I enjoyed the first episode of Ping Pong for its rough, esoteric artistry and the fresh approach Yuasa has taken for presenting an anime. Actually, I guess you could say I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it. While it wasn’t boring by any stretch, it did lack a certain ‘hook’ or gravitas that I really need to get me genuinely invested in the show. Well, episode 2 changed all that, and episodes 3, 4 and 5 all rode that wave of change to make ping pong my anime of the season. In fact it’s probably more than that; You know it’s anime-love when you have this militant desire to make everyone else like it. Spring has come for this anime fan! I thought I’d better stop pestering my friends about dropping it and just let me passion out through a blog post instead.
Forget Everything You’ve Learned About Anime
Ping Pong’s success is hampered by the insular and cannibalistic nature of the anime industry. In terms of art styles, design work, and even the way things are storyboarded, there is very little variation. Sure, an anime girl might have larger eyebrows or different coloured hair, but they’re always recognisable as an ‘anime girl’. Anime is a medium, but most of the time we actually think of it as a genre – there is a look and a set of unspoken rules about what kind of stories should be told and how they should play out. This came about because most people in the industry are inspired by works from within the medium. How many light novel’s that get made into anime are written by otaku? It’s this feedback loop that has trapped both producers and fans. Most otaku expect to see “anime”, rather than “animation from Japan”.
Ping Pong is one of those rare cases of commercial Japanese animation that isn’t trying to be ‘anime’. It’s just trying to be Ping Pong. Sure, the characters are drawn with rough, lazy-seeming lines, and they’re definitely not colourful or attractive. They don’t stay on model all the time; and sometimes they move in unnatural ways. But who said anime has to do any of that? Who said Japanese animation has to be cleanly drawn, detailed, and stick to model sheets? Most of the time people who say Ping Pong looks ‘bad’ are actually saying that it doesn’t meet their expectations as an anime. It’s unfortunate that anime are punished when they try something too different – I know Aku no Hana suffered the same fate, but turned out to be easily one of the best anime of the year.
I don’t believe that comparing the way Ping Pong looks to other anime can be a valid criticism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with looking weird, rough and ‘uncute’. If everyone could cleanse their palate and enjoy Ping Pong for what it is, they might see some beauty and raw creativity in the messy expressionistic style of Ping Pong.
I’ve just about exhausted all my synonyms for rough and wobbly in my discussions on Ping Pong so far, because that’s really the best way to describe its overall visual composure. The linework is skittishly wavy and the characters often have a mishapen bearing to them – but don’t mistake this for sloppy production values; the loose wonkiness of Ping Pong is deliberately realised. Even the background art has been drawn with the same scraggly linework to deliver a unified style.
On the one hand, I’m sure there’s a degree of trying to look different for the sake of standing out, but on the other hand, I think one of benefits of this it allows the animation to be looser and more expressive in different ways. Without strict character models and the need for smooth, neat lines, animators are more free to deliver raw expression through their animation. And that’s not a sign of a lazy production – it’s just a choice to undercook the animation to preserve more of its original flavour. The OP is a perfect example of this, showcasing some really astounding work from some of the best animators ever, all clearly done in their own unique manner. Its exhilarating, fresh and technically impressive in a way that a more strictly produced anime could never allow for.
Another point to the look is the lack of highlights/shading in the animation and the simplicity of some elements of the designs – especially the hair. The lack of highlights is becoming more common in anime and it gives the animation a very crisp, clean and modern look. The risk is that things can look flat without shading. Ping Pong avoids that trap with its strong use of perspective and warped posing that fills out the shots in a 3 dimensional way, and the lack of shading detail helps the series focus on the expressions and mannerisms of the characters. On top of that, there’s a lack of post-processing like lighting effects or filters (like the opposite of Ufotable or GoHands). The Ping Pong visuals are crisp and focused – I love it!
I think it’s fair to say that there’s more of a focus on presentation over animation in Ping Pong, and this is where Yuasa’s monumental effort of storyboarding and scripting every episode of the series comes in. Since the schedule of this anime isn’t so great (as in, it wasn’t in preproduction for that long), Yuasa has apparently been kicking out an episode storyboard once every 10 days. It usually takes 2+ weeks to complete a storyboard, so it’s quite a feat. It’s definitely a radical measure for a director to do every storyboard for a TV-anime (I can’t think of any other cases), but it means that he has a direct hand in the way every scene in Ping Pong plays out. As a result, Ping Pong feels tightly crafted in terms of its pace and visual presentation. The coherent vision he has mapped out from start to finish also imbues the storytelling with a focus and sense of purpose that anime often loses. Every scene counts, and every shot is perfectly in-tune with the Ping Pong style.
There are plenty of animation shortcuts in Ping Pong, and there are moments that seem cheap, but the style that Yuasa and Nobutake Ito have created here is probably its greatest asset.
I mentioned the OP before, and it’s certainly the animation highlight of anything from this season. It’s directed, storyboarded, and AD’d by none other than Shinya Ohira, easily one of most technically brilliant and fascinating animators to have ever lived. Ohira only really works on cinema anime these past few years, so his involvement here is clearly a sign of respect for Yuasa (he also did key animation on Yuasa’s Mind Game uncredited). He brings along kindred spirit Shinji Hashimoto and other top expressive animators including Hokuto Sakiyama, Tomoyuki Niho, and Yasunori Miyazawa to help create this impressive piece of work.
