Great stories are never really about their chosen subject; to that end, great sports anime are never really about a given sport. Hence the reluctance many people have when asked to watch something like Hajime no Ippo or Princess Nine (or most anything by Mitsuru Adachi) when they have no interest in boxing or baseball; hence the way people are bowled over when they finally do watch those shows and realize calling them "sports anime" is like calling The Hustler a "pool story", or Hoosiers a "basketball movie", or Million Dollar Baby a "boxing picture", or what have you. The label is wholly misleading.
Likewise, Ping Pong is not a "ping pong anime". As with all those other stories, the sport in question is just the arena in which the main characters confront themselves, each other, and destiny. I went into Ping Pong knowing (and caring) nothing about ping pong, and came out realizing that might well have worked in my favor. Calling this a "sports show" only gets in the way, and so it's a shame that's what most people will be inclined to call it when it is so much more.
Boys at play
Most sports stories center around someone of burning ambition and great natural talent. Ping Pong breaks from that somewhat by having its focal character, Makoto Tsukimoto (nickname: "Smile"), be anything but burning with ambition. He's a talented ping pong player, among the best in the table-tennis club at Katase High School, but uninterested in competition. Sports is at least as much about playing the other guy(s) as it is about playing the game, something no less true in ping pong as it is anywhere else. Smile — so nicknamed because that's the one thing he almost never does — is only interested in the sport, and not really in other people to begin with.
With one exception: "Peco", or Yutaka Hoshino, Smile's one childhood friend, as bratty, brash, outgoing, and show-offy as Smile is reticent and reserved. He's skilled, too, but takes his skills for granted, and doesn't realize just how sore a loser he can be when facing down someone who is genuinely better. Such is the case with Kong Wenge, or "China", the transfer student from abroad who lost his spot on his own team, and directs his seething anger and shame back at his opponents. Being matched up against someone like Peco, whom he sees as beneath him, only stokes his anger all the more; and Peco has to deal with the humiliation of being beaten so casually. (He doesn't handle losing well.)
The dynamic between Smile and Peco takes up the majority of the show's time and attention, filled in with flashbacks to their childhoods and fantasy sequences. In most shows, this would feel obligatory or indulgent; here, it actually serves a function — to show us how close Peco and Smile really are, even if we don't always see it ourselves. Case in point: at the end of the first episode, when Peco and Smile ride the train back home from Peco's crushing defeat at the hands of China, Smile seems more interested in his hand-held video game than in his friend's painful loss. But we can see from how deeply the two of them have shared the game — how Peco taught Smile the game, and made it one of the highlights of his life — that this isn't what it seems. Perhaps Smile's presence alone is more than enough for Peco, who needs an ear to vent into.
The other side of the table
This is the sort of next-order storytelling that anime excels at when it chooses to delve into it, and Ping Pong derives its strengths as a story from taking this approach. Consider the captain of the team for rival school Kaio, Ryuichi Kazama (a/k/a "Dragon"), sporting a shaved head (including his eyebrows) and an eye for getting Smile to join his own, lavishly funded, professionally supported team. Why waste such evident natural talent with a gang of losers, chaired up by, of all people, an English teacher (the pleasantly loopy "Butterfly Joe")?
Dragon also isn't the monster that his nickname would imply. Outside of ping pong, he has a girlfriend, Yurie, who serves as the model for the company sponsoring his team, although his connection with her is more platonic than anything else — either because she's his cousin, or (more likely) because an emotional attachment on that level would get in the way of his A-game. Likewise, Dragon is at least as concerned about doing right by his kindly mother as he is restoring his prestige in the eyes of his teammates. As with Hajime no Ippo, the net effect is that we care at least as much about the antagonists as we do the protagonists, and it becomes the story of all their struggles, not just about a hero beating villains.
But a story with a protagonist — and what good story won't feature one? — is ultimately about that person's development first and foremost. Smile is the center of the story, and the real nature of his struggle is soon made clear: his lack of ambition and emotional detachment are strategies, ways to make shallower the wounds inflicted upon him by the world. Peco's not afraid to hurt, or to be hurt; at one point he hurls himself off a bridge in despair, only to have someone else haul him out — and bawl him out.
