“Heroes don’t exist. What exists is reality, and the fact that only those who can adapt to reality win.”
There’s a kind of fatalism to Ping Pong, something that separates it from a lot anime out there. Some of its characters aren’t very good, or have damaging weaknesses. Because of this, they fail. There’s no “I’ve got to give it my all anyway” here. There’s no “genius of hard work.” Yeah, you do have to work hard – everybody has to work hard. But sometimes working hard doesn’t mean chasing any dream you choose.
Sometimes working hard can mean doing what Smile’s captain does, who’s proving himself a quietly sympathetic character moment by moment. It can mean promoting team unity, and trying to smooth things over for the ace that might bring credit to your school. It can mean working part-time at your family’s appliance store, and accepting your love of ping pong will never be more than an idle hobby. It can mean walking home late after practice and a shift, and still stopping to check out that new equipment your teammate was asking for. It’s kind of funny that Kaio’s motto is more or less “win on the grand stage!”, because a large part of Ping Pong is dedicated to demonstrating how small ping pong can be in the grander scheme.
Granted, life isn’t so heartless that we shouldn’t find room to dream. As I often say, moments of happiness or triumph don’t really mean anything unless they exist in a world where they are precious, and Ping Pong understands this well. It exists in the real world, but even in the real world, people still dream. Smile has currently traded one extreme for another – instead of shutting himself off from the world by ceding entirely to the dreams of others, he has now shut himself off by ignoring them altogether, and letting cold faux-pragmatism do the talking for him. Ping Pong often seems to cast ambition as inherently selfish, and Smile is currently the living representation of that image. When Peco said he wanted his friend to one day stop pulling his punches, I don’t think this is really what he had in mind.
And dreams aside, the world isn’t nearly that black and white. I like that Ping Pong doesn’t dedicate itself wholly to the dream-reality dichotomy – looming concerns aside, life is full of tiny gifts. Sometimes they are bittersweet ones, like Wenge’s beautiful moments with his mother. Sometimes they are silly but needed ones, like Peco relaxing at the beach after a crushing loss. And sometimes they literally mean stopping and smelling the flowers.
So this week was Ping Pong’s Christmas episode, and like all the best Christmas episodes, it captured both the promise and loneliness of the holidays in beautiful fashion. After all this time seeing Wenge suffering alone, it was incredibly uplifting to see him of all people surrounded by supportive friends and family. As for the rest… yep. Their ambition has left them stranded, alone with their dreams. “Not respecting the feelings of their teammates” is a constant refrain in this show, and most of its characters have earned “does not play well with others” marks. Chasing a dream can be empowering, but it’s not always the adrenaline ride we tend to see. The road to the top can be as lonely as the summit.