I don’t know why I keep participating in Anime Secret Santa. I adore the idea of critics secretly recommending titles to each other, but I’m a chronic procrastinator that always waits until the last minute to watch my show. The self-imposed stress I feel from rushing to make the Christmas Eve deadline each year inevitably results in me not enjoying what I was recommended to its full potential.
It happened last year with Kunihiko Ikuhara’s self-discovery butthole adventure Sarazanmai, and it happened again this year with Masaaki Yuasa’s frenetic sports fever dream Ping Pong the Animation.
Ping Pong is based on a 5-volume manga from the 90s by Taiyō Matsumoto, who is probably best known for Tekkonkinkreet. It was produced by Tatsunoko Productions for the spring 2014 season as part of Fuji TV’s Noitanima block. It’s a coming-of-age story that follows Peco and Smile, the two best ping pong players on their high school team. As such, they are beset with constant pressure to train even harder. This encouragement, while well-meaning, has the opposite effect as their interest in the sport regularly yo-yos between wanting to be the best in the world to never wanting to play again.
The pressure Peco and Smile feel is not unlike the pressure I felt to complete the series.
By all accounts, Ping Pong is a good anime. It’s a unique story with an even more unique animation style. It’s the desperately needed liferaft that promised to save me from drowning in a sea of pink-haired waifu maids. A true maverick. And people noticed when it came out because it made a lot of critic’s best anime of the decade list. Despite everything it has going for it, I still struggled to keep my eyes on the screen.
What it ultimately comes down to is that I don’t drink enough craft beer to appreciate Yuasa’s unorthodox directing style. Using a fisheye lens on character designs that are already so fluid they sometimes look like different people from shot-to-shot is a bold move. I respect it, but it made it difficult to focus. His tetragram-esque picture-in-picture editing was cool the first time, but it became distracting by the end because it made me think of Jack Bauer from 24.
There’s also a less cynical reason for why I didn’t enjoy this critically-acclaimed anime — the way I watched it.
I’ve always found it difficult to enjoy anime that I didn’t want to watch. If I had decided to watch Ping Pong on my own, maybe my attitude going in would have been more positive. However, since I was watching it for Anime Secret Santa, it felt like a job. It probably didn’t help that I watched it in two sessions either.
This is not a show you should marathon. The story may seem simple on the surface, but if your attention wavers for even a moment, you risk missing out on important details. Most anime will shotgun exposition into your face. Good morning big brother! It’s me, your little sister, Nanako. Are you excited to celebrate your birthday, which is today, the same day you will embark on a journey to collect 108 crystals to cure Mother’s mysterious illness?
Ping Pong demands your attention. It has minimal dialog, choosing to tell its story visually and often metaphorically. This is great until you get distracted by a text message or I wonder what’s happening on Twitter right now.
Many of the character designs are also very similar. For fuck’s sake, why is every player on that team bald? They’re in high school! Compounded by the fact that character designs are sometimes drastically off-model, it made it difficult to know who was on screen when I finally looked up from my phone. If I had watched this one episode at a time over several days, I think I would have had an easier time focusing.
One thing that I enjoyed unequivocally, however, is the soundtrack. Composer Kensuke Ushio absolutely knocked it out of the park. Every track in this show fucking slaps. It has an almost Elebits vibe (remember Elebits‽). Two standouts are “Ping Pong Phase,” which uses the sound of ping pong balls hitting the table as its percussive layer, and “Obaba Tamura,” with its cheerful lo-fi synth groove that is reminiscent of something the late Rei Harakami may have written.
This is pure conjecture, but I believe that Ping Pong would not have happened without the success of Kick-Heart. It put Yuasa back on the map. Before Ping Pong, the last television series he directed was The Tatami Galaxy in 2010. People online may sing the praises of that show, but I don’t think I performed very well when it came out. If it had, Yuasa wouldn’t have resorted to using Kickstarter to fund his next project. Now he’s a household name, directing a new show each year.
Ping Pong explores themes that would normally resonate with me. Peco and Smile are treated like puppets by people who are trying to make up for past failures by living vicariously through them. It’s not until they start living how they want to live that they learn how to be happy. Similarly, I think in order for me to enjoy this show I have to watch it again on my own terms.
Until that happens, I can’t recommend it.