A harmonious fusion of two very talented and distinctive artists’ styles, Masaki Yuasa’s adaptation of Taiyo Matsumoto’s Ping Pong is one to remember.
Masaki Yuasa has practically become a household name in the anime community, especially amongst fans who are a bit more film savvy. There’s no question that the man has a lot of talent, both as an animator and a director – using his fluid, colourful visuals to effectively transport the viewer into the elaborate worlds he creates. That said, since Yuasa’s conceptualizations tend to be so particular to his personal artistic flair, the prospect of adapting renowned manga artist Taiyo Matsumoto’s Ping Pong made me a bit skeptical. Like Yuasa, Matsumoto is an artist with a very characteristic style and a firm grasp of cinematic pacing; his surrealistic touches subtly blend together with the more traditional Japanese landscapes to create an understated atmosphere of magical realism. Given the respective nature of each artist, there was definitely the potential for Yuasa to overshadow Matsumoto’s touches in Ping Pong, but thankfully that was not the case here.
Part of what I feel has led to the success of Ping Pong is the preservation of Matsumoto’s vision through Yuasa’s eyes. Rather than attempt to make Ping Pong his own, Yuasa has been respectful about applying his heavier stylistic touches to Matsumoto’s conceptual outline. This is the mark of Yuasa being a good director in my view, as his vibrant art style is pronounced enough that it could easily dominate the work of another talented creative mind – Matsumoto notwithstanding. Yuasa’s approach of “pushing the animated medium to its limits” in his feature film, Mind Game, would be woefully inappropriate in Ping Pong, as the nature of its narrative does not warrant such an excessive visual treatment. While Mind Game was a story about living one’s life to the fullest – and hence, an appropriate framework for the unrestrained nature of the animation – Ping Pong is more of a solemn character study exploring the athletes’ mindsets and relationships. It’s still filled with plenty of hot-blooded matches that sports anime are known for, but even those are handled with utmost care to capture the shift in kinetic energy. In many respects, Yuasa’s style is effectively keeping pace with the progression of the story as opposed to singlehandedly acting as the narrative voice like in some of his other works. I could even say, in a slightly tongue in cheek manner, that Yuasa is only going “full Yuasa” during key segments.
A good example of this point would be during Smile’s practice match against his coach in the second episode. The bout begins with both players rallying back and forth with Smile losing every exchange, causing his coach to verbally abuse him in order to trigger his defensive mechanisms and fight back – which for Smile means retreating into the comfort of his mind and adopting a mechanical play-style; an entirely robotic one at that. What’s interesting about these sequences is that while the outward ping pong game still retains Matsumoto’s line work and softer colour palette, the internal game is entirely Yuasa’s. While some audiences may feel the shift to be a little too “artsy”, given that much of Yuasa’s talent comes from his handling of a more surrealistic atmosphere, the approach is highly fitting in my view. This sequence in particular demonstrates his technical aptitude, as we see the line art become much rougher and thus less restrained in its nature, depicting the figurative transformation of Smile into a machine. Additionally, the gentler tone of background colours is thrown aside for a more simplistic, saturated composition – again to reflect the jump from the external to the internal; the real to the surreal.
However, what I appreciate the most about Yuasa’s approach towards Ping Pong is how it’s always appropriate for the given tone of the story, rather than overshadowing it in an attempt to show off. While the ping pong matches are definitely the show’s highlight and generally the instances where Yuasa’s contributions are the most defined, some of the more somber moments maintain a strong impact as well. Throughout Ping Pong, we begin to see many of Taiyo Matsumoto’s talents as an artist come to light, such as his dynamic panelling style – which provides a plentiful cross-sectional perspective of the action – and a strong proficiency with cinematic language. On the second point, Matsumoto is very good at crafting scenes where the focus is placed on the characters’ current state of mind. However, what he excels at is using the accompanying scenery and distance of the camera to give the viewer a sense of scale – of the scene layout, and especially the consequences of the casts’ ping pong matches. For instance, in one scene at the end of the fourth episode, a disheartened Wenge is seen sitting on a bench with his coach after losing his tournament match. The camera is pulled far back to give us a view of the entire area, which appears quite desolate, made even more so by the gravity of Wenge’s conversation about losing. This is where I have to offer a great deal of praise – not just to Matsumoto, but to Yuasa as well – for essentially letting Ping Pong breath and allowing the audience to comprehend the weight on the athletes’ shoulders.
On the point I made earlier about the use of panelling in Ping Pong, the scenes involving the cross-cuts are some of the most successful fusions between Yuasa and Matsumoto’s respective styles. Often times, the technique of splicing a scene between multiple perspectives helps to preserve the flow of action, especially since the key animation can be relegated to smaller panels as opposed to the entire screen. In one specific scene, the audience may see a ball being hit, received and rebounded, all the while the crowd roars and the athletes exchange glances at one another. It’s a highly effective technique in my view, especially when combined with the strong audio component; ping pong balls hitting the tables in rhythmic fashion and shoes squeaking on the floor to break the tempo. You can definitely see the difference in quality between matches that feature a heavier emphasis on cross-sectional action and those that don’t – such as the Peco-Sakuma bout at the start of episode 4, where the lower animation budget has a noticeable effect on the preservation of kinetic motion.
Additionally, the manga-style panelling is occasionally used outside of the ping pong matches to provide a glance at multiple characters and establish a connection between them. A split-screen towards the end of episode 5 shows us Sakuma on the right-hand side, crushed after being defeated by Smile, and Peco on the left-hand side, starring with a blank glance atop the school roof. As they had both experienced recent losses in their sports careers, the scene helps to drive home the point of the overlapping aimlessness they feel – with the successive scenes showing them both giving up the sport and engaging in self-destructive behaviour. Yuasa’s style is also quite noticeable during some of these panelling scenarios, such as the ones involving character flashbacks interspersed between the present day events. Once again, his less-restrictive line work and heavily saturated, mono-colour environments are highly effective in crafting a dreamlike memory that enters the athlete’s mind during gameplay.
It should come as no surprise that I think very highly of Ping Pong’s anime adaptation, given the relative proficiency of both creative minds. The show may not necessarily be ground-breaking for a title in the sports genre, but there are certainly many aspects of its approach that make it a highly successful and particularly interesting one. Although I was initially skeptical about how this product might turn out, I can safely say at the present moment that Yuasa is an excellent fit for adapting one of Taiyo Matsumoto’s works.
Hopefully this is a sign that we’ll receive an anime adaptation of GoGo Monster by the same set of staff in the near future.