Once again a sports film from a guy who doesn’t much like sports, so you may want to take the following review with a grain of salt.
In terms of sports that involve balls (Now be nice! I mean that literally…) table tennis sits only second behind soccer in popularity. The main reason for this is that it’s insanely popular in East Asia and specifically Japan. While Japan dominated the world of table tennis, or “ping pong” in the 50’s and 60’s, the crown has now passed to China which has made table tennis its national sport. In 1996 Taiyo Matsumoto (who also created the original manga “Blue Spring” and “Tekkon Kinkreet”) put table tennis front and centre in his serialized manga, “Ping Pong” and had a huge hit on his hands, so much so that in 2002 Fumihiko Sori made his directorial debut with a film adaptation of it.
Teenagers Peco (Yôsuke Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata) have been friends since childhood, but they couldn’t be more different. While Peco is outgoing, Smile is painfully shy. Peco is always ready with some smart ass comment, but Smile got his nickname because smiling is something he never does. Despite their differences these two young men are bound together buy one thing: their shared love for table tennis. Practicing hour after hour at a local ping pong club it seems that the paddle and ball are in their blood, but still their differences both help and hinder them. Peco is a flamboyant player and has one goal: to be the “hero” of table tennis, but Smile on the other hand finds it difficult to win a game because he doesn’t want to humiliate his opponent.
When they are entered into the regional championship match they both have to harness their strengths and weaknesses to succeed. Peco is pitted against a Chinese player who nearly crushes his championship dreams, while Smile is pursued by Butterfly Jo (Naoto Takenaka), a former table tennis championship contender, who tries to break Smile of his habit of throwing matches. Around these these two are a wild cast of characters from the middle-aged woman who runs the ping pong club and flirts with Peco, to a group of high schoolers that train like Marines and shave their heads as bald as a ping pong ball.
I know that there’s a lot of love out there for “Ping Pong”, but I have to admit I was a bit let down after hearing all of the hype. It’s your standard underdog makes good story, a “Rocky” for the Asian film set. The comedic touches are great, especially the performance by Kubozuka and YosiYosi Arakawa who steal every scene they’re in, and Sori provides enough visual flash to make watching a plastic ball being thwacked across a table exciting, but in the end I have to say the Emperor is naked and wonder what the fuss is all about. If you’re a fan of other feel good comedies like “Swing Girls” or “Water Boys” then this film is for you. Otherwise steer clear.