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?
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.
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.
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.