In coincidental timing, Taiyō Matsumoto, prolific mangaka, has been both nominated for an Eisner Award and has had another one of his series recently brought to the US. Adapted into an anime a few years ago Ping Pong, has arrived. Is it good?
According to the official description provided by Viz Media:
Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto and his friend Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino have been playing table tennis since they were kids, but as they enter high school, they find that the game has changed. Seeing potential in them that they themselves don’t fully realize, the coach recruits them for the school team. Bringing out their best will mean challenging the top players from rival schools in the summer tournament, including an ace Chinese exchange student who almost made the Olympic team. With the pressure on, can Smile and Peco take the heat and make it into the finals?
Ping Pong is unlike almost any sports manga I have read. Its premise doesn’t seem particularly unique — two friends with different life philosophies in regards to ping pong. We watch as they grow and change through their interactions with other players and games, eventually ending up in different places than each other. There are different mentor figures and players on other teams with their own backstories and goals. A good chunk of the manga is dedicated to a big tournament arc where everyone faces off. It is all very familiar in that regard.
But what makes Ping Pong shine in this first volume is its approach and writing. This series has a very slice-of-life, slow-paced drive to it. There’s no apparent goal or direction, almost no exposition, and barely even a story to speak of. From the moment the series starts, it feels like a day in the life of Smile and Peco on their school’s ping pong team. Even terminology and jargon unique to the ping pong world are casually used without any awkward introduction to explain what they mean. This series feels as if the readers walked into someone’s life story already in progress.
This approach allows Ping Pong to stand out as a manga. Keeping itself grounded makes things feel more real. As such, the situations are more relatable and the characters more human. Even when things do heat up during the tournament, they still feel realistic. Even the dialogue is like that, going with more natural-sounding conversations with short exchanges that don’t rely on many words. The only downside is that the manga can be rather boring and aimless. It takes about five chapters for things to start moving, and the characters aren’t gripping enough at that time to get invested.
The main leads are Smile and Peco. Peco is a kid who likes to brag and usually has the skills to back it up. He’s incredibly good at the game to the point where coaches initially don’t mind him skipping practice. He’s always going on about becoming the best player in the world and can come off as a bit of an airhead, loudly talking with Smile during a class about random things. However, he can be intelligent and capable of picking up on subtle cues with other players. He is also rather sensitive to where losing can emotionally wreck him and make him lose all drive. He definitely feels the most like a kid his age.
Smile is the opposite. He goes through the motions with ping pong, not having much drive or interest in improving himself. He doesn’t get invested in the game, mostly going with the flow and caring about what his opponent wants or how they feel. He just likes being unnoticed for the most part. Though, as almost everyone can see, he is also a prodigy waiting to happen, incredibly capable at ping pong. With enough push, he can defeat most players. However, his drive is limited and even when finally getting pushed, he still holds himself back.
Most of the supporting cast aren’t as compelling or interesting as the leads. There’s Ryūichi Kazama, aka Dragon, one of the strongest, skilled players around. He highly values winning and is always trying to recruit Smile to his school’s team, seeing his raw potential. Manabu Sakuma, aka Demon, is a player from the same team as Dragon. He’s a jerk but also constantly tries to prove his own worth. He’s an old childhood acquaintance of Peco and often gets in his face about things when he can. Jō Koizumi is the team coach, a former ping pong champion once known as “Butterfly Joe”. He puts a lot of pressure on Smile to make him reach his potential and can be rather demanding. While his drive to get Smile up to snuff is admirable, the way he addresses him at first is really creepy with calling him “honey”.
Of the supporting cast, the only real star was Kong Wenge. He is from China, transferred to a rival school in Japan in order to boost their standing in the ping pong community. Wenge comes off as a rather cool, laid back guy who doesn’t take things too seriously, but is incredibly skilled. However, some of it seems to be an act, hiding his own personal shame and frustration. He was kicked off his country’s national team and is now looking to prove his worth and value in Japan. He is a fascinating character, a bit better than the protagonists even.
And then there is the artwork, which is probably going to be a dealbreaker for some. Matsumoto’s art is more unconventional than what most people are used to. The linework is often rough around the edges, characters are most often shaky and wrinkly (like the Peanuts’ characters during the 90s), kid or teen characters can often look like they’re in their forties, issues with foreshortening and properly aligning characters’ eyes, and the constant shift between a lot of detail to barely any at all in some panels. Compared to later works like Sunny, this is definitely in the early days of Matsumoto’s career when he hasn’t mastered this particular style.
While the manga can be difficult to look at at times, it nails the most important parts of a sports manga: flow and energy. Despite how crude the style is, the story is easy to follow along with. Every panel, scene, and moment flows smoothly from point to point. This plays well into the ping pong action itself, which is very intense and thrilling to read. The movement, the flow, the use of onomatopoeia, and such makes for some engaging games. The art direction really works well in these moments, showing off how physically exhausting and intense these matches can truly be. The highlights come off in the final match of the tournament shown and the match between the coach and Smile, really displaying how truly engrossing this manga can be.
Ping Pong Vol. 1 is a manga unlike most sports titles out there. While its art can be unconventional and its pace too slow, the series’ approach to storytelling, subtle character writing and dialogue, and its incredible matches makes it a true gem in this genre. Even if it’s one of his earliest series, Ping Pong truly shows the raw talent of Taiyō Matsumoto and why his works are almost in a league of their own.