Ping Pong is a Japanese sports series that had its humble origins with a manga by surrealist Taiyo Matsumoto, best known for Tekkonkinkreet and Sunny. The series ran between 1996-7 in the magazine Big Comic Spirits. Time passed and, lo and behold, another adaptation came to fruition. The 2002 live-action film, directed by Fumihiko Sori, was considered widely successful. The film was important in establishing Shidō Nakamura II as a bankable star, who won a Japanese Academy Award for the role of Dragon. Over a decade later, the series would resurface again as an anime called Ping Pong: The Animation. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa, often considered to be Matsumoto's anime equal, the series premiered in the spring season of 2014, quickly becoming a sleeper hit over an eleven episode run.
The story itself follows the lives of five ping pong prodigies, who are preparing to break into the professional level of competition. You have:
- Yutaka "Peco" Hoshino, the main character. A happy-go-lucky and flamboyant student who regularly skips class to go play ping pong. There's also the chance he'll skip practice with the team.
- Makoto "Smile" Tsukimoto, a stoic genius who prefers not to busy himself with the sport despite wells of untapped potential, rather taking a leisurely approach to his game and his life.
- Ryūichi "Dragon" Kazuma, the pride of Kaiō Academy. At one point, he is the undisputed #1 player in the world, thanks to an aggressive training method and play style.
- Manabu "Akuma" Sakuma, a cretin of a man who has little to no real talent. Instead, he relies on the good graces of others to advance in rankings, ultimately succeeding after joining Kaiō Academy.
- Wenge "China" Kong, a disgraced Chinese player who travels to Japan to redeem himself by conquering their league. His attitudes range from cocky when facing opponents to inviting when communicating with his Tsujido High teammates.
Like most works by Matsumoto and Yuasa, the main subject matter is not the true focus. The story takes more time to establish the four prodigies, exploring their motives for playing, their trauma and limits, and what they seek to accomplish after they win matches.
The series itself is very unique in art direction, specifically towards the manga and anime. Both apply a very cartoonish feel, utilizing minimal detail in the foreground, while having an overall realistic background. Additionally, humans take on a caricature style, appearing flat and rigid. Despite this, the feelings associated with movement are not lost.
Not to be confused with The Ping-Pong Club, though considering the style and tones of both shows, that's not going to be happening any time soon.
Ping Pong provides examples of:
- Arc Words: "The hero appears" and "Blood tastes like iron." The latter becoming the title of the last episode of the anime.
- Awesomeness by Analysis: Smile's playstyle. Against stronger opponents, he generally goes easy for the first game to feel out their shots, and then annihilates them by hitting their weaknesses over and over again until they become too demoralized to play.
- Bald of Evil/Bald of Awesome: The entire Kaiō Academy team. Granted, as shown in the series, players are allowed to grow hair should they leave the team.
- Brilliant, but Lazy:
- Most people's opinion of Smile vis-a-vis his table tennis skills.
- Peco is even more blatant, to the point where he actually loses several matches that he expected himself to be able to coast through, being on the receiving end of more than one Curb-Stomp Battle from Wenge in the first few episodes.
- Blind Without 'Em: The reason Sakuma can never excel at ping pong is his severe astigmatism.
- Canon Foreigner: Yurie, who gets introduced in the anime as Ryūichi's cousin...and girlfriend.
- Christmas Special: An unorthodox one, at best. The manga never added any scenes implying Christmas had passed. However, Yuasa and his team made sure Episode 6 changed that. The episode covers material that was in Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the second volume. In addition, it plays out how the five prodigies spent Christmas following the first tournament.
- Confusion Fu: Peco's preferred style. He doesn't conform to any established mode of play, darts all over the table, and switches up his rubber so often that it's impossible to predict his shots. Wenge notes that it's perfect for his exuberance for table tennis.
- Crippling the Competition: In Ping Pong: The Animation, Coach Koizumi shares a tale with Smile: In his youth, he ended up playing the finale of a tournament, which would have have made his career, against his best friend. Said best friend had a hurt knee and Koizumi knew he could probably win if he intentionally kept playing towards that knee with the intent of overburdening it, but chose not to and therefore lost. In the climax of the anime Smile and Peco are put against each other in the Big Game's finale, but Peco hurt his knee in the quarter-finals. The last thing we see before the match is Smile telling Koizumi "I can do it", explaining that Peco was a hero, and "Heroes dont have weak points.". Peco won anyways.
