Masaaki Yuasa and Taiyou Matsumoto are both formative artists: watching Kaiba taught me how to better appreciate experimental animation (and played a major role in forming my tastes) while reading Tekkonkinkreet opened up a wide avenue of comics that looked different from what I was used to but were just as good, if not better. It goes without saying, then, that having them both collaborate on a project was an unexpected delight in a year already loaded with great stuff. I’m not sure if the world needed another adaptation of Matsumoto’s Ping Pong–the live-action film is reportedly very good already–but Yuasa certainly gave the project all he had, drawing the storyboard for each episode in a week’s time (when the average time is three to four months–this guy!) The result isn’t as polished as his earlier work, its incorporation of manga-style framing as much a concession to budgetary and time restrictions as it is stylistic. But Yuasa brings out the best in Matsumoto’s work, and Ping Pong, particularly the last few episodes, marks a creative high point in his career.
Due to his unconventional style of animation, Yuasa’s been pidgeonholed by some as an arthouse auteur, the kind of guy whose work demands major commitment in exchange for a significant reward. Yuasa is one of my favorite directors but I resent this categorization immensely: maybe Yuasa’s animation is wilder and looser than most anime fans are useful, but (though I’m certainly biased) I’d never say that the guy’s work is particularly dense or difficult. The secret is that despite his avid cult following and critical acclaim among those in the know, Yuasa is actually a huge sap. All his works are love stories in some form, from Kemonozume‘s Romeo and Juliet tale about an ogre-hunting samurai and the flesh-eating ogre who loves him, to the star-crossed lovers of Kaiba, to The Tatami Galaxy‘s Groundhog Day-style loop preceding romantic confession. Ping Pong isn’t explicitly romantic, per se, but it’s very much a story about two people who love each other: Peco and Smile, who despite their differences share a spiritual connection.
Similarly, Ping Pong plays host to many of mangaka Taiyou Matsumoto’s thematic obsessions. Peco and Smile mirror each other, as do Black and White from Tekkonkinkreet or Shigeo and Hanao from Hanaotoko. Circumstances tear them apart, leading to great trauma and anxiety until the two reunite and make up with each other. Peco is the down-about Hero, who has become so vain in his self-confidence that he’s forgotten what being a hero actually means. Smile is the Robot who hides behind metal parts to conquer the sport, trying as hard as he can to distract himself from how much it hurts. Peco’s final match with Smile is rooted both in character and in the symbols themselves, the Hero not merely fighting the Robot but immolating him (and himself) so that the Robot can be saved.
But I come here not just to praise Yuasa, but his contemporary and co-worker Eunyoung Choi. The mastermind between episode 9 of Space Dandy (the one with the psychedelic talking plants) she directed the aforementioned tenth episode of Ping Pong. If the visual style of the series is partially born of compromise, episode 10 is when the show really moves, Peco and Dragon blowing past their own boundaries and finding cathartic release in sport. It’s a virtuoso 10-12 minutes, joyous and heartbreaking and, at the very end, actually profound. After all, Peco’s heroism is not in defeating the enemy, but freeing him from the chains of expectation and self-hatred all sports players find themselves tangled in sooner than later; by ascending through the ranks of the tournament and freeing each player he is destroying ping pong once and for all. Which sounds like I’m over-extrapolating, but Matsumoto’s work tends to touch on this theme: you could argue Tekkonkinkreet is a fundamentally anti-heroic work, while Hana Otoko ends with the protagonist (a child frantically trying to grow up) reminding his father that sometimes you don’t have to be an “adult.”
I liked the first few episodes of Ping Pong quite a bit, but the last few–including the final one, which I haven’t even touched on!–might be some of the best work of Yuasa’s career. Either way I’m glad that even in the industry’s current state, risky projects like this continue to be bankrolled, Yuasa and Choi keep finding work and that every once in a while things come together and a perfect episode blows our socks off. The art might take some getting used to if you’re into more conventional stuff, but if you watch one anime series that aired this year, it should be Ping Pong.