Makoto Tsukimoto (nicknamed Smile) is a quiet high schooler who's been friends with the loud and energetic Yutaka Hoshino (nicknamed Peco) since childhood. They're both in the local table tennis club and both have a natural talent for it, although Smile's personality always prevents him from winning against Peco. The club teacher, however, notices Smile's talent and tries to make him gain some sportive tenacity.
"I'm sure you'll understand too, someday. The melancholy of winning. The pain of praise. The weight on your shoulders... the loneliness and agony. The time will come where your efforts will seem meaningless and your victories empty."
Like much of Taiyo Matsumoto's work, Ping Pong includes the same level of energy and surprising depth that outshines its basis to the point of sheer brilliance. Ping Pong, contrary to the title, is less a story about table tennis and more a story about the coming of age of two polar opposite individuals. The author uses ping pong as a medium to advance the story and to develop
the characters, so well in fact the manga is almost criminally realistic. Ping Pong deals with worldly themes of friendship, affliction and adolescence, not so different from Tekkonkinkreet, the authors previous work, which makes it very down to earth and above all else - believable.
The manga introduces us to Peco, the energetic I-don't-care-what-people-think personality, and Smile, the reserved gentleman who would rather lose than make his opponent feel bad. The development of these two main characters is quite the journey. The supporting cast are thankfully there for a lot more than just to provide moral support, and during a ping pong game Taiyo Matsumoto never really attempts to make the readers favour one character over the other, which allows the manga to stay at a realistic and high quality standard. What makes Ping Pong different from most sport manga is the larger focus on the characters as opposed to the game. The rules are not explained, nor do we get any history lessons. Table tennis is there as a foundation for the story and a means of development. Instead of the game fueling the characters, the characters fuel the game.
If you've read anything by Taiyo Matsumoto before then you know to expect nothing less than absolutely superb art that gives off a level of energy like no other. Matsumoto's art is very unique - his lines are often wobbly, the scale of things can sometimes be unclear and his shading is minimal while his inking is high. You won't find many sketchy effects usually associated with manga in Taiyo Matsumoto's works either, but what he does offer is something totally fresh and just as interesting - that being outstanding line art. A huge amount of detail is put into every single panel and during the ping pong matches the energy behind his art perfectly catches the nature and pace of the game.
Given the level of content in Ping Pong, which is only five volumes long, it is no wonder why Taiyo Matsumoto's series are generally rather short. In only these couple of volumes he presents the reader with a wonderfully fresh coming of age story, accompanied by an extremely exciting backdrop, filled with nerve-impulse boosts and eternal undying instinct to boot, complete with realistic characters sure to leave an impression.
Taiyo Matsumoto once said his goal is to combine the powerful and cool feeling of American comics, the intellect of European comics and the lightheartedness of Japanese comics together to create a really tremendous work, and I believe he has achieved such with Ping Pong. You'll finish this manga worn out due to the level of content and intensity, but extremely satisfied, knowing you just witnessed something quite special.
Taiyou Matsumoto is somewhat of a hidden master of manga, most people don't know about him but those who do respect him a lot. Sadly until recently I was someone from the first group, but fortunately I have now converted to the second group. This guy is master of telling a story by very subtle means, conveying the tell with both his excellent and imaginative writing and unconventional and brilliant drawing.
Ping Pong is one of his most famous mangas and after you are few chapters within you begin to understand just why is this guys so special. This manga is a very simple tale of
two friends growing up, their passion for the game of "table tennis" yet this is so much more. With this story you seem to strive with the characters for their goals, you cry with them when they fail and laugh with them succeed. These emotions are very hard thing to evoke especially on someone who doesn't even care about the sport of "Ping Pong or Table Tennis", but the writer does this feat with an ease only found in master story-tellers.
