Ping Pong (Special Edition) Review
Hollywood is not alone in seeking inspiration from comics. Japanese graphic novels, known throughout the world by the term manga, have provided Japanese filmmakers with a wealth of source material. When computer graphics animator Fumihiko Sori read Matsumoto Taiyo's manga Ping Pong, a high school sporting drama, he liked it so much that he convinced a film studio not only to produce a live-action adaptation, but also to allow him to direct it.
Ping Pong is the story of 'Peco' Hoshino (Yosuke Kubozuka) and 'Smile' Tsukimoto (Arata), two friends from childhood who both play in their high school's table tennis team. Despite their long-standing friendship, the pair, and their attitudes to their sport, are very different. Peco is cocky and rebellious and would rather play games for money at his local ping-pong joint than turn up for his team's coaching sessions. Smile, on the other hand, is shy and retiring, and although he has a natural talent for the sport, he never uses his full abilities, instead deliberately playing to lose against his old friend Peco. But Peco and Smile's attitudes and abilities are challenged when they compete in a high school table tennis tournament, as are those of the other competitors.
Although a two-hour film does not have as much room for character development as a lengthy graphic novel, the characterisations in Ping Pong are particularly strong, and all credit is due to the young ensemble cast who not only bear a remarkable resemblance to their comic-strip counterparts, but also manage to bring them to life as believable three-dimensional characters.
The emphasis on character is not at the expense of entertainment, as in fact the excitement of the superbly directed ping-pong matches is enhanced through emotional involvement with the participants, and an insight into exactly what is at stake for each player should they win or lose.
The ping-pong matches are particularly well realised by the clearly gifted first-time director Fumihiko Sori. Although computer graphics are used to enhance the games and enable the accomplishment of certain shots and stunts, their use is seamless and far more extensive than would be suspected from casual viewing. Despite, or perhaps because of, his background in computer graphics, Fumihiko Sori is clearly aware that special effects should support the drama instead of overpowering or substituting for it.
While Fumihiko Sori provides strong visuals, the musical soundtrack is provided by a number of contemporary, dance-orientated Japanese bands such as Supercar and Boom Boom Satellites, adding to the young-and-hip flavour of the film.
Where Ping Pong differs significantly from other sporting comedy-dramas is in its exploration of the effects of competition, both positive and negative. Peco, though seemingly confident to the point of arrogance at the start of the film, is soon revealed to be relying on his success at sports for his self-esteem. Whereas Smile, rather than having the overpowering ambition to be a winner that most sporting films seem to take for granted, is inhibited from using his full talent for fear of the emotional and professional consequences for his opponents should he beat them. Through Peco, Smile, and an ensemble of well-drawn supporting characters, Ping Pong explores themes of success, failure, friendship, loyalty, ambition and determination as they arise through participation in sport, and, by extension, all other forms of competition.
Ping Pong's reputation as Japan's answer to Shaolin Soccer is unfortunate and misleading; Shaolin Soccer is filled with broad humour and has the action and fast pacing characteristic of Hong Kong cinema, whereas Ping Pong moves at a gentler, more typically Japanese, pace and is a drama first and a comedy second. For these reasons, anybody who approaches Ping Pong in expectation of another Shaolin Soccer will be disappointed, although Ping Pong is by no means an inferior film.
The Japanese Special Edition release of Ping Pong consists of two discs housed in a standard double amaray case. Both discs are encoded for Region 2 only, but use the Japanese standard NTSC format rather than the British standard PAL format. The two-disc Special Edition is a limited release restricted to the initial pressing, future imprints will include the film disc only.
There is also a Memorial Box edition, limited to 15,000 copies, which includes an assortment of accessory items such as a binder case, a book of stills, a paper mask, a stencil, a strip of film, and more. This has long since sold out.
Ping Pong is presented in an anamorphic transfer with vivid colours and a fair level of detail. There are no signs of scratches, flecks or other print damage. Unfortunately, an otherwise excellent transfer is marred by the use of edge enhancement.
