Ping Pong: Taiyo Matsumoto

PingPong When I started reading Ping Pong, I had no intention of actually writing about it. Because it is a five-book series about high school boys playing ping pong. Okay, fine, table tennis, if you want to be a snot about it. Either way, I am not particularly interested. I only picked the series up because of my job, which is sometimes very, very dull (days of Excel spreadsheets about human resources issues, sound effects for porn manga) and other days very, very much the best thing ever (short story by one of my favourite authors, dinner interview with one of my favourite artists). And in the very much the best thing ever category, I will be following Taiyo Matsumoto around for a week or so in May.

If you have been hiding under a rock (and maybe you have been deeply hungover, in which case, that rock belly is probably the most comfortable place you can be, free from noise and light) (but probably crawling with wriggly things with too many legs, so I’d still abandon the rock and suffer the light and noise), Taiyo Matsumoto is a featured guest at TCAF this year. (As is famed gay artist Gengoroh Tagame and French artist David B.) (And many other talented creators. I always feel bad just singling out a couple. They’re all incredible!) And as usual, to make sure I am ready for what his fans throw at him, I am (re)reading as much of his oeuvre as I can get my hands on.

To be honest, I started this massive reading mission with Ping Pong because I wanted to get it out of the way. I say again: high-school boys playing ping pong. I cannot imagine anything I am less interested in. Of all the many things I relate to, barely pubescent boys with bad haircuts hitting a tiny ball around with tiny paddles… is not one of them? So it is really a testament to Matsumoto’s enormous talent that I started this series off with mild disinterest and raced through the last book in a single sitting.

The high school boys in question are Peko (real name: Hoshino) and Smile (real name: Tsukimoto), childhood friends and avid ping pong players. They are the best players in the ping pong club at a high school where the ping pong club is not very strong. In the playoffs, it is always nearby Kaio High that takes the top four spots. Peko and Smile got their start at Tamura, a neighbourhood ping pong club? I can’t actually figure out what this place is, never having seen anything like it. It is like a bowling hall, but instead of bowling, there is ping pong. So a ping pong hall?

Peko and Smile

Anyway, Peko and Smile were not the only players to come up from Tamura. Akuma (Demon, real name: Sakuma) was once their ping pong companion, joining them on the Peewee winners’ circuit, but leaving them to join rivals at Kaio. Rivals who include the strongest player in all the land, Dragon (Kazama). And Dragon is fierce! Seriously, the scenes in the last volume when he is playing turn him into an actual dragon, a leaping monster with a paddle. He takes ping pong very seriously.

They all take ping pong very seriously, in a way that I might not find credible had I not spent a couple years teaching at a girls’ high school that was known for its lacrosse team. (Really.) I had a student who was always half-asleep in class because she was commuting over two hours each way to come to this school with the great lacrosse team. Because she loves lacrosse that much. So I get the single-minded dedication shown by each of the major players in Ping Pong.

ButterflyJoe

The ping pong matches themselves are some of the best parts of the series, in terms of the art. I still can’t quite believe how deftly Matsumoto captures the speed and ferocity of the game with arms ending in swooshes of air, dramatic leaps, bared teeth, landscapes disappearing into a single point: the ball. His wobbly lines suddenly become straight and strong, and there are his enormous and knobby hands, the looseness of his backgrounds, I wanted to drink it all in. But one thing I particularly liked about his style in this (and actually other work, but we’re not talking about that here) is his propensity for framing panels from odd angles, slightly too high, too low, too diagonal. He forces you to look at something you’ve seen a million times with a fresh eye and injects a drama or a narrative that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

battle

But what this story is really about, and I think what brought me around to the loving it side of things, is the characters and their relationships. I love the way Peko and Smile interact with each other. I love the way Smile seems so outwardly grudging when he has to put up with some silliness from Peko, but clearly loving it deep down. And how Peko is always nudging Smile to actually smile sometimes. (The nickname comes from the fact that he doesn’t.) I love the secret fears of Dragon as he hides in the toilet before each match. I love how all of them end up figuring out just who they are and what they want through ping pong, of all things.

Matsumoto has somehow managed to create characters who still noodle around in my brain a week after finishing the books they star in through the pretext of a game I know and care nothing about. It’s not published in English, but if you can read French, pick this one up. You will love that smarmy grin on Peko’s face.

