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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CELLULOID BALL. Ping Pongís cast of characters includes a fabulously talented central figure, his motley assortment of colleagues, and a fierce, intimidating array of opponents. (Photo courtesy of Viz Pictures)

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #24 (June 12, 2007), page 20.

Ping Pong ó A manga movie with bounce

Ping Pong
Directed by Fumihiko Sori
Produced by Yasushi Shiina
Distributed by Viz Pictures, 2002

By Patrick Galloway
Special to The Asian Reporter

Japanese manga encompasses a realm of illustrated fiction far beyond what we in the West consider "comic books." There is manga of every conceivable genre, be it samurai sagas, yakuza wars, talking animals, swashbuckling pirates, shojo (girlsí manga), political intrigue, or tales of the supernatural. Frequently a manga becomes so popular that someone decides it would make a good movie.

The most natural progression is anime; make the manga move and youíre home free (plus anime is a cost-effective format for material that might be too costly to mount in live action). Some genres, such as sports manga, are more easily adaptable to live action, and thus we have Ping Pong (2002). The manga version, a five-volume saga published by Shogakukan and created by Taiyo Matsumoto (whose previous work dealt with boxing and basketball), first appeared in 1996.

Like many sports manga, Ping Pongís cast of characters includes a fabulously talented central figure, his motley assortment of colleagues, and a fierce, intimidating array of opponents. It likewise follows the sports manga convention of depicting sporting sequences with an immediacy and hyped-up kineticism that seems to explode off the page. Director Fumihiko Sori (a.k.a. Fumihiko Masuri) does an admirable job capturing the energy of the manga, as well as "mangafied" performances from his young cast, in this, his film debut.

"Peco" Hoshino (Yosuke Kubozuka) is a brash, eccentric high school student and Ping Pong master. He likes to ditch class and hang out in the local Ping Pong parlor, smoking cigarettes and beating the pants off college kids for cash. Since childhood he has been the best friend and personal Ping Pong guru of dour, bespectacled "Smile" Tsukimoto (played by mononomial actor Arata). And yes, everyone in the manga/film has a nickname.

Smileís talent is on a par with Pecoís but he holds back; sullen and withdrawn, he has yet to discover his true gift. Coach Koizumi (prolific character actor Naoto Takenaka, Hiruko the Goblin, The Mystery of Rampo) tries desperately to reach Smile and help him develop his talent. Then thereís "Demon" Sakuma (Koji Ookura) and "Dragon" Kazama (Shidou Nakamura), two superbad players from an opposing high school, and "China" Kong (Sam Lee), a foreign exchange student with almost supernatural abilities. These are the guys to beat, but will fate conspire to set Peco against Smile?

Critically speaking, Iím a little conflicted about Ping Pong. While Fumihiko Sori captures much of the energy and quirky charm of the original manga, and likewise takes care to develop character (always the most important element of filmmaking), the film suffers from uneven pacing in the second act and a big slowdown in the third. Iíd attribute this to lack of directorial experience, coupled with an ill-advised choice to imbue the material with a sentimental grandiosity toward the end that winds up diffusing the energy of the grand finale. That said, I should admit Iím somewhat jaded; my taste in manga movies tends to run to the extreme, with films like Lady Snowblood (1973), The Story of Ricky (1991), Ichi the Killer (2001), and Oldboy (2003).

However Iíd heartily recommend Ping Pong to anyone interested in Asian sports comedies such as Shaolin Soccer (2001), Waterboys (2001), and Battlefield Baseball (2003). These films are funny, innovative, and way ahead of anything coming out of Hollywood, such as Balls of Fury, this summerís low-brow Ping Pong farce. I doubt it will have the energy, bounce, and pop of Ping Pong.

Ping Pong is currently showing at the Hollywood Theatre, located at 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd. in Portland. For more information, call (503) 281-4215 or visit <www.hollywoodtheatre.org>.