SPRING TRAINING MONTH #1: Ping Pong: The Animation, by Masaaki Yuasa (2014)

Type of Media: Animation

Yeah yeah, I know. "You're spending a month on sports stories and your first pick is an anime about ping pongReally?" But your outrage would be a mistake! Anime and manga have a wealth of sports stories, some of which like the boxing-focused Hajime no Ippo have been running for decades. And ping pong is an exciting sport! It's just you and your opponent, testing each other's skills, with no team to back you up, battling it out a mere 9 feet away from each other (the length of a standard ping pong table, according to the first result for "ping pong table length" on Google).

As it is a sports anime, Ping Pong of course focuses on high school sports teams as their players struggle for victory. However, that's where its similarity to typical sports anime ends. The story focuses on two players, the talented but lazy and immature Peco, and the reserved and ironically-named Smile. Peco displays a lot of natural ability in ping pong, but because he isn't willing to practice he quickly starts getting demolished by more focused top players. After a losing streak he gives up ping pong, while Smile's untapped ping pong skill gets noticed by a local coach.

The coach discovers Smile's main weakness is that he isn't competitive enough, and starts training him to zero in on an opponent's weakness and ruthlessly exploit it. WIth his underdog team, Smile faces off against the best players in Japan, like Chinese exile Kong Wenge, longtime victim of Peco's bullying Sakuma, and world #1 highschool ping pong prodigy Ryuichi Kazuma. 

The key to Ping Pong is that it gives these opponents a lot of development, sometimes making them even more sympathetic than the main characters. They all have pressure on them to win, and when they fall to Smile's dispassionate play you feel sorry for them. Even more impressive is that, unlike a lot of sports anime where the sport dominates every character's world, the story shows a life after ping pong. When they're dispatched the former villains stick around in the story, moving on with their lives and setting new goals. As they go through high school the players learn what they value in life, and for the defeated and supporting characters that often means high school ping pong taking a backseat to other priorities. 

I haven't even mentioned the art style yet, which is extremely distinctive. Ping Pong was made on a tight budget, so it lacks the slick production that a lot of modern anime have. However, it more than makes up for it with its rough sketchbook aesthetic. It takes some getting used to, as characters often distort in weird ways or vary in their levels of detail, but after a few episodes I absolutely loved it. It also looks great in action. The matches are absolutely electric, both as centerpieces of conflict between the characters and as visual crack.

As much a coming-of-age story and meditation on shifting priorities as it is a 'get hype!' sports anime, Ping Pong: The Animation is a wonderful experience. Sports fans may appreciate an intense look at a sport that doesn't get much spotlight, and even if you aren't a sports fan the character development will be enough to keep you hooked.