As close as Peco is to Smile, he's the wrong person to try and amp up Smile's ambitions by way of some of that sort of tough love. That job falls to Butterfly Joe, at least as good a player as any of his boys despite his age. He's only too happy to push Smile to his limits — even if, as the old lady who runs the local ping-pong center hints, it's a way for him to recapture some of his own lost youth than anything else. But the real test of Smile's growth is not in whether he becomes a better player and wins the intramural tournament where Dragon and China and a whole host of other opponents await him (including, predictably enough, Peco). It's about how Smile, and Peco, both go from seeing ping pong as something you win to something you play, from seeing the game as a way to prove yourself to seeing the game as a way to express yourself. That makes the victories that do happen all the more significant, because they're about triumphing over the most daunting opponent of all: the fellow in the mirror.
Masaaki meets Matsumoto
Ping Pong has garnered at least as many complaints as it has praise for its look and feel, and saying that it's just a reflection of the Taiyo Matsumoto manga that was the source material for the show doesn't always quell the complaints. Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkreet, Sunny, Blue Spring) is one of those artists people either love or hate, and often for the same reasons. His work is deliberately rough, sometimes distractingly so, especially for those weaned on the polished, CGI-generated lines that has become synonymous with the anime look over the last decade. But Matsumoto's work also never lacks for the details that matter — the direction of a glance, or the way a scene can be fancifully visualized (as in a moment when Dragon transforms into his namesake). Even the inevitable Christmas episode — which also serves as a way to provide further sympathy for Kong Wenge — is a cut above the ordinary, thanks to its inventive visualizations and editing.
One could scarcely have paired Matsumoto's design work with a better director than Masaaki Yuasa, he of Mind Game (easily the greatest and also least-known animated film of modern times), Cat Soup, The Tatami Galaxy, and that infamous Samurai Champloo episode where they set fire to the marijuana field and everyone got stoned out of their minds. He loves to use animation as a way to make time and space both plastic, and those tendencies suit him well to a story where the world slows to a crawl, for both characters and audience, when the tip of a paddle misses a ball. Another visual trope, the use of split-screen and multiple frames, would be easy to call a hearkening back to the story's manga origins, but I took it another way: a stylized way to compare and contrast. Those stylizations are also thoughtfully racked back when they're not needed, so they become illustrative, not overbearing. (One of the hallmarks of a great artist as opposed to just a clever one is that he also knows when to stop.)
Ping Pong's look and design choices also forced me to admit the move to digital production techniques in animation are, like all technologies, neither good nor bad, but also not neutral. In the right hands they can do wonders; in the wrong hands, turn stomachs. It's plain many shots have a generous amount of digital assistance, e.g., mapping hand-drawn work to computer-generated environments so the camera can travel freely throughout. It's remarkable how much consistency there is between the analog and digital elements. At one point there's a shot that zooms out and out and out from a character's face, and I realized that in a lazier production the thicknesses of the lines would have varied depending on the degree of the zoom. Here, they're the same thickness at every step, the sort of thing that would have required laborious redrawing in a pre-digital era.
Being a good sport
In English-speaking territories, sports anime tend to get shorter shrift than other anime generally. This seems to come down to two things: a) prospective audience members aren't interested in sports to begin with, or b) they are, but they'd rather watch/play the real thing (or even a digital simulation of it) than watch an anime about it. Part of me hopes the tide has turned at least partway on this parochialism, what with shows like Yowamushi Pedal (cycling), Free! (swimming), and Kuroko no Basuke (shootin' hoops) getting both audience attention and acclaim. That's not even counting other competitive-activity shows that aren't "sports", but often fall into that bucket by default for lack of any other way to discuss them: Hikaru no Go, Chihayafuru, etc.
I'm rarely immune to this sort of prejudice myself. The main reason I originally watched Ping Pong was because of the caliber of talent involved. Yuasa and Matsumoto could have made a show about competitive underwater basketweaving and I would still have turned out for it. Not that I would have been able to pitch the results to anyone else based on their starpower alone; why the presence of those names on a project means something is far more important to most people than the mere fact of them. But the fact that this is a "sports show" is likely to be more of an obstacle than any of the names involved would serve as an attraction.
Such a reaction seems similar to the way (mostly male) audiences rarely learn how shōjō and jōsei titles have some of the most rewarding emotional material, because all they see is a "girls's show". Ping Pong is a "sports show" if only for lack of any other label, and maybe that's the problem. The "sport" part of the story is the one thing most easily latched onto, most easily used to sum up what it's about, when the truth is so much larger and more interesting than that.