Ping Pong (2002) takes the excitement, rivalry, and heroism of the best sports movies and gives it an injection of high-energy CG wizardry. The mix a highly entertaining, light-hearted affair pulled off with flair and loving fidelity to its source material – Taiyo Matsumoto’s original five volume manga of the same name. Anyone familiar with Matsumoto’s highly popular Tekkonkinkreet will appreciate his unique visual style, and in Ping Pong first time director Fumihiko Masuri (Sori), impresses with the dead-on accuracy with which he transforms the books into a live-action film, while maintaining Matsumoto’s theme of heroism between two friends.
The authentic spirit of the movie begins with casting. Both lead actors bear an uncanny resemblance to their hand drawn counterparts. Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka ) grew up in a Ping Pong parlor run by his feisty grandmother, played by the brilliant Mari Natsuki. With an outgoing personality and cocky assuredness in his playing ability, Peco believes he is destined to become a pro. He introduces the game to his best friend Smile (Arata), so named because of his serious demeanor. Although Smile is the better player, he consistently throws his game to protect his friend’s ego. Eventually the two enter school competitions and we are introduced to a set of highly motivated, yet flawed opponents.
The intimidating Dragon (kabuki actor Shido Nakamura) prepares for each game in the bathroom; China, (Sam Lee) is a former national Chinese champion, currently down on his luck; Akuma, (Koji Okura) works harder than anyone on his game, but lacks talent. Ample time is given for these actors to develop their characters and they all do a fine job, but the two coaches steal the show. Mari Natsuki adds a gritty, comedic tone as she attempts to whip Peco back into shape after recent defeats lead to a slack off in his training. Naoto Takenaka gives us a nuanced performance as Smile’s coach Butterfly Joe, who sees mirrored in his pupil, his own youthful promise as well as his mistakes. The slower pacing of the first half allows excitement for the final matches to build. Here is where Sori’s CG expertise is let loose. Energetic sequences complete with flying acrobatics by the players and a you-are-the-ball cam are just a few of the tricks Sori uses to ratchet up the thrill of the game. Surreal elements key the viewer into each player’s mindset. The best of these include an animated sequence featuring Peco and Smile and a scene where a player grows butterfly wings that wither with his defeat.
Such unusual treatment combined with tight script writing raise this film above typical movies of this sort and helped gain Sori, a former visual effects supervisor, the Best Director Award that year at the Japanese Academy Awards. Ping Pong is such a joy to watch, viewers will hardly notice or care that it breaks no new ground. Fans of the original manga will rejoice in its faithful adaptation, yet the film stands solidly on its own for those who have never read the books.