- Cool Old Lady: Obaba (Grandmother), who runs the local Ping Pong shop.
- The Dragon: How fitting Kazuma's nickname is Dragon.
- Eccentric Mentor: Both Mr. Koizumi and Obaba have their personal quirks and considered themselves "married" to their respective trainees. Bonus points to Obaba for play flirting with Peco, despite being roughly fifty years his senior.
- Family Honor: Kazuma's reason for doing everything.
- Forgot I Couldn't Swim: Peco, after meeting Sakuma on the beach.
- Gratuitous English: Played straight with Mr. Koizumi, seeing that he is the school's English teacher.
- Hard Work Hardly Works: Sakuma puts in ten times the effort of all the other major characters combined to excel at table tennis, but his astigmatism and lack of natural talent prevents him from ever surpassing them. His crappy attitude doesn't help matters, and gives Smile reason to utterly crush him when they face off.
- Holding Out for a Hero: Within the friendship of Peco and Smile. Smile's stoicism was in response to Peco's lackadaisical attitude. As such, Peco is the "hero" Smile continually fantasizes about.
- Improbable Hairstyle: Ota, full stop◊. It looks like dreadlocks meets deer antlers.
- Ironic Nickname: Tsukimoto, the resident stoic, goes by the nickname "Smile". However, it is eventually revealed that the nickname wasn't always ironic. On the contrary, Hoshino gave Tsukimoto that nickname due to the fact that he was always smiling when they were playing table tennis.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Sakuma is initially introduced as Arrogant Ping Pong Guy, but attitude aside, he is shown to genuinely care about his friends and teammates, and even literally saves Peco's life at one point.
- Lost in Translation: Peco's consistent use of puns throughout the manga created a slew of problems for translators. It was so bad for French distributors, some sections were deemed untranslatable, and their own jokes had to stand in.
- Meaningful Rename: Kong Wenge in the epilogue. Before he made the Japanese Olympic team, he became a citizen of the nation and took the name Tsujido Wenge, after his high school ping pong team.
- Messy Hair: Peco, after he quits the Katase High team.
- Nerd Glasses: Sakuma, and to a lesser extent Smile.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Peco and Smile's final duel in the anime.
- Odd Couple: The friendship of Peco and Smile. The gap of differences between the two has only grown with time.
- The Quiet One: Smile
- Quirky Miniboss Squad: Despite the team's skill, all of Kaiō Academy, excluding Kazuma and Sakuma prior to the latter's departure.
- Rapid Hair Growth: Applies to any character when they leave their team.
- One of the many nicknames Smile acquires over his life is Golgo, a reference to the main character of Golgo 13.
- When Peco takes a test, he doodles Neon Genesis Evangelion characters and quotes all over the paper.
- Two subtle references to Attack on Titan in the anime. One in the massive form that Kazuma takes in his match with Kong, the other in a popular film called "Attack On Robot", which shares not only a title, but the general synopsis of a large, inhuman beast no military can stand against.
- Sore Loser: Sakuma, in his match against Smile.
- The Stoic: Smile, in spades. His demeanor hasn't changed since elementary school, and he barely shows any emotion throughout the series.
- Sweet Tooth: Peco can often be seen with convenience store treats on his person.
- He takes it further by lambasting any stores that don't carry the foods he likes.
- Title: The Adaptation: See anime title above.
- We Can Rule Together: Kaiō Academy's consistent proposition to Smile. Surprisingly, even Mr. Koizumi, his trainer thinks the opportunity is nice.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The last part of the series touches on where the five prodigies went after after the second tournament:
- After beating Smile in the finals, Peco went on to rise through the ranks. After a series of commercial deals in Japan, he was drafted to the German national team and now plays in the European leagues.
- After coming second in the finals, Smile continued to play competitively before his retirement. He now teaches ping pong to children with Obaba at her dojo.
- Kazuma placed third in the second tournament, but returned to form with the retirement of Smile. He was drafted to the Japanese Olympic team, but was replaced by Kong soon after. He retired and now works with the family business.
- Sakuma never returned to ping pong. Instead, he married his girlfriend soon after high school and had two children.
- Kong became a naturalized citizen of Japan and took the name Tsujido Wenge. He continued playing ping pong and was drafted into the Japanese Olympic team, replacing Kazuma, and eventually attending the Olympic Games.
- You Are Not Ready: A variation is uttered by Kong during his first match with Peco (albeit internally):Kong: Nothing about you is good enough!