Leave it to a series from 1996 to blow everything else out of the water.
I had a thought to myself that Slam Dunk is pretty much the cream of the crop when it comes down to sports manga. Even in general, I disregard sports series mostly because of one thing: Predictability. This is sort of the reason why the certain niche that accompanies a series is important when deciding if I should give something a go. Then again, this is just me being biased as ever. However, you can’t deny that many sports series and its conflicts are obviously predictable. In Slam Dunk’s defense, they won their last game but they didn’t make it to the finals.
However all that stuff about sports don’t apply to this series. Ping Pong is different. While it most certainly looks like a sports series, it’s something more.
You know I would take this post into the philosophical tier of review but I honestly don’t feel like spoiling anything for any potential watchers.
Ping Pong focuses on a Deuteragonist style of storytelling. It revolves around Hoshino Yukata (Peco) and Tsukimoto Makoto (Smile), two highschoolers who simply love the game of ping pong. The two friends could not be anymore different from each other in terms of personality and motivations but they somehow get along very well. They join their school’s team and Smile is constantly present while Peco is off playing people for money. Things heat up for the competitive year when another school hires an ex-national league ping pong player from China, Kong Wenge, to coach their team. Kong has his own motivations to come here, and that’s to regain his pride and return home to join his team again. Peco is given the first taste of professional defeat when Kong effortlessly defeats him. When the competition begins, Peco and Smile breeze through their competition but are by defeated by an old friend of theirs and Kong himself respectively. After their respective losses, the two part ways and begin a journey that will define their lives.
This is without a doubt, the most character driven series I’ve ever reviewed. This will understandably be the bulkiest portion of this post.
- Peco: Symbolizing great talent and arrogance, Peco is only half of the protagonist duo in the series. Peco is lively, confident, is somewhat of a poor sport when he loses, and most crucially, thinks he doesn’t need to practice. Suffering losses against Kong and then later his old friend Sakuma, Peco gives up the game and wanders around until he comes back to his senses when Sakuma of all people tells him that Peco is capable. Peco’s tale is that of the underdog, the talented prodigy who thought he was at the top is taken off his pedestal not once but twice. His journey is to overcome his pride.
- Smile: While having great talent and the modesty to show up to practice, Smile is the opposite of Peco in terms of goals. While Smile has the skills to rival Peco, he lacks the motivation and drive and win. As Peco began to practice less and less, Smile’s ever rising ability reached the heavens. Seeing as though his only match began to deteriorate. he began to lose his passion for the sport he loved to play. Smile’s journey is actually a two parter. Smile’s nickname is a joke as Smile, in the eyes of many, does not smile. Smile’s robotic like personality and view on life tag into his talent of ping pong, the only thing he seems to enjoys. His journey is to find motivation and also break free of his robotic view.
- Sakuma Manabu: A friend of Peco and Smile from their younger days. Sakuma, nicknamed Akuma, started playing ping pong the same time the duo did but eventually parted ways with them, joining a highschool known for its ping pong club. He reunites with them at the day of the national competition and definitively defeats Peco. Akuma looks up to his team captain, Kazama and the latter’s fascination at Smile’s skills prompts Akuma to challenge Smile and lose to him, ending his career in ping pong. Akuma really hit home some messages in sports. It’s not all about skill and practice when you don’t have the talent to be truly great. His wake-up call to Peco is what prompts the latter to finally return to the game. In the end, he remains a friend.
- Kong Wenge: I was initially surprised at the extremely fluent Chinese being spoken, even more so when Kong began to sing in Japanese later on. Storywise, Kong is the instigator of the entire series as his arrival begins the long journey of self searching amongst the characters. Kong hails from China and was previously part of the National team. His failure however gets him kicked out and he is hired as a coach to a school. His goal in Japan is to beat the strongest player to return to China as soon as he can. While starting out as a very callous person, his loss against Kazama humbles him immensely. Kong is the first person to develop the change every else eventually goes through. The students he once ridiculed, the country he compared to hell itself, becomes a home away from home for him. As he begins to warm up to the student, their appreciation towards him and his visiting mother grows on them too. He becomes a genuinely likable character as the series progressed.
- Kazama Ryuichi: Serving as the “Boss” at the end of the stage, Kazama was the mountain the characters would have to overcome. His skills were able to best Kong, the strongest player at that time, and Kazama’s name was set in stone as the most skillfull player in the series. His motivations are revealed during the time everyone goes through their change as well. The death of his father meant that the weight of his name and his extended family’s business came down on him. For his family’s sake, Kazama became the best at ping pong, but soon saw playing as a job, an obligation. It stopped becoming fun, it ceased to be just a game for him.
- Side characters: On the background of this emotional rollercoaster, we got the coaches for Smile and Peco. Koizumi is the one to awknowledge the talent within Smile and decides to train him whether he likes it or not. While Smile is not appreciative of the help, it’s only after his loss against Kong that makes Smile accepts his passionate coach and follow through the mindset of wanting to win. Obaba owns the ping pong dojo that the Protagonist trio learned to play and she trains Peco after his life changing moment after Christmas. The two have a strange way of acting like they’re “married” to the players they’re coaching. They share a past with the founder of the Kaio academy. Koizumi, or better known as Butterfly Jo, had let his friend win on purpose because of a bad leg and his friend would go to find Kaio. The three’s relationship as and how the new generation reflects on them was a cool thing to see. Special mentions also go to Kong’s understanding coach and Club captain Ota who started out as a condescending upperclassmen who later becomes a cool guy.
So as you can tell, it’s a clash of emotion and motivation going on with Ping Pong. We have our 5 distinct players with distinct personalities and reasons for playing. While the series is called Ping Pong, the game itself is mostly a medium for the ideals and passions to clash against one another. So strictly speaking, it’s not really a sports series since they really don’t go over any sort of special techniques, abilities, and all that usual stuff when regarding sports series.
While I’m usually never the one to talk about music and art, I have to go out on a limb to clarify something here. While many people disregarded this series primariliy because of its looks, with the amount of movement the series has, I think this style has to be for the best. In it’s barest minimum, you don’t need beautiful art to tell a beautiful story. Sure, you’d want the best visuals possible but why let that detract you from the experience? Then again, what I’m saying is kind of hypocritical since I do tend to dismiss things on how they look. I guess I’ll just say this applies to some older shows than the new ones.
The amount of development that our characters undergo in a span of 11 episodes was something I wouldn’t have expected. Kong’s character being an understandably “fallen from grace” character becomes one of the highlights of one of the best scenes in the series. Seeing our characters develop through grueling training, passionate victories, and crushing defeats is something I honestly cannot do justice with just words. I could go on but this is one of those series that you can only see the full meaning of when watched.
In the end, the series itself came completely out of left field for me but lifted itself to be one of the most exciting things I’ve ever happened to watch. I don’t care what you think of numerical scores, Ping Pong get’s a 10/10, why not. It has more heart and passion than anything else out there.