In 2020 Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics. As we are coming up close to the 2016 Rio Olympics and sport has been pretty much something that has been causing excitement over the course of summer, for the next few columns I’m look at some sports anime.
Now, I’ve already covered some sports anime in past, such as the swimming series Free! (No. 17) and the volleyball series Haikyu!! (No. 116), and every time I’ve covered these shows, which are usually always follow some high school team, there has always been one thing of peculiar interest, which is the fan base. The people who watch sports anime are not really interested in sport. They are people, mostly women, who are into gay fiction and think all the characters are gay.
This is becoming such a phenomenon now that anime studios seem to be deliberately targeting this audience. For example, some of the sports being covered are not the manliest of activities, such as figure skating and cheerleading. A series does not even have to air before people start thinking of homoerotic undertones. For example, a series about rugby called All Out!! is due to start in the autumn, and when they released this promotional poster people were getting excited, mainly by the arse of the No. 8 player – and given that the player in that position is the guy at the back of the scrum, you are going to be seeing a lot of that backside.
However, this phenomenon is fairly recent, so what about older sports series? Are there any other series that break from this norm? One series worth examining concerning this is the table tennis anime Ping Pong. While the anime was made in 2014, the original manga comic by Taiyo Matsumoto was created in 1996, way before any of this homoerotic fan stuff took place, and whereas shows like Free! and Haikyu!! feature delicate art and attractive characters, the art in Ping Pong is a lot harsher, rougher, and likely to put a lot of people off.
Ping Pong follows two students who are members of the same school table tennis club. One boy is Makoto Tsukimoto, ironically nicknamed “Smile” because he is so expressionless. He used to be bullied when he was younger but started to make friends when he was introduced to the table tennis by Yutaka Hoshino, nicknamed “Peco”, who is a lot brighter and open that he is.
While practicing they learn that a rival school has brought in a Chinese exchange student named Kong Wenge into their team. Kong is currently in Japan because he was kicked out of the Chinese national team and now he really wants to get back home. Smile and Peco go to meet and play him. Kong plays Peco, and thrashes Peco to love, knocking his confidence. Later on, the man in charge of the club Smile and Peco are in, Jo Koizumi, spots that Smile has the talent to become a great player, but lacks the drive to do so. He thus makes it his mission to train Smile up personally.
The duo then takes part in a big tournament. Smile loses to Wong, but Koizumi sees that behind Smile expressionless face lays the drive and force of an unstoppable, ping pong winning machine, and thus Smile’s personal training continues. Peco however loses to a childhood rival and goes into such a decline that he stops playing for a while. It is only after he decline takes him close to death that he starts training. We then follow both Peco and Smile’s progress to the final major tournament of the year.
The stand-out feature of Ping Pong is the artwork. The very rough work will put off many viewers, but I would argue that it highlights the passion that made this series. It is a show that doesn’t look pretty, but the story and the drive to make it work are all there. It is a harsher, rougher, manlier depiction of sport in comparison to others sports anime covered before in this column. They are no pretty, sexy guys here. The balls are not even drawn as normal circles: either that are drawn bit-by-bit, or are perfectly spherical using computer animation.
However, while the series was never made with gay fantasies in mind, there are still one or two details that give a bit hope to such fans. For starters, there are hardly any women in the show. The main female character is an old woman who runs a ping pong dojo who later trains up Peco. There is only one of the young players who has a girlfriend, and that relationship is on the rocks. There is also the slightly dodgy scene set on Valentine’s Day where, as a joke, Koizumi suggests that he should be Smile’s date for the day.
In terms of sports anime, Ping Pong is the one anime adaptation made in recent years that stands out from the crowd in terms of style. It is that rarest of things, a sports anime that mainly appeals to people interested in sport.
Ping Pong is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by All the Anime. On another note, this weekend at I was at Hyper Japan (see Extra II for my piece on last year’s Hyper Japan summer) and came into contact with an organisation called the International Otaku Expo Association, dedicated to helping spread the joy of anime around the world, and seem interesting people to follow. You can find out more about them at ioea.info