Ping Pong doesn't seem at first like the sort of manga to do well in the United States if you look purely at that above description. Until fairly recently, sports series were a hard sell, especially on a sport like table tennis that's taken far less seriously in the Western Hemisphere. But we know why we're here: in 2014, Ping Pong was adapted into a groundbreaking anime by auteur director Masaaki Yuasa. As his star has only risen in recent years with the likes of DEVILMAN crybaby and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, more and more fans have turned to Yuasa's past work—and consequently, the manga that inspired this one. Ping Pong's original creator is no slouch either; Taiyo Matsumoto wrote Tekkonkinkreet (which also had a famous anime adaptation), Sunny and Cats of the Louvre, all indie favorites among manga readers, and won an Eisner Award for the first of those. So what did his original work bring to the table, and why is it worth revisiting even with a colorful Yuasa version of it available to stream? Strap in, and let's get to know the triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of high school Ping Pong.
In most anime and manga sports series (in fact, most sports fiction the world over), the sport itself isn't really the point; it's everything else going on around it. It's a coming-of-age story, a story about competition, friendship, how success can go to your head, the difference between talent and effort, or any number of other related topics. It's why you don't need to be an athlete yourself to enjoy a good sports movie – these themes are universal. What makes Ping Pong stand out is while it's juggling all those themes I mentioned, it plays them a lot closer to its chest, particularly in the manga version of this story. They're all there, but it's also very easy to read this manga on the surface as a story about the electric feeling of playing this sport. And it's exciting and informative just on that level, in a way that will draw you in regardless of how you felt about table tennis before this. Did you know how many different rackets there are? Or how much the pips (cushioning) can impact a serve, and how much players think about this? I didn't, and it did a lot to explain to me how something I associated with goofing off in my college dorm common room can in fact be a serious sport worthy of inclusion in the Summer Olympics. (Just as you'd expect from all the crowing about Kong Wenge, China dominates there.) The manga does an excellent job with its frenetic, kinetic character designs and play-by-play recreations of matches, in capturing the excitement and strain that go into mastering this sport.
You have to dig a little bit further than you would in a Haikyuu!! or Free! for the story behind the competition—and yet, when you get there, it's just as if not more satisfying. This starts with the two central characters: Smile and Peco, both richly layered and worthy of essay-length analyses on their own. They're the classic logical and emotional, Apollonian and Dionysian pair: Smile has trouble expressing his feelings and literally got his nickname from childhood bullies picking on his flat affect, while Peco is an excitable prankster. Peco was the one who got Smile into the sport, by dressing as a "Ping Pong hero" as a child. One of the themes is if Smile will ever get to encounter a hero like that again. If you know a little kanji (or just noticed the visual motifs on each volume of Viz's releases) you might notice another symbol that explains the push-pull between them: moon and stars. Smile's surname Tsukimoto means "moon origin" and Peco's surname Hoshino "field of stars," approximately. In the sky as seen from Earth, the moon is the dominant object, and the stars seem to be subordinate to it and even arranged around it. In fact, this was often how early civilizations thought of these objects. But in truth, moons are the ones that orbit planets that orbit stars, which are much larger and more significant celestial bodies. Similarly, Ping Pong challenges our idea of who is the real "ace": Smile or Peco? Does single-minded devotion and raw talent win, or competitive spirit and more eccentric, emotive approaches to playing? What does it mean that Peco was the one who first introduced Smile to the game, but come adolescence Smile is the ace? Will things stay that way or will they shift, like the moon and stars' positions in the sky?
This is important because, of course, the real story is about Smile and Peco's relationship with each other. This ultimately becomes the catalyst that sets forth their futures, and understanding that relationship is key to understanding the manga's ending—which may come out of nowhere if you're not paying careful attention. It's even more the story of how his friendship with Peco changes Smile, becoming something like his emotional lifeline. (If you're a particularly eagle-eyed reader, it might make you think about whether it's significant in more than one way that Smile doesn't date girls.) And it becomes clearer that it's not just the floaty, non-standard art style of this manga that made it so apt for a Yuasa adaptation, but also its themes and subtext.
We haven't even made it to the supporting characters, who are smaller and simpler than you might've expected from the anime and its fan reputation, but still stand out as significant obstacles for our heroes. There's the cool-as-a-cucumber Chinese ace Kong Wenge from Tsujido High. Kicked off the Chinese national team, Kong has traveled across the sea to prove himself in Japan, and is set up from early on as the One to Beat for our characters. Then there are the various players from Kaio or "Neptune" Academy, particularly the aggressive star Kazuma, or "Dragon," and Sakuma, who appears like an arrogant blowhard at first but may have deeper layers to him. Once again, these characters come off thin at first, but patience and close attention reward readers. In particular, the two Kaio players end up as important for the development of the central relationship between Smile and Peco. And Kong is just a fun, larger-than-life character, to where you almost feel disappointed when the king of the table tennis world is inevitably toppled.
Viz's edition is part of the Viz Signature line, focusing on collectible editions of manga classics. Ping Pong comes in the form of two hefty but handsome books that compile the full series between them. They're lovingly rendered and filled with notes both explaining details of the sport and spelling out the Japanese words in the background of each scene, and even include a few gorgeous full-color pages. With their parallel cover design (both mostly black-and-white manga panels with turquoise and red titles, featuring the main characters' moon and star, respectively) they look really good together on a manga shelf. The second volume includes an interview with the series' editor, Yasuki Hori, spelling out the massive amounts of research the creators did on competitive table tennis, the history of the manga's adaptations, and an insider assessment of the series' themes. It's a great buy whether you're absorbing Ping Pong for the first time, or a returning collector.
Reading Ping Pong 25 years after it wrapped, it's easy to see where it's been so influential. Hori describes the series changing how sports manga was created, and that's obvious: so many modern-day sports anime clearly have Ping Pong in their DNA. The combination of passion for the intricacies of the sport itself, and a focus on life-changing close (and often homoerotic) friendships between same-sex classmates, is the lifeblood of the genre today. Still, there are many elements that feel fresh, and show why it could be so faithfully adapted into a successful anime in the past decade. What I particularly loved about Ping Pong, and as Hori outlines so well in the closing essay, is how it subverts the usual sports story about the focus on winning over performance. Logical Smile is the stereotypical "technician" and emotive Peco the "performer"—though neither of their play styles fit into those completely—but Peco is the one who focuses only on winning, while Smile often seems like he couldn't care less. And those attitudes don't get them to where you'd expect from a traditional sports story. If you haven't seen or read Ping Pong, I won't tell you what happens. The journey they take and the finale should both be richly savored, and these two omnibus editions are the perfect way to do just that.