Yosi Yosi Arakawa
Running Time: 114 minutes
UK Certificate: 12a
Ever since the day Peco (Yôsuke Kubozuka) rescued Smile (Arata) from a gang of bullies and introduced him to the game of table tennis, the pair have been inseparable friends with intertwined fates. Now Peco is a cocky teenager who wants no less than to be the best player in the world, but lacks the self-discipline to carry his plan through – while the withdrawn, slightly arrogant Smile probably has more natural talent than anyone, but plays 'to kill time' rather than to win, and his reluctance to see other players (especially Peco) humiliated makes him hold back in his own game, much to the annoyance of Ota, his coach (Naoto Takenaka). After Peco is sorely beaten (or 'skunked') in a tournament and quits the game, Smile continues his rise to the top, preparing the way for the return of his hero, whom he is destined to meet in one last match.
Based on Taiyo Matsumoto's highly successful manga of the same name, 'Ping Pong' hit Japanese cinemas with a readymade fanbase and was a huge box office success – and a basic search on the internet will reveal that it also has its fair share of admirers in the West. Yet the film is an overlong parade of one sports/martial arts film cliché after another, with negligible characterisation, little drama, and, most inexcusably of all, table tennis scenes which seem devoid of any excitement or tension. It is a pity that director Fumihiko Sori's mastery of CGI, clearly on display in the film's attention-grabbing opening sequence (Peco frozen in midair after leaping from a bridge), and also in a flashback to the former glory days of the coach (shown sporting butterfly wings), so rarely makes an appearance in the matches themselves, whose bland sterility is in dire need of some post-production pyrotechnics.
With its focus on hero worship, competition and empowerment, it is no mystery that 'Ping Pong' is targetted at a strictly male adolescent audience, and the film's fixation on homosocial bonds turns the game itself into a strange metaphor for sexuality, with women kept very much on the sidelines of the court. The only real female character is Granny, who runs a table tennis club and coaches Peco for his comeback, but her age makes her a maternal rather than a sexual figure, so that when Peco catches a glimpse of her underwear he reacts with disgust. Still, it can hardly be a coincidence that, as the only character who has a female mentor, Peco is also the only character who learns to bat both ways. When Smile, on the other hand, in one of the film's (intentionally?) funniest moments, announces that he has a girlfriend, the coach literally falls off his bicycle – needless to say, Smile is “just kidding”. In the absence of any strong female rôles, what remains is a group of boys vying to see whose ball-handling skills are the best – including Dragon (Shida Nakamura) who spends time alone in a toilet cubicle before each game, explaining to Sakamura that he plays for himself – which makes them all, in the end, an uninteresting, unsympathetic and self-absorbed bunch of tossers, who just need to get out more. Indeed, it is only after Sakamura (Koji Ookura ) has left the all-male world of ping pong behind him forever that he and he alone of all the film's players ends up with a girlfriend and a life.
Like a boys' sweaty locker room, this film stinks perhaps it is all the 'skunking' which has put the pong in 'Ping Pong'.
It's Got: Vague racism directed towards the Chinese, CGI when you least expect it (but not enough of it in the game scenes, where it might have counted for something).
It Needs: A shorter duration, better characterisation (including some credible female rôles), and a more dynamic style of direction (especially in the game scenes).
This table tennis coming-of-age flick is just a bunch of balls.