This tells the story of two childhood friends, Hosino and Tsukimoto who are very different from each other. Hoshino aka Peko is a carefree spirit who saves Tsukimoto aka Smile from bullies whom he attracts due to his unusually silent demeanor. Peko is his only friend and he introduces him to the game of "Ping Pong" as something which he really loves. This all is shown in flashback as we are thrown in middle of the story of these two as part of a high school team as they prepare for and take part in a tournament to select Japan's best. They both are talented players and their struggles both in this sports and also as growing up is shown with exquisite beauty of thought provoking drawing. Their unique relationship is detailed and also the fact that how it molded their life as a whole. We also get introduced with other good players of ping pong as well as get to know their story and feel their emotions with them. I might have revealed other details about the story but really don't wanna spoil the enjoyment by any means at all.
The art is superb on a different level, while it may not be very good to look at and some characters have almost the same face when getting serious the stylistic approach is very unique. It conveys so much more than any other conventional manga with its drawings, there are pages without any words which says more than many pages crammed with speech bubbles could tell. The story telling style is also unique with the jump between past and present and also between viewpoints of different characters which adds more to the simple story in a very unorthodox way. One chapter you might come to hate a character and a few chapters later when seeing his viewpoint you start to understand him and even care for him. This is all due to the writers excellent ability to incorporate us with the story.
Overall this manga is a journey, a story that takes you in and makes you strive with the characters and in the end you get to look back at how wonderful an experience it was and really feel like may be reliving it someday. It is indeed something special, quite definitely a masterwork and recommend to everyone who enjoys a good story whether you like sports or not.
At first glance Ping Pong looks like your typical generic sports manga, albeit with a choice of sport relatively uncommon to be found in the medium. And yet, while it does have the usual ingredients (tournament, rivalry, dramatic matches, training sessions, etc.), Ping Pong is way more than its simple, literal, title suggested.
To start, there's nothing typical with Taiyou Matsumoto's art. His style is very distinctive and could initially be hard on the eyes, especially if you're used to pretty, conventional, manga artwork. Matsumoto's characters looked like little demons at times, especially when they're grinning, and in this series
he has tendency to zoom up on their big chunky hands. Stick with it though, and you'd be rewarded with diverse range of facial expressions, beautiful surrealistic imagery, and exhilarating sport scenes. The ping pong matches, in particular, bursts with so much life and energy that I can almost feel the sweat and intensity oozing from the page.
The story revolves around a quintet of young ping pong players, with the biggest spotlight trained on long-time friends Peco and Smile. Characters were assigned nicknames, a nice touch as it lends a sense of immediate intimacy with them. The heightened focus on the players (or rather, human beings that happened to play ping pong) over the sport itself is really apparent; While we were informed about the characters' basic playstyle and their general strengths/weaknesses (Peco, for instance, has a weak backhand), there's no technical breakdown or detailed rules explanation for ping pong newbies. Matches tend to be brisk, rarely extending beyond a couple of chapters at most (although as aforementioned, still exciting thanks to Matsumoto's art). It's also realistic and gritty; While in any other sports series a character nicknamed 'Dragon' would be able to strike flaming ping pong balls with literal dragon flying on the background, don't expect that kind of stuff here.
Ironically, considering the title and all, you can swap 'ping pong' with bowling, badminton, or watermelon smashing, and it wouldn't make that much of a difference; Ping Pong is really about the range of realistic emotion that'd be familiar if you ever engage in something competitive seriously. Questioning the exact purpose of spending so much time and energy at something. Wondering if it's really worth it. Crushing realization that no matter how hard and long you train, there's someone whom you'll never be able to surpass. It's all about those feelings, and also the universal theme of growing up and friendship, as illustrated through Peco and Smile.
Ping Pong wrapped up in just five volumes, way shorter than many more popular sport manga, but Matsumoto clearly didn't need multiple tournament arcs and dozens of competitors to get his point across. The ending may come off as a bit abrupt and too 'neat', but I can't deny how emotionally satisfying the journey was.