The Japanese DTS 5.1 soundtrack is excellent, with imaginative and appropriate use of surrounds. Ping-pong balls bounce from one speaker to another and raised voices in the sports hall reverberate through all the speakers, creating a real sense of space. Dialogue is clear and nicely balanced with the music. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is nearly as good, but does not quite equal the presence and definition of the DTS track.
The optional English subtitles are almost perfect with just one or two spelling mistakes. The font used is smaller and a little more jagged than usual, but is clear and easy to read nonetheless. The few lines of English dialogue remain un-subtitled, but on-screen text is translated where appropriate.
The stylish animated menus are accompanied by music from the soundtrack. A few headings are in English, but for the most part menu options are in Japanese, so navigation becomes largely a matter of guesswork.
The Special Edition of Ping Pong lives up to the name by including an exhaustive supply of bonus materials, though sadly none feature English subtitles.
The main extra on the film disc is a full-length audio commentary featuring the director and cinematographer.
Also available on the first disc is a menu giving access to seventeen tracks from the film's soundtrack, presented as an isolated score with scenes from the film.
The second disc of the set contains an extensive array of extra material divided into five sections named after characters from the film.
The China section contains two short films, the first of which was written and directed by Ping Pong and Go screenwriter Kankuro Kudo. This fifteen-minute short is in fact a side-film to the main feature, as it stars the supporting character Ota in his own mini-romantic comedy.
The second short film is a one-minute martial arts pastiche with an optional audio commentary. Both of the short films offer some entertainment value despite the language barrier.
The main feature within the Smile section is a fifty-four minute making-of documentary. This consists of interviews with various members of the cast and crew interspersed with on-set footage, and covers all aspects of the film creation process, from the initial development and casting right through to the creation of special effects sequences and the compilation of the soundtrack. Also included are brief glimpses of pages from the original manga, revealing how closely the film matches the look of the source material.
Also within the Smile area is a sub-section containing interviews with Yosuke Kubozuka, Arata, Sam Lee, Shido Nakamura and Koji Okura. These range in length from two-and-three-quarter minutes to four-and-a-half minutes.
The Smile section is finished off with a fifteen-and-a-half minute interview with the cast's table tennis coach, who discusses his experiences training the actors as well as various table tennis 'chops', or techniques.
The first option within the Peco section gives access to a nine-minute look at the use of computer-generated imagery in the film. This narrated segment combines animatic, CG and composite footage.
The second item in this section is an eight-and-a-half minute featurette discussing the use of Sony HD 24P digital cameras.
The third option within the Peco section gives access to storyboard-to-film comparisons covering two of the major ping-pong matches from the film.
The fourth and final option within the Peco section gives access to seven brief deleted scenes that are available with or without commentary. These scenes range in length from twenty-two seconds to just under two minutes and mainly serve to further develop some of the supporting characters.
The Dragon section contains content related to promotion of the film, starting with six spoiler-free trailers and TV spots that vary in length from a concise fifteen seconds to a brief minute-and-a-half. This is followed by six minutes of footage from a publicity event with stars from the film, and two six-and-half minute segments of the cast introducing advance screenings.
The first option within the Akuma section gives access to a location map giving the details of eight locations in Yokohama and the scenes that were filmed there.
The second-subsection contains a total of forty-eight stills of the clothing and accessories worn by the characters in the film, with particular emphasis on Peco and Smile.
Indicative of just how exhaustive the extra materials are, the third area within the Akuma section contains fifty-four stills detailing the graffiti on the walls of the toilet cubicle where the character Dragon waits before his matches.
Finally, the fourth option in this area of the disc contains twenty-two stills of poster designs and other promotional material produced for the film.
All of the special features are presented in non-anamorphic full-frame.
Ping Pong succeeds on two levels, both as a moving and uplifting sporting drama laced with humour, and as an exploration of the positive and negative aspects of competition in all its forms.
The Japanese Special Edition release of the film features a good transfer, a great surround soundtrack and an extensive array of sadly un-subtitled extras. There is a much cheaper Hong Kong release, but it has only a far inferior non-anamorphic transfer.