Aaand we’re back to the full lengths, with a review of one of the best shows of the past few years: Ping Pong the Animation. Ping Pong is a stellar achievement in basically all categories, and will likely be one of my gateway recommendations for many years to come. I actually wrote an essay about the show back when it aired, so I got to double-dip on this one, covering themes specifically then and the whole package this time. More writing about Kong can only be a good thing.
I didn’t take notes on this one, since I’d already watched it twice before my review, but I did write episodic posts about it back when it aired, so there’s a whole bunch of Ping Pong content to go around!
I had to stretch to get a top 10 this year. I’m ready to admit that. Last year, it was easy – in fact, it was too easy, and I ended up expanding my list to twelve shows basically by necessity. But this year didn’t have quite the top shelf of 2013, and so concessions had to be made. There are certainly a couple notable absences here, with I’m guessing the biggest ones being Kill la Kill, Space Dandy, and maybe Nozaki-kun. The reason for those absences is simple – I didn’t like any of those shows very much. If you’re looking for a general “all the shows that enjoyed positive appraisal among the kinds of people who make a point of appraising shows,” I’m guessing all three of those would be included, but this is my list, and I’m gonna talk about what I wanna. (Incidentally, if you are looking for a list like that, my fellow critics at ANN all contributed their own top five lists to this recent retrospective – and that’s all shows that started in 2014, so even my list over there is pretty different). My list may be a little shorter this year, but it’s still got some real gems, and considering three of the year’s best shows aren’t included simply because they aren’t finished (Shirobako, KimiUso, and Parasyte), I’d say we made off okay. Let’s run it down!
There were a lot of lovely moments in anime this year, but my very favorite comes from my favorite new show. Ping Pong was already a tremendous show before episode five – its characters, storytelling, and aesthetics were just demolishing the competition, and Wenge himself was already its most poignant character. Cast out alone into Japan, he’d been forced to come to grips with the limits of his own talents, and his false pride could no longer make up for the fundamental loneliness of his situation. And yet Wenge rose above – instead of retreating into himself, he reached out to the teammates around him, and ended up making a new home of his exile.
ANN just posted their big top five anime of the year retrospective, which includes the results of their reader poll and lists from a bunch of their staff, including yours truly. This list was based on full-length shows that started in 2014, meaning no Hanamonogatari or Samurai Flamenco, while shows like Shirobako are eligible. Meaning the list I submitted there is actually fairly different from the top ten list I’ll be posting here in a week or so, but it still offers a fine preview of my thoughts on the year, and actually highlights how badly I think this fall season pulled everything together. This was a weak year in anime, but the silver lining is that fall’s continuing shows (Shirobako, KimiUso, Parasyte, FSN) are almost single-handedly ensuring 2015 will be better. And the other ANN writers highlight a whole bunch of other compelling stuff, so clearly animeland will survive. Here’s to 2014!
“A new age has come, but I still can’t get out of this rut
And it’s too straight and narrow, no escape routes around…” Tadahitori
“Staking your life on ping pong is revolting,” says Smile, the ostensible “protagonist” of Ping Pong. In the context of a sports show, that seems kind of like sacrilege – what can be more important than giving it your all, than pinning your hopes on the pursuit of a crazy ping pong dream? But in the context of Ping Pong, his words make sense – because Ping Pong isn’t really much of a sports show. The matches are emotive and interpretive, the “training arcs” don’t exist, and instead of characters learning new techniques, we get rambling Christmas song montages. There’s no romance in believing in victory here – in the context of Ping Pong, Smile’s belief in a hero that will save him seems to almost be some kind of ironic joke.
Two weeks ago, I described Ping Pong as a “small symphony,” where all the moving parts just work together and elevate each other. This week, that ephemeral quality was probably best expressed not through any one scene, but through the transitions between them.
You know how sports or action shows often have that one character who has to explain what’s actually happening, so the audience understands the stakes and back-and-forth? Ping Pong apparently forgot to include that guy, so instead, they decided to illustrate conflict so that audience can actually understand it themselves. This was clear in the second episode, where they framed a practice match as the battle to ignite Smile’s spirit – everything necessary was conveyed through the robot imagery and the expressions of the contestants. It was clear last week, when, in spite of every set of eyes being on Smile and Wenge’s match, we only received muttered asides from the spectators, and the match largely spoke for itself. And it was clear this week, when Sakuma’s strategy is made visually obvious as Peco returns lob after lob with his same unthinking intensity. It’s very smart work, and indicative of how good Yuasa is at playing to his medium’s strengths to convey necessary information. As an avowed fan of Speedwagon, I am continuously impressed by how gracefully Ping Pong demonstrates that the Speedwagons of the world are generally a crutch, not a necessary variable.
The season has settled at this point, and where it has settled is a very satisfying place. JoJo, Ping Pong, and One Week Friends are fantastic, Sidonia is much stronger than I expected, Captain Earth is kind of wibbly-wobbly, and Chaika is comfy as all get-out. Once I add Mushishi to the list, this will pretty much secure this season as the best one since I started watching airing shows. Good times!
Management: I know, this is highly irregular. I was just writing my usual week in review blurb for this episode and then just kept writing, so I guess I kind of accidentally wrote an episodic post. Apologies.
Not content to be impressive merely for its merits in writing, art design, and direction, this episode helped demonstrate that equally important to Ping Pong’s magic is its wonderful sound design. This should have been obvious, actually – after all, the first episode’s highlight was a scene where Wenge and his trainer tracked the course of a match through the sound of rackets alone. But this episode got even more ostentatious about this strength, opening with that beautiful crescendo of rackets and ping pong balls leading into the tournament qualifiers. The effectiveness of that moment is pretty much how it goes with Ping Pong – like with Tatami Galaxy, basically every quality I turn to and focus on is clever and creative and uniquely effective.