Captain Tsubasa, Mila Superstar or Hikaru no Go – sports manga and anime have long enjoyed great popularity in Japan and have also won many fans in this country. And this despite (or precisely because) the genre always follows the same pattern: young athletes from small backgrounds have to fight their way up in tough competition and prove what they can do. “Spokon” is the name of the principle (composed of “sports” and “konjō”, i.e. “determination” or “willpower”), in which the bushidō virtues of the samurai were transferred to sports such as baseball, football or basketball to create universal stories to tell about human striving and personality development.

As befits a sports manga, the typical Spokon ingredients should not be missing here either: Lots of talent, tough opponents, tough training and emotional tournaments. It centers on the introverted Makoto “Smile” Tsukimoto and his boastful friend Yutaka “Peco” Hoshino, two highly talented table tennis players.

When they enter Katase High School, old table tennis coach Jō Koizumi discovers the potential of the two and wants to train them for the tournament against the rival high schools. A Chinese exchange student who almost made it onto his country’s Olympic team also competes.

Smile and Peco are unlikely friends: Peco is only interested in table tennis and the latest brands of soft drinks, but mostly skips practice and relies on him to always win. Smile, on the other hand, is introverted, never smiling and doesn’t pride himself on his talent, which far exceeds Pecos. The rival Kaiō High School even tries to poach Smile for their team.

Anyone who thinks that table tennis is a nice pastime for boring lesson breaks will be taught otherwise: Matsumoto stages the sport, which has a completely different status in Asia than in the West, with great seriousness. Gradually, a school drama develops that is not just about winning or losing, but about the difficult balancing of ambition, talent, friendship and self-discovery as well as the relationship between teachers and students.

It is striking that Smile’s and Peco’s families do not appear at all in “Ping Pong”: almost all of the scenes take place at school or in various table tennis halls, nothing is revealed about the parents’ houses of the two. This has to do with Taiyō Matsumoto’s biography: When he was six years old, his parents put him in a children’s home for no understandable reason.

A childhood trauma that is not only reflected in “Ping Pong”, but above all in Matsumoto’s autobiographical manga “Sunny”, which describes life in a fictional children’s home. The same applies to “Gogo Monster”: childish outsiders play the leading role in Matsumoto’s work again and again.

Ping Pong isn’t about telling a heroic story: the drawings are realistic and interested in honesty rather than beauty. The competition scenes are not dominated by poses of victory, but by faces and bodies distorted by tension; you literally think you can smell the sweat and the rubber coating of the table tennis blades.

Matsumoto’s powerful, feverish line is more reminiscent of European independent comics than glossy manga. No wonder: the draftsman spent some time in Europe at the beginning of his career and counts Miguelanxo Prado and Moebius among his role models.

Despite the strong focus on the characters, the action in “Ping Pong” doesn’t fall short: the spectacularly staged exchanges of blows extend over many pages, the balls bang on the plate with the force of ball lightning, and many detailed shots of clenched teeth , squeaky sneakers and acrobatic hand positions create an intensity that is sometimes reminiscent of a Dragon Ball duel. Some readers may see table tennis with different eyes after reading “Ping Pong”.