Ping Pong is an adaptation of a Taiyo Matsumoto manga that ran in Big Comic Spirits during the mid 90’s. Essentially, it’s the story about Peco and Smile, two close friends with different attitudes toward life who are both very good at ping pong. Peco (Kubozuka Yosuke) is our loud, boisterous hero who, although good, doesn’t go to practice anymore, and generally coasts on his talent. Smile (Arata), nicknamed that because he never does, is the very silent type. He views ping pong as a way to kill time, and although he’s extremely talented, he doesn’t like to take the game very seriously.
That Ping Pong is one of the best sports movie I’ve ever seen can be credited pretty much entirely to the source manga. The story is so strong and the characters are so well-defined that any director simply has to try and be generally faithful to that. Although Fumihiko is no auteur, he generally understands that the story and the characters are what are important here, and he basically tries to get out of the way. But, Ping Pong is better than the manga, and it all has to do with the execution. There’s very little in this film that doesn’t originate from the source material, but Fumihiko transcends it at points solely because I believe we’re able to understand the rhythm of the matches better in live-action.
As a key piece of evidence, I’d like to analyze the beauty of the climactic match at the end of the film. At the beginning of the match, Fumihiko skillfully uses slow motion so we can understand the thought processes of the two players. We see the physical exertion that taking those big swings requires. Like any other sports film, Fumihiko also cuts back to the audience for some commentary so we can understand the importance of each rally. And, because this was adapted from a sports manga, the characters converse with each other between points (claiming that they’ll win, etc.). As the game progresses, we get some cross-cutting between the game, and the stairs where Smile and his coach sit conversing. This links both things together, as part of the importance of the game is whether Peco will be finally be able to become the “hero” that Smile has wanted him to be. We also get quick glimpses into his “hero” persona from the past, as he takes off his mask and gets ready to finally win.
Most of the action is rendered in singles – that is, each character is showed reacting to the shot and swinging back. I’m assuming partly because Fumihiko doesn’t want to rely too much on the special effects ping pong bouncing around, but also partly because he’s saving it up for when it matters. Part of the ongoing narrative that’s been woven throughout the final tournament is that Peco’s knee is acting up, and as he retreats to his mind in between rallies, he conjures up images of himself as a hero. It’s in the following passages where the film shines the most. Through editing, Smile and Peco are able to have an emotional dialogue about what’s going on. Fumihiko then cuts back to show Smile waiting on the steps where he and Peco used to wait when they were kids. By placing him on those steps, Fumihiko explicitly links the match happening right now to the motivations and feelings of their early childhood. Smile’s voice-over and dialogue with Peco, skillfully conveyed by Fumihiko, are the motivation that’s required to finally win the match. Smile says to Peco: “you can have fun here.” That’s just what’s going to happen. Supercar’s “FREE YOUR SOUL” starts playing in the background as Peco shakes off his injury and begins to play, and what follows is pure pop transcendence as Fumihiko’s fast-cutting, judiciously used slow-mo, and one bravura reverse tracking shot (that becomes a crane shot) allows the fast back and forth between the players to finally manifest itself, as Peco and his rival have the match of a lifetime.
All of this is right on the page of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga, but it truly comes alive in the film. I believe that my analysis of the scene described above acts as a microcosm for the strenghts of the film as a whole. This is a really fun and exciting movie. I hope that all of you can make some time for it. It’s really quite special.
As I previously mentioned, most of the strengths of the film can be found in the source manga. Taiyo Matsumoto is most famous in the west thanks to a film adaptation of his 1994 work, Tekkonkinkreet (also known as Black & White, but he’s created numerous wonderful works). My favorite of his is probably Hana Otoko, an incredibly moving series about a baseball-obsessed father and his relationship with his son.
Matsumoto’s art is a mixture of wobbly, imperfect lines, that’s both incredibly impressive and seemingly off the cuff. His style isn’t particularly realistic or detail-oriented, but he’s always interested in expressiveness above all else. It may seem crude at first, but Matsumoto’s nuances become more pronounced the more you read him. Which, of course, I recommend you do.
Ping Pong is one of the more conventional things he’s ever done – it’s more or less a simple shounen sports story. But what a rich one it is! I’ve never minded formulas or clichés (as a fan of anime, how could I?) if they’re done correctly. In Ping Pong, Matsumoto takes the usual archetypes and wrings truth and emotion out of them.
My favorite character of both the manga and the film is Kazama. He’s the high school champion and leader of an elite ping pong team. But, before every game, he locks himself up in a restroom to be alone. Why does he do this? Part of the beauty of Ping Pong is how it humanizes all its characters, even supporting ones. Think about how Kong, the Chinese player, ends up really caring for the teammates at his high school, or the changes in Sakuma, Peco’s old rival. But none of them move me as much as Kazama does. He’s relentless, only focused on winning, and stronger and more intimidating than any other player. He’s also aware of his limitations. As soon as he spots Smile, he gets a quick and accurate reading of his talent (and even says that it’s above his own), and immediately starts training to defeat him. As Kong watches Kazama play, he remarks that maybe for Kazama ping pong is pain. Suddenly, the way he locks himself up in the restroom begins to make more sense.
Thanks to his character, and his eventual match against Peco, Matsumoto hits on a really interesting theme. I described in detail the mechanics of the scene as depicted in the film, but I didn’t really get into why it’s so important and so thrilling. During this match, something strange and beautiful starts to happen – Kazama begins to smile. Playing against such a strong opponent as Peco, allows for Kazama to finally feel some joy in the game. It’s one of the most beautiful realizations that no matter the outcome, sports can often be beautiful. Matsumoto literalizes this emotion by suddenly whisking away his two players away from the gymnasium. A recurrent motif in <b>Ping Pong</b> is flying/soaring (Peco throws himself off a bridge to show that he can fly), and Matsumoto reintroduces this motif in this match, as seagulls fly over their heads. Peco and Kazama are pushing each other to greater and greater heights and as the game is finishing up, one of them tells the eventual winner to bring him back to this place again. These two players will chase this feeling forever. I’ve still never seen another work quite get what can be so transcendent about playing sports.