Judge Adam Arseneau has serious balls of fury. Wait, wrong film.
Table tennis to the extreme.
In the unsanctioned, underground, and unhinged world of extreme ping-pong, the competition is brutal and the stakes are…wait, hold on, wrong movie.
With Balls Of Fury primed and ready to go in theaters, it would seem as opportune a time as any to release Ping Pong, a bizarre Japanese comedy of high table-tennis action upon an unsuspecting North American audience. Based on the best-selling manga by Taiyo Matsumoto (Blue Spring), Ping Pong alternates between dead serious admiration and totally irreverent disregard to the sport of ping-pong in a way that would make Steven Chow (Shaolin Soccer) proud.
Facts of the Case
Peco (Yôsuke Kubozuka, Samurai Resurrection) is a talented ping-pong player, but a downright annoying human being. Loud, obnoxious, and boisterous, his ego knows no bounds. Luckily, his quick skills with the ping-pong paddle back up his bravado. His longtime childhood friend plays on his level, but the two could not be more different.
Lanky and laconic, Smile (Arata, After Life) plays table tennis to kill time, nothing more. His coach and opponents recognize his masterful command of the game and limitless potential, but Smile is hampered by his own meekness, holding back his talent deliberately so as not to embarrass his opponents.
When Peco suffers a humiliating defeat at a tournament from a longtime rival, he spirals into depression and self-loathing, quitting the sport. Smile, on the other hand, rapidly rises through the ranks, becoming a reluctant ping-pong star. Both friends struggle to come to terms with their own feelings towards the sport, their own ambitions, and learn to use their talents fully. Deep inside, both men realize they have a destiny on the table-tennis court with one another, once and for all.
Ping Pong is a pure exuberant delight of filmmaking; a vibrant expression of comic book outrageousness, the obsession of sport and the challenges of friendship. That should be all you need to know about this film before you go out and purchase a copy of your own.
Equal measure comedy, drama, character development, and over-the-top action, here is a film whose source material is so perfectly constructed for a big-budget cinematic adaptation that it cannot possibly do anything but succeed. And succeed it does. I know; you might be skeptical about a Japanese film about table tennis. You might wonder why anyone would get excited about such a film. Allow me to enlighten you.
What surprises most about Ping Pong is the impressive emotional depth the film has. The film is a meditation on life through ping-pong, a metaphor that would translate to virtually any sport. Philosophic ruminations of honor, friendship, rivalry, and passion are center stage and transcend any actual on-screen table-tennis playing (which is all CGI anyway). Ping Pong is an exploration of the perfection that is competition in all forms, real and imagined, physical and emotional, against opponents and one's own ego. In Ping Pong, Peco wants to be the best player in the world, but his motivations are purely self-serving. He has no appreciation of the sport, no understanding of the bliss that comes from devotion and self-sacrifice. Smile plays out of boredom, to pass the time, unappreciative of his talents, and resentful of those who adore him. By the end of the film, both will have come to understand their friendship and the game in a way that transcends their own expectations. And yes, I am being serious when I describe a ping-pong movie in such dramatic terms.
As Peco and Smile journey through their days, playing ping-pong and struggling with friendship, Ping Pong manages to cram a surprising amount of character development into its 114-minute running time, not only for its two protagonists, but also for its numerous sub-characters. Mirroring the manga source material, in which every character (however insignificant) gets an issue or two to explore their back story and motivations, so does the film stay faithful to fleshing out its participants. This added depth and understanding elevates Ping Pong beyond a silly genre flick into something significant, something meaty and substantial. The notion of good and bad protagonists blurs as we come to understand that Peco, Smile, Demon—all the characters in the film—suffer the same anxiety, the same struggle to achieve greatness in their respective ways. Much of Ping Pong boils down to the good old-fashioned Japanese ethos of using one's talents to the fullest extent in order to honor to one's self; a tried-and-true Japanese anxiety. The actual application is moot; be it table tennis or business or bushido or what have you, the same root applies in all forms. This ethos is intrinsically rooted in the very essence of Japanese culture, and it is a reoccurring theme in the literature, cinema, and manga of the country for a reason—it's very much a part of the cultural mindset.
Sure, Ping Pong is fun and exiting and enjoyable in a totally disposable fashion, but there is genuine emotion and resonance exhibited by the protagonists, and it connects well with audiences. The performances are solid overall, with great supporting roles from Shido Nakamura (Letters from Iwo Jima), shaved bald as a cue ball; Sam Lee (Invisible Target); and Naoto Takenaka (The Great Yokai War). Yôsuke Kubozuka as Peco in particular is especially endearing; he has a perfect mix of childlike exuberance and annoyingness. You sympathize with these characters, much more than you expect to. Once you realize that you are watching the table tennis battles with white-knuckled gripping on the sofa, you realize how deep you have been pulled into the narrative. These are no mere sport contests; these are battles of character, of spirit and soul between warriors—or something to that effect that doesn't sound quite as lame.