4 thoughts on “Ping Pong: Taiyo Matsumoto

  1. Ping Pong is one of my all time favorite manga. And Taiyou Matsumoto has always been one of my favorite mangaka as well, I’m in love with his manga… I have all his works published in French at home: Ping Pong, Number 5, Tekkonkinkreet, Blue Spring, Gogo Monster, Takemitsu Samurai, Brothers of Japan, and also some in Chinese: Zero, Hana Otoko.

    The French edition of Ping Pong is beautiful and very good by Akata. BUT, there is a but. It’s not easy to find some volumes in French because they are out of print. So reading French is not enough😦 unfortunately. I would like to see Matsumoto invited in France at Angoulême (but we got another Matsumoto, Reiji Matsumoto creator of Harlock this year). His art is very influenced by French artists Moebius and Nicolas de Crécy.

    • I didn’t realize some of the French volumes were out of print. That’s disappointing. I wanted non-Japanese readers to at least have some access to this great series. I really like Matsumoto and have read a lot of his other work, but I just never got around to Ping Pong because, well, like I said above, it just didn’t seem interesting to me. Now I know better.

      I’m sure you’ll get Matsumoto at Angoulême one day! Given how much of his work has been published in French, I’m sure he has an even bigger following there than he does here. At least you get to bask in the glory of another great Matsumoto!

  2. Matsumoto’s works are much translated here, and I’m still waiting for his still ongoing series Sunny. His works don’t sell so well though he still has some amateurs in France. The problem is, some people would like to read Ping Pong, but not enough of them to get a reprint.

    When Ping Pong got published, I didn’t buy lots of books so I wasn’t very familiar with Matsumoto’s works. There were, in the middle 90s Tekkonkinkreet, Blue Spring and Brother of Japan published by Tonkam. I was younger and those books were much more expensive than mainstream manga (X, Dragon Ball, etc…). Even I was curious about this strange drawings, I couldn’t buy them. Plus, I only read mainstream manga (except borrowing at the library when possible), and I heard fellows saying that Tekkonkinkreet was pretty bad (French audience was not … ready for this?). Later, they were out of print and only sold on Ebay at a very high price.

    I did buy my Ping Pong copies second hand, and I fell in love with Matsumoto’s style. I’m pretty regretful now that I didn’t buy them new at the time, in order to support the publisher, because Ping Pong didn’t sell well by the time (and it only cost 10€/volume). And then, I had to read all of his manga🙂. So Ping Pong is like… Waow. It’s still, I think, his best work. The atmosphere, the characters developments, the friendship between Peko & Smile, the ping pong panels, everything is in this manga. I want to read it again so much (I planned to, end of 2012, to read this one again on early 2013… still didn’t have the time). Hope you’ll enjoy the other volumes till the end🙂.

    I was in Angoulême this weekend. I saw Reiji Matsumoto but couldn’t understand the interview since I didn’t get the headphone with the translation =/ only understood the questions. The strange thing with my life is that I’ve never watched Captain Harlock when I was a child, but it everybody born in late 70s-early 80s in France grew up with Captain Harlock and other anime from Reiji Matsumoto. So I’m planning to watch the anime one day. I did watch some episodes of Galaxy Express 999 which I found very beautiful and so poetic.

    • Has Sunny been licensed for French yet, do you know? The first volume in English will be debuting at TCAF in May, and I’m definitely looking forward to that. It’s too bad that his work wasn’t really appreciated in French when it was first published, but I think that was probably the case for a lot of artists who were doing not-typical manga work back when manga was almost entirely about big eyes and battles. (Some would make the case that not so much has changed…)

      You’re right about Ping Pong though. It’s a series I definitely see myself going back to and re-reading. (I did actually finish the whole series for this post, although I only used the cover from the first volume.) The characters are what really sold it for me. They’re all so real and human in ways that unfold over the course of the series. But the action scenes in the ping pong games are amazing!

      So jealous that you got to go to Angoulême. One of these days, I will make my way over there. Too bad you couldn’t understand what Leiji Matsumoto was saying, though! I’m sure he’d be pretty interesting to hear talk. I haven’t seen too much of Captain Harlock either, but I have watched some Galaxy Express 999 and read the manga, and I have to agree with you about the poetic beauty of it.

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