Ping Pong the Animation is an adaptation of Taiyō Matsumoto's manga Ping Pong. Unlike the previous two entries in "First Impressions" Ping Pong is not a comedy, but rather a straight coming of age story focused on the life and times of main protagonist Makoto Tsukimoto. A member of his high school's table tennis team, Makoto begins as an aloof, withdrawn boy with an impressive talent for the sport but little drive to play it competitively. With insistent nudging from his coach and the ignition of his inner fires (however subtly at first) by the emergence of a rival, however, Makoto begins to play progressively more seriously. This series may have seen a release schedule with holes big enough to sail an aircraft carrier through (the anime adaptation came out just shy of 17 years after the manga had ended its original run and about 12 years after a live action film adaptation), but I really think that there's something to be seen here. Provided through Hulu by FUNimation, directed by Masaaki Yuasa, and animated by Tatsunoko Production Co., Ping Pong is back and ready to show us what it can do.
Animation/Visual Effects, Illustration
If you're ever looking for an example of what anime looks like when the animation is the main focus, where fluid motion is present in nearly every frame and floods the foreground (and often the background) in an attempt to create as much of a true to life experience as the budget will allow, this would be a good one to point to. The animation in Ping Pong is not perfect, nor is it the best out there. Closeups are often used to cut down the amount of things to be animated at once, background sequences are kept simple and recycled frequently, there's some choppiness every now and then as frames don't line up, and there are still points at which people in the foreground and background seem to turn into statues. However, for the most part Ping Pong is lush with beautiful, flowing animation which accounts for so much more than the typical anime does. Clothing and hair are rustled by the wind in smooth motion, limb movements and facial twitches are neatly depicted in logical sequences, water bends and trickles about naturally, lip flaps have been eschewed for genuine folding and bending (with teeth, no less), it's not hard to see that the animation is where the heart and soul of this production was. This anime was, in terms of animation, a thing of beauty. A rare gem that is not to be missed.
Amazing animation quality didn't come without a price, however. The background art, detail, and character designs are kept very simple to allow for more affordable and efficient animation, and there are plenty of points where the outlines aren't as neat and smooth as is more typical. In fact, there are points where there is absolutely no background at all, or where the background is essentially some shape whose features have barely been defined. The style will likely come off to some as enjoyably realistic (if a bit constrained), but to others it might look quite grainy and plain. Worthy of note, however, is that the character designs are actually more human looking, with gigantic sparkly eyes taking up about 1/3 of faces' surface area replaced with ordinary ones, noses being granted features like bridges and nostrils, and mouths actually featuring lips and teeth. By making decisions like this Ping Pong makes itself stand out quite a bit, and more often for the right reasons.
The story for this series is fairly straightforward as of its third episode: a quiet, withdrawn boy (Makoto) with a talent for table tennis starts out lacking drive and focus, instead preferring simply to play the sport casually as a member of his high school's team. The team's coach, noticing that a member isn't capitalizing on his talents, sets up a customized practice regimen for Makoto and hounds him to follow it strictly. Upon the arrival of a rival from China Makoto is given the challenge he needs to at least try his hand at playing competitively, but emotional baggage continues to hold him back from doing so in earnest. Meanwhile, a rival school's team is plotting to snatch Makoto away for the benefit of their own competitiveness.
In all it's written so that things flow naturally and at the pace they might reasonably be expected to, but this won't be an anime people who enjoy quick jumps between plot points will be likely to have fun with. Ping Pong, while reasonably well-written, is compelled by its subject matter to explain and develop its plot slowly. There are portions which beat the audience over the head with their points, like the contrast between Peco's childish rambunctiousness and Makoto's calm, progressively increasing maturity being accented by the former's constantly scarfing down candy and bringing a giant lollipop to practice one day. They'd might as well have pulled out a megaphone and shouted "Get it? He's immature! This is your foil for Makoto's progression into maturity and seriousness, understand? Okay, good!" This kind of thing is made up for by the rest, however, and I give them credit for their use of flashbacks to Makoto having been trapped in a locker by his classmates and being released by a shadowy "hero" figure (presumably simultaneously his mentor and his personal goal for himself).
As for the characters themselves, they're pretty good overall. Makoto is not exciting, interesting, or relatable to me, but he's fine as a character. I understand that Makoto is supposed to be withdrawn, quiet, boring, and aloof, that he's supposed to progress from being half-hearted about his talents and table tennis to a serious player with plenty of passion over the course of the series. In fact, at the end of the third episode we start to see just that happening. Makoto is sticking up for himself and his approach to opponents, he's playing with zeal and interest, and although he experiences some regression it's clear that he's made progress and will return to that passion again. Coach Koizumi is also fine, fulfilling his role as Makoto's guidepost and spurring him along as needed. Peco is there primarily to bang the audience over the head about Makoto's progression as I've previously explained, so he's less worthwhile as far as I'm concerned. I can't say much about Obaba about since she's hardly explored in the first few episodes outside of exposition, and what exposition we are given about her is pretty vague and general. Kong is an effectively set up rival with perfectly reasonable motivations and just enough sneering arrogance to position him as the "bad guy" while avoiding making him out to be nothing else.
This, I think, is where the anime suffers the most. While the music effectively delivers the mood for the most part it's really pretty generic and uninteresting. It's not badly made, and it does what it's supposed to do for the series, but there aren't any tracks I found stuck in my head later. None of it really stood out, not even the upbeat and energetic opening theme "Tada Hitori". I think the thing I'd complain most about is the long spat of humming toward the end of the second half of episode three. That went on way too long, sounded way too bad, and accomplished nothing that the visuals and dialogue weren't already accomplishing. It didn't contribute to the mood, it didn't add anything to the emotional power of the scene, it was noise. Annoying noise.
Uchiyama did well as Makoto as of episode three, but I think his real opportunity to shine lies a bit further in the character's progression than that point. Yusaku Yara (real name Susumu Kawabe) is entertaining in his delivery for Coach Koizumi, simultaneously capturing the character's serious commitment to Makoto's advancement as a player and his playful, humorous side. Katayama is a bit over the top, but that seems to simply be how Peco was written. I don't really know Chinese, but Yexing seemed to be doing a good job as Kong as well. Overall the acting wasn't anything remarkably good, but it was good.
Animation/Visual Effects 9.5/10
Music/Sound Effects 5/10
Personal Enjoyment 6/10
Overall Score 7.5/10
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