The screenplay is excellent, covering just the right amount of character development for its protagonists, balancing between drama and humor with aplomb. You can definitely tell the source material is based on a manga, because the dialogue, the wacky stylized character designs, and the plot sound like they were scooped directly from the pages of a comic and plunked down onto the big screen fully formed. Often times, cinematic adaptations of comics or manga try too hard to re-invent the wheel, so to speak, and create something different than the source, but not here—this is pure comic entertainment from start to finish, and it works fabulously. From the writing to the character development, I have never seen a live-action film based on a manga that felt so manga-ish, for lack of a legitimate word, with outrageous sight gags, comedic timing, and hilarious slapstick. Even the emotionally driven monologues given by characters feel…well, comic-like! But in a good way!
Directed by SORI, a.k.a. Fumihiko Sori (producer of the Appleseed CGI feature film revival) Ping Pong has some serious technical muscle driving it, though you might not realize it upon first glance. Through a combination of sly editing, computer animation, and special effects, the end result is surprisingly subtle. You might not even realize it at first, but the film is overladen with subtle CGI trickery, creating a seamless illusion of fluid ping-pong with nothing over-the-top or corny to break the spell. Even much of the crowd at the ping-pong tournament is CGI. It is an impressive feat of visual trickery, if only for its restraint and natural feel. And in case you were wondering, nobody is doing any wacky back flips or shooting ping-pong balls made of fire or anything like that; the film is firmly rooted in reality.
Visually, Viz did a decent job with Ping Pong on DVD, though the transfer is not without its faults. The color tone is heavily shifted towards yellows and greens, occasionally washing out, but looking clean from print damage and vibrant overall. Picture is clean, with solid black levels, but straight lines often get muddled, like in the mesh of the table-tennis nets. Skin tones occasionally break down into compression artifacts, and some ghosting is noticeable during high motion sequences. Overall, the presentation is on par with other DVD releases of Ping Pong in alternate regions.
We get both a stereo and a surround track in native Japanese (with smatterings of English and Chinese) dialogue. The stereo track is clean and clear, with decent bass response and fantastic environmental detail, but oh, the surround track is just that much nicer. The 5.1 is perfectly balanced, pumping music equally out in all channels, with the rear channels perfectly capturing the whiz of table tennis balls flying by. The sound reproduction in Ping Pong is superb—the whistle of the paddles, the squeak of the shoes on the court, the gentle plunking of the ball against the table, all sonic elements are simulated with perfect realism and clarity. The soundtrack is primarily electronic J-pop dance rhythms, which doesn't always compliment the film as well as it should, but after a while, you kind of tune it out.
This two-disc set ponies up some nice supplementary material. The first disc contains the film and the cast and crew bios. All the meat lives on the second disc, starting off with a sizable 54-minute "making of" featurette that goes into joyous detail on the making of Ping Pong, explaining all the nifty CGI trickery and such (like the actors having to choreograph playing ping pong with no ball, and the special effect wizards animating the ball in later). We get some nice interviews with cast and crew subbed into English—all told, this is a quality piece.
Next, a 15-minute parody piece, "Ting Pong" is a strange little creation, which basically parodies the entire film straight into the trash can, with most of the cast reprising their roles in what was probably a totally ad-libbed, spontaneous camcorder creation by the crew. Adorable, if totally pointless. We also get a 15-minute featurette, "How To Play Ping Pong," which is exactly as it sounds—the cast and crew take us through the game, discussing all the skills required to excel at the sport. Add a few TV spots and some teaser trailers to round things out, and you're done. Now, the two short featurettes are cute, but arguably have little to do with the film. Still, we do get a solid hour in the form of the "making of" featurette, which covers pretty much all the basics from cast and crew that you could want. Overall, high marks for extra features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At no point in the film is Ping Pong anything less than enjoyable, but the film does suffer from some slight pacing issues. The first act and the second act are clearly divided, and you will know when you are entering the second act as if it was marked by a gigantic neon sign. The first act is almost entirely devoted to character development, and compared to the more fast-paced second act, feels noticeably slow in comparison.
Another bad thing? It features a debilitating lack of Christopher Walken. Yes, I realize it's a Japanese film. You know what? I don't care. Other ping-pong movies have Walken! I want Walken!
Surprisingly sentimental on the subjects of friendship, passion, and talent, Ping Pong is as introspective as it is joyous and entertaining. I adore this film for its endearing charm, its high entertainment value and its outrageous comedic skill. Heck, I love it for plastering a goofy grin upon my face for a solid two hours. This one comes highly recommended by the court.
Walken! Walken! Wal—oh, okay, fine.
Not guilty. Not by a landslide. Ping Pong rocks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Viz Media
• "Making of Ping Pong" Featurette
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