#1 The unique artstyle
Ping Pong The Animation looks like absolute garbage. That’s a very realistic and sensible take when observing the show from afar and judging it by the expectations you’d have for any other TV anime. It foregoes any kind of similarity to modern anime and makes a disaster of a first impression. However, look a little deeper and keep an open mind, and you’ll find that it has a unique appeal of its own.
Headed by the respected arthouse director Masaaki Yuasa, Ping Pong is a different beast compared to other anime. Its characters are uncanny and look sketchy in their design, owing to the realistic proportions clashing with the very frantic animation. If you are used to pretty anime characters, then Ping Pong just looks ugly by comparison. Like why wouldn’t you just watch a movie if you wanted a realistic-looking story about sports?
I was certainly skeptical myself and while the visuals are certainly not pretty to me, I found that I really enjoyed Ping Pong for the visual directing and craftsmanship of the animation. The actual table tennis matches are intense and beautifully realized within the show’s visual style. The more I watched of Ping Pong, the more I found the style growing on me. What looked like ugly, cheap animation at first revealed itself to be surprisingly refined; full of emotion and capable of sweeping the viewers off their feet when it needs to.
#2 Athlete stories
The actual plot of the series follows Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino and Makoto “Smiles” Tsukimoto, two first year students who joined their school’s ping pong team. Despite being new, both have grown conceited on account of being far more skilled than their peers and seniors. Their team needs them for the upcoming tournaments, but Peco barely shows up at all and Smiles is just an anti-social jerk.
Besides being a tale about ping pong as a sport, this anime is also very much a coming-of-age story about various young athletes. Without going into spoilers, both these protagonists are dealing with interesting mental hurdles and both of them find their own ways of dealing with these through ping pong. I was particularly interested in Smiles, who is absurdly talented and promising, yet resists every attempt by his team and coach to help him develop further. He claims it’s making ping pong too complicated, but is that really all that’s holding him back?
For just 11 episodes, Ping Pong The Animation manages to tell a very elaborate plot full of character development. Peco and Smiles go through so much over the course of the story and all of it I found intriguing. Meanwhile, the anime also has time to develop side-characters to almost the same extent.
My favorite character ended up being Weng Kong. He’s a Chinese guy that was ousted from his national team and left for Japan in shame. He hopes that by conquering Japan’s nationals he can prove himself to his homeland and return. He makes for an interesting rival character who justifiably looks down on the amateurish opponents he is faced with, but then underestimates what the few truly talented and dedicated players of Japan are capable of. The story spans 2 years and you really get to see him grow as time goes on, which concludes with one hell of a finale.
#3 Surreal philosophy
Yuasa is known for his surreal anime and, while Ping Pong generally sticks to its now-iconic artstyle, it does like to go off-script when it serves the storytelling. The intense ping pong matches are broken up with artsy segments, many of which serve to visualize the internal, personal dramas of the characters.
It’s more restrained than the likes of Kaiba and Tatami Galaxy, but that is praiseworthy in and of itself. This is a very accessible anime, so it helps that even its more philosophical moments are quite digestible. They are a nice break from the show’s usual pace while still enjoying a comparable level of visual splendor.