As expected, Shinya Ohira’s segment was the highlight – pure, unadulterated animation that strongly harkens back to his career’s earlier focus on ultra-realism but with a fervid edge of expressiveness that his work is now known for.
Shinji Hashimoto’s animation is also superb – you can feel the sense of power and momentum from his running sequence, as though it’s trying to charge right out of the screen!
Like he did with Azura’s Wrath episode 11, Ohira took this opportunity to let the talent of some top-grade animators speak for itself, to great effect! With the amount of drawings in this, I’m not surprised it didn’t get finished on time (it doesn’t play until the third episode). The OP was also improved going into the fourth episode, so it’s clear Ohira doesn’t consider it finished yet. It’s also perhaps another sign that the schedule on Ping Pong isn’t the best.
Yasunori Miyzawa has been a major contributor to the animation of Ping Pong. He’s been a highly regarded animator for some time now, but has maintained a prolific workload in TV-anime unlike some of his lofty peers. He’s also been involved with Yuasa’s works for some time now, including all of his other noitamina series and being an associate animator on his Kick-heart movie. So it was pretty clear that he would show up here.
Sure enough, he’s credited with key animation in the OP, episode one and episode 3. He actually did animation in episode 4 as well, but it looks like they stuffed up his name in the credits, showing 宮沢康則 instead of 宮沢康紀… or was this intentional for some reason?
His animation in episode 4, a key part of the showdown between Ryuuichi and Wenge, was definitely one of the more interesting beats in the ep. Even though it was very limited, it was interesting to see the looming, monstrous portrayal of Ryuuichi, tapping into the psychology of the match without the need for cutaways and obvious narration.
Miyzawa is definitely a major asset to the show, and I hope he keeps working on it. He’s actually involved with the other noitamina show this season, Nanana’s Buried Treasure, having done genga for 2 of the episodes so far. Glad his talented drawing arm is being kept busy!
BahiJD’s next big break after his work on Space Dandy was supposed to grace Japanese television screens with episode 3 of Ping Pong, but it wasn’t to be.
Bahi is a young Austrian animator and a newcomer in the Japanese industry. He still lives in Austria and works with other staff over the internet. He is very passionate about anime and works very hard to make each of his cuts memorable. His work on Space Dandy episode 1 was actually very impressive, all the more so for someone so inexperienced in the business. Here’s a part of it on sakugabooru. After finishing his work on this, he moved on to his animation for the 3rd episode of Ping Pong, for which it seemed he was doing a whopping 20 cuts. That translated to basically the last climactic two minutes of the episode – a great chance for his work to really be put on a pedestal.
But when the episode came out, there was no noticeably Bahi animation, and nothing notable from the final scenes. Then we see that his name wasn’t in the credits! An avid twitter user, he made a number of tweets suggesting that something had gone wrong with his work on Ping Pong in terms of meeting the schedule. It’s hard to say exactly what the problem was – perhaps he couldn’t finish his animation before his deadline, or maybe the deadline was miscommunicated thanks to him not being Japanese. But his animation didn’t make it in, and clearly they had to scramble replacement cuts together from somewhere. Although it didn’t ruin the episode, this is definitely an unfortunate stuff up! I hope it doesn’t hamper his career in Japan.
After the episode, he put rough concept versions of his cuts online, and I’ve gotta say it looks like he could have made them really great. If he had got them finished and in the episode, it definitely would have been awesome.
Eunyoung Choi is a female Korean animator who has really made a name for herself working with Yuasa on his projects from Kemonozume right through to Kick-heart. She is an accomplished animator with a budding career in directing. She handled episode 9 of Space Dandy recently, and, unless she’s busy on another future project, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her put the director’s hat on sometime for Ping Pong.
In the mean time, she has provided key animation for episode 2 and also did the ending animation by herself. Although it’s obviously rotoscoped from video footage, the ED is still visually delightful and would have taken a lot of work! Since there are no other credits, I guess she shot the footage herself or directed it and came up with what to record. I’m not really sure how walking, driving and then looking at a bird relate to ping pong, but it’s definitely pretty.
The show’s use of flash animation mostly feels unnecessary and included for the sake of trying something new. Even if it does save costs for those shots of a whole bunch of people playing table tennis, I’d rather miss out on those scenes than see awkwardly placed full animation mixed in with the limited 2D animation. Also, since it’s artificially in-betweened, flash animation always moves unnaturally smoothly, and you can feel the ‘joints’ on the character. Adding to this, in Ping Pong, it has thicker, bolder lines without the same wobbly look that the rest of the animation has. It seems pretty jarring and pointless, but I guess it could have been done worse.
I didn’t notice this in the first episode, but the music for this show is actually awesome! Several times I’ve noticed just how much the music added to the energy of this show, to the point where it’s actually a vital component of why I enjoy it. It’s handled by Kensuke Ushio, one man techno artist also known as Agraph. He actually did a really cool track for Space Dandy called ‘Love you, Dandy’. Perhaps Yuasa discovered him when working on his Dandy episode? However or whoever found him, he was right man for the job. The Ping Pong soundtrack doesn’t feel like ‘just another anime OST’ – it’s genuinely fresh and invigourating.
There’s a lot to love about Ping Pong. Beyond what I’ve discussed here, the show has strong, unique characterisation. Overall, I would call it my anime of the season! It might not look right sitting next to other anime, but Ping Pong should be celebrated for trying something new and succeeding.