2002, Asmik Ace Entertainment/Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS)

Fumihiko Sori
Shinji Ogawa
Sanae Suzuki
Taiyo Matsumoto (manga)
Kankuro Kudo (screenplay)
Akira Sakoh
Soichi Ueno

Yosuke Kubozuka (Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino)
Arata (Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto)
Sam Lee (Kong “China” Wenze)
Shidou Nakamura (Ryuichi “Dragon” Kazama)
Koji Ohkura (Manabu “Demon” Sakuma)
Naoto Takenaka (Butterfly Joe)
Mari Natsuki (Obaba)

The story of two best friends involved in the sport of ping pong is truly a gem of modern Japanese cinema thanks in part to the performances of its two lead actors.

Peco is a talented ping pong player and the problem is that he knows that he is a talented player. Thus, this makes him very arrogant and brash. However, he hopes to live his dream to become a professional in the sport. He taught his best friend, the very ironically named Smile, who only sees ping pong as just a game and nothing more. Smile’s attitude doesn’t bother Peco as much but it does bother their coach, Butterfly Joe, to a point where Joe tends to humiliate Smile in front of his teammates.

As the annual high school ping pong championships are about to begin, Peco and Smile learn that old rivals Dragon and Demon have joined. In addition, one of the other schools have brought in a Chinese transfer student. When Peco’s arrogance catches up to him, in a surprising move, Smile begins to finally show what he can do on the table. Smile eventually becomes a favorite to win while Peco slowly goes through a downward spiral. Will Peco finally understand why he plays ping pong in the first place and live his dream or will the student ultimately beat the teacher?

Based on a manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, this is quite a sports dramedy whose central themes are friendships and competition, which ultimately lead to redemption for a star player and in some aspect, redemption for a quiet player who finally breaks out of his shell. Egos aside, the film’s two central characters, Peco and Smile, drive the film while there are great supporting characters as we get a bit of a backstory of the major players involved in the world of high school table tennis.

Yosuke Kubozuka is exciting to watch as the very egotistical Peco, who has the talent but tends to let that ego get the best of him. He is the one who seeks ultimate redemption when he experiences not one, but two shocking defeats that end up crushing that ego and puts him on a downward spiral. The singularly named Arata plays the very quiet Smile, whose name is that of reverse psychology. He is the type who has the talent but has a fear of breaking out of that shell out of respect for Peco, his longtime childhood friend, which results in constant berating by the team’s coach, played by Naoto Takenaka.

Three pivotal supporting characters who help our heroes get over their issues consist of two rivals from another high school, Dragon and Demon; and a Chinese exchange student, simply nicknamed China. Shidou Nakamura is menacing at times in his role of champion Dragon with Nao Otsuki playing lackey with a purpose in Demon. Demon may come off as annoying but it is meant to be that way until an incident opens his eyes. Hong Kong actor Sam Lee makes the most of his appearance as foreign exchange student China, who is there to help boost the school he is a student for in the competition.

The table tennis sequences themselves are a fun mix of action from the stars and some digital effects that help drive the action and not in a bad way either. There are some comic moments in the film, including Peco’s attempt to sing Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and his reaction to losing to China in an exhibition match is quite hysterical to watch with Smile’s attempt to console him doesn’t go as planned.

Ping Pong is a fun Japanese film which the sport of table tennis is highlighted as well as the story-driven characters. Definitely one to look for if you like sports and Japanese films.