, Kong’s mom flies all the way from China to visit her son for Christmas. During her time there, her son’s entire team welcomes her and helps make dinner. Later, the team sings karaoke and his mother realizes China truly has a home in Japan. It’s an emotional arc that doesn’t ask the character to choose between his home or his love of the sport. He gets both.
Though, this isn’t always the case. While China grows closer to his team, Dragon loses sight of his loved ones. His girlfriend, Yurie, gets stood up by him on Christmas. Where is Dragon? He’s working out.
The depiction here is realistic, and not played just for drama. It shows that sacrifices, good and bad, are made for the sport because these characters live for it. This isn’t seen as Dragon being a terrible companion, but a complicated “villain.”
We later learn that he’s dealt with trauma from a young age and he’s berated to not cry, as it is “not masculine.” He deals with anxiety, but doesn’t want to seem weak, so he internalizes it.
It’s this humanization that truly elevates Ping Pong the Animation in the sports genre. Through realistic characters, artistic action and a character dynamic that challenges the status quo, the series shines.
It’s a lot more than “I want to be the best.”
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