Sports manga is a genre that I’m not sure has developed widespread popularity outside of Japan, there it’s pretty huge, readers love consuming stories portraying a characters rise from nowhere to ultimate glory, especially in a high school setting. Despite knowing this, I’ve never read a sports manga myself, that changed with Ping Pong by Taiyo Matsumoto.
Ping Pong tells the tale of two high-school kids, Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino and Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto. Peco is the all-natural talent, plays aggressively and is cocky, as is always the case in these things, you’ll be unsurprised to learnt hat whilst he appreciates his ability he doesn’t really do anything to nurture it. Smile is also naturally talented, but a lot more disciplined, though he seems to lack the killer edge to win important matches. He initially gives the impression that he’s not really bothered about developing his ability, but before long the high school ping pong coach takes him under his wing and gets him practising hard whilst Peco begins to go off the rails and discovers other things in life to enjoy (junk food and video games).
In this first volume, and despite it being over 500 pages long, there’s not a huge amount of plot to absorb, there are rival schools, a Chinese player who is hired by one of the rival schools and a few other bits and pieces, the dialogue is stilted and clumsy making it hard to follow, whilst it can also get rather retentive. Towards the middle of the volume we’re treated to a big tournament, which is where the cast starts to grow, Peco and Smile, along with a few others, head off to represent their team: Katase, and whilst they’re not successful, it’s here where the two leads’ fortunes change.
Where Ping Pong stands out though is in its artwork.
Characters are all distinctive, but their design is still subtle and refined, there’s hardly any outlandish over the top Shonen style work here. The only time anything gets confusing is when we’re spending time with the students who represent the Kaoi team, who are ultra disciplined, to the point where they all sport shaved heads and identical uniforms, though Matsumoto applies enough subtle differences to tell the two key personnel from this team (Kazama and Sakuma).
The artwork during conversations doesn’t really help the dialogue flow, however, when we get to watch the players performing, things kick-off and the artwork takes a life of their own. The intensity bursts from the pages, with extreme close-ups of the players’ grips, foot positions and facial expressions, whilst the panels do the work of the ball zipping across the table, back and forth, the borders fitting together like shattered glass. It’s exhausting and exhilarating to read and during these spells the page count flies by, unfortunately, they’re dragged down by the dialogue.