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Ontology on the gone!

The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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12/03/2007 Archived Entry: "Film review: Ping Pong"

Ping Pong
Directed by Fumihiko Sori
Screenplay by Kankurô Kudô
Based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto
Distributed by VIZ Pictures

Review by Ginger Mayerson

Japanese boys playing table tennis should not make a grown woman get all misty, but that is what "Ping Pong" did to me. I'm also very glad I haven't ruined my mind with so much yaoi culture that I can't just enjoy and be touched by friendship between two boys who are not having sex with each other (or anyone else, for that matter). The two lads in question are the confident and dashing Peco and his gentle, self-effacing friend, Smile, so called because he never does. Or did once, as Peco recalls, "he looks real cute when he smiles." They have real names, but I'm too lazy to look them up right now. Oh okay, Peco's name is Hoshino and Smile is named Tsukimoto, I think they get called by those names once or twice in the whole film, but now I feel less lazy. They are freshmen at an average local high school and play on the table tennis team. But, as always, there is back story: as little kids, Peco rescued Smile from being bullied and taught him how to play ping pong. There are little flashbacks on their childhood that give a vivid sense of how their friendship has evolved to the film's present. There is another kid, Demon, who plays ping pong in this story, too. The place they all play ping pong as kids and into the film present is a run-down ramshackle joint called Tamura Table Tennis Dojo. I say Tamura is one of the great ladies of Japanese film. In Noir, she'd be the serene goddess of a certain age behind the bar of some shady saloon, dispensing wisdom with wisecracks. In this film, she's a cross between a burned-out Lauren Bacall and Mr. Miyagi. If you detect some hero worship going on here on my part, I can only say, oh, hell, yes! The other adult in the film, and there really are only two, is The Coach, a disillusioned former champion ping pong player formerly known as Butterfly Joe. He's okay, nowhere near Tamura's league of cool, but okay.

What happens in this film is that Peco and Smile grow up a little. This happens around two table tennis tournaments and the events in between these matches and it makes this an exceptional film of minor greatness about the joy and beauty of life, which I found quite refreshing. There are characters one can root for wholeheartedly and no real villains. There are some wonderful Rocky- and Karate Kid-like moments in this film without the heavy handed American moralistic competition weirdness in both of those films. Peco and Smile aren't spiritually better than their competition by the end of the film, they're just boys heading into manhood a little wiser and with enough self-knowledge and self-confidence to get there in one piece. And the adults around them get the hell out of their way at just the right moments. Which is what adults really ought to know how to do better than most adults, in my experience, know how to do.

The acting in this film is first-rate from everyone. Not a false note from even the smallest bit player. I was not enamored of the film's opening scene because I hate films that start in the middle, especially with what seems to me to be a suicide attempt (I might be wrong about this). Do not be alarmed, of course the jumper lives, but the first time I saw it, it made me frown very much, and as we know, grown women should avoid frowning as much as possible.

Confession time, so skip this paragraph if you don't like this kind of thing: I've had this screener for six months and have been watching it off and on, mulling this review, such as it is, over and over and over. I have no idea why I've struggled so hard with this review, but there you have it. Possibly it's because this film seems like a no-go zone for me as a woman of a certain age. I was moved by it, but it's really for guys who will understand and have more solidarity with it, especially the ending, than I can. So all this mulling was about growing a fragile appreciation for the purity male friendship is capable of achieving. Like I wrote above, I read too much yaoi and it, and many other factors, have colored my perception of men. I don't deny that men have tough lives, but they make their lives tough and tougher by being incredibly stupid most of the time and occasionally vicious in the service of protecting their overblown self images. I don't have a unified theory on why yaoi is taking over the Japanese manga market, but I suspect it has to do with female powerlessness in the face of male stupidity and, often, cruelty. Yaoi is ineffectual female revenge against the powerful in their society. But maybe that's changing and "Ping Pong" is a sign of a shift in consciousness. I wholeheartedly enjoyed this film, including the parts where the boys and men behaved stupidly, but never lewdly, cruelly or soullessly. These males suffer, learn, and get on with living their lives. "Ping Pong" also made me laugh, which is always good. I wish there were more films like this. I loved it, and I still couldn't care less about table tennis. Really. But the world could use more of the message "Ping Pong" had for me.

So, anyway, I guess getting all sentimental and sniffling over the purity male friendship, camaraderie, sportsmanship, and competition untainted by sex or greed is okay. Probably it's something HRT will fix, but I kind of hope not.

So, rent "Ping Pong" or buy a copy, if only for Tamura. She is a goddess.

(Well, I'm glad this review is sorted. Now I can go back to trying to wrap my mind around Japanese coal miners and their hula dancing daughters in "Hula Girls." No, I could never make something like that up.)

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