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By Ross Williams | July 15, 2004

Ping Pong opens with Peco, our hero, standing on the ledge of a bridge, it looks like he intends to end his life. A bike cop rides up behind him, after a brief don’t-do-it talk, Peco yells out, “I can fly!” The cop caught up in the fever, I guess, yells back, “You can fly!” Peco jumps, the camera catches him mid-fall Matrix-like as it races down the river, under the bridge and then high into the sky. A fun, surreal start to a fun, surreal film.
“No sport demands the reaction time of ping pong,” says Butterfly Joe, the coach of the film’s lead characters. Peco is a young, brash high school ping pong player, for who the game is everything. When he loses, which isn’t often, he cries exuberantly. His best friend Smile, so named because he never does, is also a damn fine player. Conversely he takes no pleasure in the game, he plays it merely to waste the hours away. “He treats the game like a job.” Their team is set to play in the inter-school tournament. Which includes among others, their rivals Kaio Academy, whose players all shave their heads to look like their best player Dragon. They also must face China. Not the country, but the man, he’s a Chinese ringer brought into Japan to compete. He’s the most intimidating off all opponents. His country is renowned for having the most outstanding ping pong players in the world. (As a side note, nearly everybody in this film goes by two names, their real name and their nickname; it’s a little tough to keep track of who’s who for about half the film.)
As much as this is a film about the game, it’s story is about Peco and Smile’s friendship. Which goes way back to when they were merely tots, when Peco taught Smile how to play. The hotheaded Peco delights in constantly beating his best friend. However, unknown to him, Smile is taking it easy on him. Smile really doesn’t even know it himself. He’s so concerned about not hurting his fellow players self esteem that he doesn’t realize that he’s the best player around. Because Dragon and China want to compete against the cream of the crop, they try to convince Smile how good he really is. This is mainly accomplished through trash talking, which there is a ton of in this film. Soon Smile is on the fast track to winning the tournament. But in a moment of weakness, his compassion gets the best of him and he lets China beat him. Meanwhile, Peco is playing Akuma, another childhood chum, who is now on the rival team. Peco has tormented Akuma his entire life, it’s Akuma’s mission in life to get revenge, and he actually beats the cocky Peco.
This is where the film makes a 180. We come back a few months later. Smile is now the stud of the school. He seems wholly determined to win the next tournament. He’s training hard and he’s actually listening to his coach, two things that he didn’t do before. Peco, on the other hand, has given up on the game. If he can’t be the best, he won’t bother to play. The two friends aren’t talking to each other any more.
If you’ve seen even one sports film before, you can guess where this is going. You know Peco’s hatred of the game isn’t going to last. You know that they’re destined to play each another again. The second tournament is the highlight of the film. It does drag at times, too many long dialogues between players, characters repeating themselves, and not enough just plain ping pong playing. There is plenty to satisfy though, and you needn’t have ever picked up a paddle to enjoy the high caliber of play that is shown.
Despite being a little cliché, Ping Pong is a hell of a lot of fun. Yosuke Kubozuka owns the role of Peco. He’s hilariously madcap, a character who never stops tormenting his adversaries, who never shuts up period. He’s an absolute joy to watch. Arata has less to work within the character of Smile, he simply looks sullen the majority of the film. The real star of the show is the game itself. First time director Fumihiko Sori has a blast with these scenes. Super slow-mo, odd angles, extreme close-ups, and CGI help in showing us the game like we’ve never it before.
Based on a manga (Aren’t all Japanese films these days?), Ping Pong has been a huge International hit. But of course here in America nobody’s heard of it. The only play it gets is at film festivals. If it comes to one near you, I recommend you check it out.

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