Blu-ray Review: The PING PONG Anime Beats All Opponents
Last month in the US, Funimation released the DVD and Blu-ray editions of Ping Pong, the anime. And, as I have rather strong feelings about this one, here is a review!
Ever since I've seen Mind-Game and Kaiba, I've been a raving fan of Yuasa Masaaki. The Japanese animator creates art which defies the standard descriptions of anime, and everything he touches becomes special by default. When I heard he was going to do an animated adaptation of Matsumoto Taiyô's manga Ping Pong, it still caught me off-guard.
For starters, that story had already been adapted successfully once, as Sori Fumihiko's 2002 live-action film of the same name. That version was both a commercial and an artistic success, and has plenty of fans here at ScreenAnarchy central. A lot of people have asked me how the two compare: which is better? With Sori's film being as good as it is, what was a new adaptation going to be able to add? Surprisingly, the answer is: a lot!
Ping Pong follows several talented boys in high-schools, who play table tennis competitively. There is Makoto, nicknamed Smile because he never does, and whose talent suddenly develops at a frightening rate, rendering him a robot. There is Peco, who used to be immensely talented when younger, but wastes it all through lack of effort. There is Wenge Kong, a failed champion from China, who tries to sneak back to the world top by way of Japan. There is the bullish Manabu, who lacks talent but makes up through effort. And there is the champion Ryûichi, an unbeatable monster player nicknamed "Dragon", who has issues of his own.
The story focuses on what they do with their talent, and what their talent is doing to them. I wondered what a new adaptation could bring to the table, but the answer is a simple one: Yuasa Masaaki's anime adds depth, and lots of it. Sori's film is as fine a live-action version as you probably can get, when telling this story in less than two hours, but with eleven episodes the anime simply has the advantage of extra running-time to it, and Yuasa pushes that advantage fully.
It would have been easy to just focus more on the flights of fancy, the artistic extremes of Matsumoto's artwork and imagination, but Yuasa does a lot more than that: every single character from the film now has more backstory, and far more motivation. It's the difference between understanding a character is driven, and understanding WHY he is driven. This bears fruit throughout the series, but especially during the big matches, where you are constantly finding yourself cheering both sides of the table. The embellishments never make the story slow or boring, and the series is over before you know it.
In all its versions, the story's strength has been how Ping Pong plays with expectations and stereotypes. It humanizes both its protagonists and antagonists, and you appreciate and understand it when they suddenly seem to act against expectations, or even against their own best interests. Ping Pong fully embraces the concepts of robots, monsters and heroes, and then gleefully subverts them to its own versions and uses.
And in my opinion, the anime does it best. It has the breathing space necessary to tell everyone's stories in full, and gives all characters a second (or third) dimension. At the same time, with geniuses like Yuasa Masaaki and his often-teammate Choi Eunyoung at the helm, you get killer art and killer music on top.
I don't like table tennis. Even after the manga, the film, the anime, I still don't. But DAMN do I love these characters, and how they come alive. And if I could only have one of these three versions, I'd go for the anime.
On to the discs: Funimation has released Ping Pong as a four-disc set: two DVDs and two Blu-rays, each carrying basically the same content (so you get everything twice). The DVDs are coded for region 1, 2 and 4, the Blu-rays for region A and B, meaning this edition is playable throughout North America, Europe and Australia.
Both an English 5.1 soundtrack and a Japanese 2.0 soundtrack are available, and the English subtitles are great. For extras, there are commentary tracks for the first and last episode by the English-language voice-director and several US cast members. Both of these are jovial but do provide some background information. Furthermore you get the textless versions of the opening and closing songs, and a slew of trailers, previews and TV-spots, both for the Japanese and the US releases.
All in all this is a decent set of a great, great series, and for the attached price tag this gets my highest recommendation.
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