Title: Ping Pong (ピンポン)
Author: Taiyō Matsumoto
Published: 1996 – 1997
Length: 5 Volumes
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 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 a moving and nonetheless excitable journey and the supporting cast are utilised well; present thankfully for a lot more than moral support. Furthermore, during a ping pong contest 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 with a lot of emotional weight. 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’re more than aware of his distinctive artwork. 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 prominent. You won’t find many sketchy effects usually associated with manga in Taiyo Matsumoto’s work either, but what he offers instead is some truly outstanding line art. The composition and level of detail are all first-class and Matsumoto’s panel placement is genius; fluently depicting the nature and pace of the game. There’s a real energy to Ping Pong that the author himself has since admitted he’s unlikely to match.
Ping Pong is only fifty-five chapters long – collected in five volumes – but the content is wonderfully paced and never feels sparse. Matsumoto presents the reader with a superbly fresh coming of age story, accompanied by an extremely rousing backdrop and complete with realistic characters sure to leave an impression. The author 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. This is the very epitome of manga; passionate, stirring and really something quite special.