Film: Ping Pong

Inter-high school competition is fierce in this manga comic inspired table tennis romp.

Peco (Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata) are life-long friends. Smile (named for his reluctance to just that) is encouraged by Peco to take up his favoured sport, and, as such, they join the high school ping pong team.

Ping Pong is a film that, at its core, seeks to revel in friendship. References to 'chopping', a defensive style that Smile utilizes, serve to cement our understanding of one of the lead characters. Peco, on the other hand, as the very much aggressive type of player, is clear in his desire to reach the heady heights of ping pong fame, also known as Germany.

From the beginning, it's the competition that drives the storyline. Starting with an arrival from the East, Peco decides to challenge the imposter to Japan’s high school prowess (who is much more interested in playing Smile, but settles for Peco) and subsequently loses, 21-0 (a 'Skunking'). This loss is compounded by a 7-year-old at the ping pong hall singing about Peco's defeat (Peco's reaction being to cry and hug the table for comfort). The friends, shortly after competing in an inter-school tournament for their school, Katase High, against nemesis' - in the form of a former childhood playmate Demon (Manabu Sakuma - now a student at a neighbouring school), the head of his team, Dragon (Shido Nakamura) and a ringer from China (Sam Lee), imaginatively named China - find themselves challenged.

Following a lack of real interest on the part of Smile, and an over confidence on the part of Peco, the pair are found lacking. Smile, following a barrage of insults from the foreigners sponsor, aimed at the newly drafted in China, feels sorry for him and decides to lose in order to spare him the ridicule. Peco, on the other hand, is beaten badly by ex-friend and now staunch enemy Demon (Bald with large, black rimmed glasses), who wastes little time in expressing his joy at beating his former friend. Peco soon realizes that his lifelong best friend has been losing to him for years and falls out with Smile, subsequently giving up the sport and taking up another Japanese national institution - computer games.

In true sporting drama fashion, each of the friends has a worldly wise mentor. Smile's coach, being the highly underappreciated and former high school prodigy Butterfly Joe (Naoto Takenaka), while Peco is coached by the mistress of the ping pong hall, chain smoking, dry and seemingly uninterested Obaba (Mari Natsuki), an old friend of Butterfly Joe's. While Peco transforms back into his previous, driven persona, via a leap off a high bridge into a slow moving river, Smile is blackmailed into training with Butterfly, his coach having correctly challenged and predicted Smile's willingness to quit in the earlier competition.

Cue the montage, the emotional reveal of how Butterfly could of been a contender, Miss Obaba's realization and rediscovered love of the sport and the friends meeting in the next inter-high school tournament.

With flash backs to childhood littering the film, we uncover that Peco has always cast himself in the superhero mould, eager to keep a friendship that, as in a large number of Japanese films, goes without comment between the emotionally understated characters. Mere hints of manga-esque qualities show in this film that seeks to keep reality at the fore.

From a first time director, it's clear Fumihiko Masuri relishes this script, keeping close to his characters and developing each fully, despite the size of their role, and allowing for the viewer to acknowledge and enjoy their participation. Facial expressions, in particular on the part of Peco, can only serve to ingratiate the bowl headed young man to the viewer. CGI is subtle, seeking mainly to aid the speed and composition of the ping pong ball as it impacts the paddles, and, in a delightful shot, a pair of butterfly wings (a non too subtle reference to the table tennis products giant that are so prevalent throughout) growing from the coaches back.

The soundtrack mixes fast paced techno with, at times, slow paced/almost studio Ghilbli romanticism. Cinematography is clear, clean and striking throughout, allowing for a smooth mix, as fast paced and casual shots slip seamlessly through the editing gates. Harking back to classic training scenes from films we all know, we're given time for characters to be profound and often philosophical. Even with the enemies throwing some ping pong wisdom into the pot.

This feels like a long film. In the mould of many a sporting opus, it takes its time. Showing the leads as inept or losers, only for them to invariably change their direction by the end of the story (which could come sooner), we are given much of what we'd expect and happily, surprisingly, want. This particular incarnation of that staple takes fun and witty side steps, opens up a variety of enjoyable characters, and does much to encourage our devotion.

Fan: David Wing


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