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A movie about Ping Pong, can’t be good, surely?

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Table tennis, ping pong, whatever you want to call it, is a specialist sport played mostly by an enthusiastic collection of hardcores, eccentrics and oddballs. Examining the game with unloving eyes, all you may uncover is a baffling blur of squeaking shoes and pumped up grunts. So, amidst this boring confusion of pings and pongs, we miss the compelling battle of wits taking place; that moment the winning player realises he can fly, while his losing opponent watches his cherished dreams come crashing down around him.

Ping Pong (2002, YouTube trailer) is a Japanese live action movie penned by the legendary manga-ka Taiyou Matsumoto, and there’s no beating around the bush here, it is one of my favourite films of all time; a charming and philosophical portrait of human nature painted by an eccentric quartet of characters in love with ping pong. Here’s why.

At the centre of the story are two teenaged best friends; Peco (Yosuke Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata). They are both preciously talented table tennis players who seem to struggle when under pressure. Goof-ball Peco dreams of becoming the best in the world, but blows off practice to gorge on junk food, while Smile doesn’t care about the game at all; he only plays to hang out with his best mate. They’ve shared a strong bond of friendship since childhood because Peco saved Smile (so named because he never does) from bullies, thus Smile idolises Peco as his hero; some one who, when the world’s about to end, saves the day.

The two other most notable characters are intense, aggressive skin-heads; nicknamed Akuma (Demon) and Dragon. Akuma is a hack player with no talent, but so desperately wants to be good, while Dragon is the local champion but works so hard at training and practise that he’s lost all love for the game; despite winning it all, he never smiles.

Ping Pong is punctuated with colourful humour, a fist-pumping soundtrack (with a lot of music from SUPERCAR) and a lot of exciting (CG-assisted) action, but its true brilliance lies within its characters, who in distinctive Japanese style, grow to embody their own particular philosophical flavours.

Peco is running from Smile’s admiration, afraid of not living up to the expectations of his friend, while Akuma, try as he might, can’t accept that his talents lay elsewhere. Even Dragon, the champion, locks himself in a cubicle through out tournaments because he gets so envious of players with real ability.
It feels so heart-filled and compelling because these are issues that transcend the sport in question and impact on us all; some of us want to be the best at what we do yet hopelessly fail, others may be talented but flit it all away, we can even try so hard that we lose sight of whatever made it fun in the first place. Ping Pong is about learning to fly, or in other words, growing up and realising your place in the world; it’s a moving, eccentric and funny film that I hope you run out and pick up right now.

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Comments

Sy says:

I was going to watch this on TV but I missed it so I bought the DVD. Well worth the price tag and you can get it dirt cheap off of play.com. A bonus about this is Shidō Nakamura being in it which I found out he’s been in a few things I enjoyed a lot (The voice of Ryuk in Death Note and Jet Li’s final opponent in Fearless).

Also if I remember correctly you were the one that got me listening to Supercar by recommendation. Great band.

kauldron26 says:

lol… so u gonna see “balls of fury” ?? its a new ping pong movie coming out. looks funny as hell… i hear about ping pong tho i never saw it. however im a beast at playing it.

Martin says:

I caught this on TV a while back (iirc it was on BBC3 at an unearthly hour of the night) and, despite my lack of interest in sport generally, I thought it was fantastic. The contrasting personalities of the two leads throw up all sorts of insightful pieces of philosophy regarding the spirit of fair play and what it really means to win.

My sense of competitiveness is non-existent so rarely appreciate sport in any form, but in truth Ping Pong isn’t just about table tennis – it’s about so many other aspects of life too. The scene where Peco stands on a bridge and screams “I CAN FLY!” in ear-shredding Engrish is utterly priceless!

bateszi says:

I’m glad you bought it, Sy. It’s a thoroughly brilliant movie that I must have watched 4 or 5 times in the last year – and that’s a lot for me. It’s the characters, something about them rings so true with me.
Also, I think I did put you onto Supercar; they have to be my favourite Japanese rock band, such a shame they’ve broken up now – Futurama, particularly, is a great album – just listening to “New Young City” while typing this.

kauldron26 – You have to see this movie, I’m sure you’ll love it. We’ve talked before about emotional characters and catharsis, well, this is it, the ultimate. You live in the States right? I think Viz Media have just released it on DVD over there, so what the hell are you waiting for?

And Martin, glad I’m not the only one to think the Engrish is great in this movie. Smile’s coach constantly seems to alternate between Japanese and random lines of English. It adds another layer of humor to the movie – especially in that scene “I CAN FLY!” scene, the random salary man who turns up and agrees “YES! YOU CAN FLY!!”

Outlawstar says:

Great review.
Shows how easy it is for people to miss out on an amazing movie,cause they; dont like the subject matter.
I actually really want to see this now.
Sounds like my kind of thing.

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Os says:

As stated above, this was very well written. I discovered this movie years ago but I have yet to come across a legit copy to buy which I would definately do in a heartbeat. It is my favorite movie of all time and it even got me started on a Yosuke Kubozuka craze. I always watch the movie before a big test to get pumped up and I listen to Supercar also. Just really gets you in the mood. I’d recommend this to anyone.

Owen S says:

Seeing how I do play ping-pong this sounds very interesting indeed. Will check it out if I ever get the chance. Would you call the gameplay realistic?

bateszi says:

@Os: Thanks for the kind words. You live in the US right? It’s being release on DVD in September – check it out: http://www.dvdpacific.com/item.asp?ID=807521 . And I ended up importing the soundtrack from Japan. I agree with you in regards to how it gets you pumped up, watching it fills me with such enthusiasm for anything! Also, do you know any other good Yosuke Kubozuka films, or in general, other good Japanese live action movies? I’m seen most of the infamous ones like Battle Royale, Azumi, Ichi the Killer and Audition but none are even in the same league as Ping Pong.

@Owen: The Ping Pong action isn’t unrealistic, though it’s obviously sped up or slow down for certain scenes. You should check it out anyway, if you like the sport I’m sure you’ll be fascinated by the insight it provides into the mindset of the players battling against each other.

[…] emotion and glory. The sports element may as well be random; just pick any one from wrestling, table-tennis, baseball or boxing, it’s not as though I know anything about these sports in the first […]

[…] as someone who fell in love with the live action film version of Ping Pong many moons ago (and even wrote about it on this blog! It’s a great film, please watch it!) I feel like I know this story off by heart […]

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