Story & Art by Taiyo Matsumoto
Translation & English Adaptation by Michael Arias
Touch-Up Art & Lettering by Deron Bennett
Cover & Interior Design by Adam Grano
Edited by Mike Montesa
While many of Taiyo Matsumoto’s works have been brought over in English, one notable title has continued to be absent: Ping Pong. This 1990s classic has a huge cult following, and even got an anime adaptation by acclaimed director Masaaki Yuasa in 2014. This year, Viz Media has finally given English readers the opportunity to read the original manga, and it lives up to the hype.
Ping Pong centers around Makoto Tsukimoto (Smile) and Yutaka Hoshino (Peco), two drastically different friends that play high school table tennis. As they confront the challenges of competitive sports, the boys head down their own paths and reflect on their passion for the game.
Smile is a reserved protagonist, but what makes him so interesting is his relationship with table tennis. Smile appears to have no passion for the sport, and unconsciously holds back his effort during his games. That said, underneath Smile’s disinterest is a genuine talent for table tennis. When his coach Jo Koizumi learns of his potential, Smile’s character starts to shift. Smile becomes more aggressive in his games, and doesn’t hesitate to demonstrate his skills. Smile wanted to live life without being noticed by society, but by embracing his talents, he’s entered a hidden world. Smile’s story explores the infectious nature of a competitive environment, emphasizing Smile’s investment in table tennis itself.
If Smile’s character arc is one of growth, Peco’s is one of decline. As a child, Peco was naturally talented at table tennis, but as he’s grown older his skills have plateaued. He placed little effort into practicing the game and refining his skills, and has been overshadowed by rival players as a result. Peco represents a fallen prodigy, frustrated by his missteps but unable to improve. When Peco eventually chooses to give up on table tennis, it comes as a surprise but is also a grounded narrative choice. Peco has hit a wall in his passion, and he can’t find the motivation to overcome it.
While Smile and Peco’s lives lead down different routes, the story focuses on the impact of their friendship. Smile used to idolize Peco, viewing him as a hero in his dreary life. At the same time, Smile’s expectations for Peco obscured reality. As Smile’s skills in table tennis grew while Peco’s passion waned, the power dynamic in their relationship reversed. Smile lost the hero he revered, and while he still has tougher rivals in table tennis, his motivation is no longer tied to an end goal.
The rival players in Ping Pong are all fascinating in their own right. One of the first that’s introduced is Kong Wenge, a transfer student from China that has come to Japan to reclaim his status in table tennis. Having been kicked off the Chinese national team, Kong’s relationship with the sport is unstable. While he’s incredibly talented, he’s bogged down by his peers’ expectations and the ramifications of future failures. This is especially evident in Kong’s demeanor, forming an air of confidence to hide his own insecurities and isolation. Kong had dedicated his life to table tennis, but now his livelihood has become his biggest detriment.
Ryuichi Kazama is another key player in Ping Pong and may also be the most frightening. At first glance, Kazama is a high schooler who has simply dedicated his life to table tennis, but his choice has taken its toll. Kazama’s mind seems to revolve around the game, to the point that it’s reflected in his own ideology. He believes that winning is valuable no matter the cost, and is even willing to cast aside his teammates for the sake of victory. Kazama represents a divergent path to Smile. While Smile’s drive in Ping Pong comes from acclimated passion, Kazama’s drive is tied to obligation. This also makes Kazama’s opinion of Smile all the more interesting, as while he doesn’t agree with his mindset, he acknowledges that his talents would be beneficial on his team. Kazama and Smile’s conflicting perspectives form a great tension in the story, raising the excitement even further.
Taiyo Matsumoto has an iconic art style, and that makes his work on Ping Pong just as compelling. The manga maintains a unique aesthetic. The backgrounds have a minimalist look, but this is contrasted by the more detailed character expressions and gestures. This ties back to Ping Pong’s narrative, urging readers to examine the subtleties of the characters. This is especially true for Smile, as his mannerisms are strongly tied to the manga’s narrative subtext. Matsumoto is fully aware of what the reader needs to be told and what can be inferred, and he crafts his artwork with that in mind. As the games intensify, more layers are added to manga’s visual complexity. The panels place a heavier focus on the meticulous movements of the characters, showcasing their drive for the sport. The match between Kong and Smile exemplifies this, as the detail of the panels builds alongside the tension of each rally. Matsumoto is an artist of unrivaled talent, and reading his manga is a true pleasure.
Ping Pong is a compelling manga that excels at depicting its sport through a character driven narrative. Matsumoto’s work is astounding, cementing this title as a classic. Smile and Peco’s journey is only halfway over, but there is already plenty to love.