I was looking forward to reading Ping Pong, so much so that I included it in my list of My Most Anticipated Manga of 2020. I didn’t actually know a lot about the series, but Ping Pong seemed to have a lot of things going for it. The creator, Taiyo Matsumoto, is an acclaimed manga artist whose works, such as Tekkonkinkreet and Cats of the Louvre, have garnered a lot of praise. I’d also seen some positive buzz around Ping Pong online and Viz was treating it as a prestige title and giving it a fancy omnibus release. On top of all that, I was really feeling in the mood for a good sports story and thought that this would fit the bill. Turns out, I probably should have looked into it more before I went and got excited about this series.
Reserved and unsociable Tsukimoto has always admired his energetic and outgoing friend Hoshino (Peco), who always stood up for him to the bullies in their class. Peco is naturally athletic and excelled at ping pong, so Tsukimoto, eager to be more like him, started playing too. He saw Peco as a hero who would never lose, but Peco’s talent was undermined by his poor work ethic and it soon becomes clear to the coach of their high school team that Tsukimoto, who is both naturally gifted and has the dedication to perfect his skills, is actually the more impressive player. Their coach becomes determined to mold Tsukimoto into a ping pong star, but there’s just one problem, Tsukimoto doesn’t actually care about winning or losing.
Where your typical sports manga hero is highly driven and focused on improving and becoming the best, Tsukimoto just seems to enjoy playing ping pong with his friend and doesn’t feel the need to prove himself. He’s dedicated enough that he never misses practice, unlike Peco who is constantly ditching, but is perfectly happy to lose to Peco whenever they play each other, apparently unconsciously going easy on him, even though he could easily beat him if he really tried. His lack of drive to win and tendency to feel sorry for his opponents are his major weaknesses as a player and I thought that this was a unique angle to approach a sports story from. Too bad it didn’t prove to be enough to make this manga interesting.
I’m going to admit right now that I don’t know anything about the game of ping pong. I’m not someone who’s into real-life sports in general, so I heavily rely on those helpful little crash courses on the rules and principles of the game that most sports manga will include, specifically for the benefit of readers like me who are coming in with no basic knowledge. There was none of that here. This manga seems to be under the assumption that readers will already know a lot about the sport and doesn’t bother to go into any details about the rules or the different play styles or anything like that. I was able to pick up a few of the rules from the dialogue and could infer certain other things, like that a “Fast Attacker” probably has a more aggressive play style, but there’s a lot of stuff that just went over my head. For example, whenever a new player is introduced they will be accompanied by a little info box that outlines their play style and the type of grip they use, pieces of information that might have told me things about these characters or helped me to anticipate who might be a challenging opponent, if I knew what any of it meant. Tsukimoto, our main character, is apparently a “Chopper”, but the manga never tells us what that entails. I eventually got curious, because other characters kept referring to it, and I looked it up online. According to the source I read, choppers have a more defensive play style and a chop shot involves putting a backspin on the ball. This is, apparently, a difficult move to pull off, which would be why everyone was always making a big deal about it. It would have been nice if the manga had told us some of this information, as it illustrates how much skill Tsukimoto actually has, but most of this was lost on me while I was reading.
Another issue I had is that we’re almost never given any insight into Tsukimoto’s head while he’s playing and this means that there’s zero focus on strategy. I can’t get excited about a play being pulled off perfectly or get nervous about an opponent’s perfect counter-move if I don’t know what Tsukimoto’s thinking.
This leads into what I feel is this manga’s biggest flaw. During the ping pong matches we do get to see what Tsukimoto’s opponents are thinking. We get glimpses of their motivations and their feelings of anxiety and frustration. We learn that one wants to succeed in Japan so he can return home to China with his head held high and reclaim his former life. Another has struggled and worked twice as hard as anyone else, despite not having any natural talent at ping pong, all so that he can surpass his rival. They care a lot about whether they win or lose and this means that in every match Tsukimoto plays, the stakes are always higher for his opponent then they are for him. It winds up being kind of a bummer when they lose or only win because Tsukimoto felt bad for them and stopped putting his full effort into the game. The one exception to this is the match Tsukimoto plays against his coach, an ex pro who is trying to get under Tsukimoto’s skin and inspire him to really try to win. This is the one instance where we do see something of what Tsukimoto is feeling and it winds up being the most satisfying match featured in this volume because, even though the coach loses the match and winds up passing out from exertion, he succeeds in his goal of motivating Tsukimoto to go all out. This one time we see a bit of what’s been holding Tsukimoto back and see him start to emerge for his shell, but after this he goes back to behaving like a robot for the rest of the volume and it’s just dull.
I’ll admit that some of my displeasure with this book may be more of a result of disappointed expectations than anything else. There are certain things I’m looking for in a sports manga, such as: an entertaining team dynamic, a dramatic rivalry and gripping matches that suck you into the game. Ping Pong has none of that. I can’t say that Ping Pong is a badly written manga, it’s perfectly readable, but it’s also largely forgettable. The idea of a lead character who has to overcome psychological hang-ups in order to improve his game is certainly different, but, in execution, having a main character who doesn’t care about winning just makes them less compelling, especially since we rarely get any insight into what Tsukimoto is thinking or feeling. In the end, I didn’t care if he won or lost his games, I didn’t care that he seems to be drifting apart from Peco, who is annoying anyway, and, ultimately, I just didn’t care about his story. Fans of Matsumoto might get more enjoyment out of this series then I did, but if you are looking for a fun and engrossing sports story, I suggest that you look elsewhere.
Final Score: 5.5 out of 10
For more information on this series, visit Viz Media’s website.
What did you think of this series? Does anyone else hate Matsumoto’s art style? I didn’t really get into it in my review, but the rough and, frankly, ugly art style really didn’t do this series any favours.