I’ll freely admit that the first time I watched Ping Pong, I was pretty disappointed and underwhelmed. But in hindsight, I had gone in with completely wrong expectations. Based on the trailers I’d seen and some of the more effusive praise I’d read on the Web, I went in expecting an over-the-top, CGI-fueled live-action cartoon à la Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. But Ping Pong couldn’t be further from Chow’s hyperactive film.
That isn’t to say that Fumihiko Sori’s debut feature isn’t without its more kinetic, cartoonish moments. Indeed, you’ll never look at — or play — ping pong the same way after you’ve seen film’s final act. But those moments are just the final layer in this surprisingly nuanced exploration of the thin line between friendship and rivalry, the roles that friends and rivals play in shaping our lives and dreams and holding us accountable to those dreams, adults imposing their hopes and dreams on the youths in their care, and of course, ping pong.
As I reflect on Ping Pong, I find myself reminded of another, more recent Japanese film that was also much deeper and more nuanced than its premise might indicate, 2005’s Linda Linda Linda. Or, to put it another way, saying that Ping Pong is just about a couple of guys playing ping pong is like saying that Linda Linda Linda is just about a group of girls starting a rock n’ roll band.
The core of the film is the relationship between the unlikeliest of friends. Peco (played to the hilt by Yōsuke Kubozuka) is brash, cocky, and loud-mouthed; Smile (Arata, perhaps best known to the arthouse crowd for his lead role in Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s After Life) is quiet, reserved, and so named because he never does. Peco is obsessed with being the greatest ping pong player on the planet; Smile, on the other hand, sees it only as a way to pass time — which is ironic because he’s actually the better player of the two. However, he constantly throws matches out of loyalty for Peco.
Everyone else except Peco sees Smile’s restraint: the duo’s high school coach, Peco’s grandmother (who runs a local ping-pong dojo), and the their various rivals in the world of ping-pong, a colorful cast that includes China (a Chinese exchange student who comes to Japan when he’s unable to make the Chinese national team), Demon (a former childhood friend of Peco and Smile’s), and Dragon (the intimidating club leader from another high school who approaches the game with an intensity bordering on sociopathic).
But soon enough, the scales fall from Peco’s eyes when he’s simultaneously defeated by China and Demon. Smile, under pressure from their coach to play harder and with less hesitation, begins to win more matches. And when he handily defeats those who beat Peco, Peco’s dreams are shattered. But, in a strange and almost taoistic way, so are Smile’s.
As the film progresses and the two friends find themselves drifting apart, the film’s primary themes — that we need friends not just for relationships, but also to protect us from the worst parts of our selves — begin to emerge. The more Peco and Smile grow apart, the more meaningless, empty, and even ugly their lives become. Peco becomes a chain-smoking, unkempt hustler while Smile grows more withdrawn, and even hostile.
These dynamics and relational shifts are handled in a subtle, oblique, and even surreal manner. Sori resists telegraphing any big emotional moments onto his characters, especially in the case of the taciturn Smile, and much is left for the viewer to fill in and interpret as they see fit. There are moments when film seems rather slapdash and unable to find any sort of narrative rhythm. Scenes stop and end with seemingly no rhyme or reason, ending before they seem finished or before the characters are done with whatever they’re doing. But the film as a whole is put together with such skill and confidence that it’s readily apparent that director Sori and screenwriter Kankurô Kudô (adapting Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga) know exactly what they’re doing, and the film packs a surprising amount of emotional heft (though it might not come from where you expect it).
Not to get all personal, but it’s very difficult for me to watch the film and not be reminded of some of my previous friendships. Friendships where the two of us were completely opposite, like Peco and Smile. On paper, our friendships should never have worked, and yet they have been among the deepest and most satisfying relationships in my life. And when friendships like this are severed, or when they simply dissolve and weaken due to the storms and stress of normal, everyday life, it’s impossible not to feel lost, unsure of yourself, and empty.
At key points in the film, we’re shown flashbacks to Peco and Smile’s childhood, to scenes where Peco saves Smile from bullies or teaches him to play ping pong for the first time. Even as their friendship shows signs of disintegration, we’re given glimpses of how it began. We see Smile’s need for a hero, for someone who look up to, and we see the ways in which Peco shirks from and even derides that — to the detriment of Peco, Smile, and even those around them.
But I would be remiss if I left you with the impression that Ping Pong is simply a depressing high school melodrama and nothing more. Admittedly, it’s pretty easy to see where things will end up from the very first frame — the real pleasure of the film is the meandering, emotional path it takes to get there. It’s a sports movie, after all, and as such, it includes all of the scenes required for any sports film (e.g., the obligatory training montage complete with inspirational music).
Even if you’re not up for all of the relationship drama, it’s worth watching the film for the final act, as Peco and Smile meet back up in a tournament setting to take on their rivals. Here, Sori elevates the game of ping pong to surreal and transcendental heights, as players react with superhuman reflexes to hit a tiny (computer animated) ball back and forth at unbelievable speeds. The final matches resemble a martial arts film more than anything, and in one of the film’s most beautiful and lyrical scenes, two players play with such intensity that they’re transported to what could only be described as a higher plane of existence.
But I would contend that these final scenes are deliriously enjoyable, not because of the over-the-top action, Sori’s assured camerawork (for which he received a “Best Director” nomination at the 2002 Japanese Academy Awards), or the pulsing techno soundtrack, but precisely because of the drama that goes on beforehand. As Peco and Smile struggle through their relationship and the absence thereof, as they head down dead ends and drown in disappointments that lead them to (figuratively and literally) throw themselves off a bridge, the tension and anxiety created makes the final tournament scenes and the subsequent denouement/flash-forward all the more delightful, exciting, and even rapturous.
And it leaves one haunted with a desire to hold on that much more closely to existing friendships, to not take them for granted, to take more seriously the responsibilities that friendship entails, to be more accountable, and to treasure more deeply seemingly random communications with old and forgotten friends.
Oh, and brush up on one’s ping pong skills (my backhand is in dire need of practice).
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on May 8, 2009.