Masaaki Yuasa is back! Yes, the same man who brought us giant cannibal monster romances (Kemonozume), space adventures with portable memory chips (Kaiba) and multiple universes filled with rose-colored aspirations resulting in collegiate disappointment (The Tatami Galaxy) is here to tell us a story about…ping pong!
Okay, maybe that doesn’t have quite the panache of his previous projects, but rest assured, the first episode of Ping Pong The Animation is here to dispel any doubts about whether or not Yuasa is a good fit this show. Based on the manga by Taiyō Matsumoto (which I hear is quite good!), Ping Pong is set up as a story about high-school level competitive table tennis in Japan. Despite Yuasa being best known for his fantasy and sci-fi stories, this anime about sports has shown itself to be a fantastic fit for him. There were hints of such in his Kickstarter-backed short film about wrestlers in love (Kick Heart), but with Ping Pong it’s obvious. Yuasa’s flair for rough, expressive movement punctuated with exaggerated perspectives, proportions, and angles accurately communicates both the dynamism and subtlety of the sport. The OP appears cheap, and it is—just scenes from the episodes sped up and in monochrome—but it works as a venue for Yuasa and his animators to show off the attention and effort spent to capture the speed and small movements that are so important to the sport. And it follows through that the same attention is spent on the rest of the show’s composition.
There are a lot of visuals tics in this first episode, but the most glaring one (literally) is its whiteness. Whereas many artists see to it to fill up as much of their canvas as possible, Yuasa does not shy away from blank space. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen lobbed at Yuasa is that he has no restraint, but Ping Pong flies in the face of that. It’s clear he understands the importance and impact of negative space—that what isn’t there is just as important as what is. Negative space can direct our eyes towards specific objects, or in the case of one scene, focus the viewer’s attention on what is being heard, rather than what is being seen. Yuasa also uses it towards comedic effect, where a stray ball becomes a lone, tiny airplane soaring through the featureless sky. Throughout the entire episode, in fact, the sky is a blaring white, which sets the mood. It’s hot. It’s bright. It’s summer. The sun is oppressive, but perhaps there is also opportunity in its light. Whiteness is further indicative of the boys’ uniforms, and of the ping pong ball itself.
The other nice thing about negative space is how it affects and highlights the space around it. To that end, the color composition of this episode was extremely deliberate–almost entirely bright, solid colors rooted in the show’s namesake. The paddles are red. The tables are blue. The dividers are green and yellow. These four colors show up in the cry for the superhero, the outfits of our characters, trains and planes, and even the buttons on Smile’s video game. Red, blue, green, and yellow are the most basic of colors, and they stand out even more amidst the show’s otherwise largely monochrome palette. This provides the show with both a distinctive look and another way of tying its characters and settings to the game. This kind of visual thematic unity is what should be expected from a director of Yuasa’s caliber.
Probably my favorite visual tic is the way Yuasa incorporates paneling into this cartoon. It hearkens back to the story’s manga roots, and it’s also a fun and effective way to illustrate the matches in a manner that is both creative and cost-effective. Yuasa’s team uses this episode as a vehicle to prove that they can animate ping pong matches, and animate them well, but this proof that they can communicate both the emotions and actions of a match with minimal animation is important too. Notice how much freedom Yuasa allows himself in the way he divides the screen, which can zig and zag as much as the above picture, or cleave the screen in two with a clean line down the the middle. Even this simpler paneling is proven versatile, however, through providing a narrative of athleticism or juxtaposing characters’ reactions. This is pretty much a guarantee that there will always be something interesting to look at in Ping Pong (except when there doesn’t need to be).
Elsewhere, Yuasa has never been one to shy away from the more cartoonish possibilities of the medium, and it’s no different here. Stretched limbs, contorted expressions, and disorienting perspectives cement the show as his own and add a captivating sense of weight to the matches, as if the characters are pulling the viewer along with their paddles. The scene where Peco has a match with the spoiled rich kid is full of fun shots like this one, which mirrors the way Peco is toying with his opponent. Contrast this with Peco’s match later with Wenge, in which Wenge’s frustration at Peco and at himself seems to twist him into grotesque forms of variable sizes. Peco’s state at the end of such a brutal match is that of a person who has been stretched to his limit fighting against such a beast. It’s a wake-up call for his cocksure attitude, as well as a promise that ping pong will indeed be serious business here.
Finally, I want to at least mention the backgrounds, which are gorgeous. Like anything of Yuasa’s, there’s a roughness to them, but here they are tempered with a soft, watercolor-like aesthetic. Ping Pong‘s version of China also possesses the same harsh yellow filter as Breaking Bad‘s version of Mexico, for some reason. My favorite shot of the episode is that of the train as it crosses the bridge, and the way in which the scene is recapitulated at the end of the episode. The camera and dialogue remain the same, but the colors, the lighting, and the mood are all different. It’s a sad and beautiful note to end the episode on, as Smile quietly reassures the distraught Peco.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait to watch ten more episodes of high school boys playing ping pong.