“A new age has come, but I still can’t get out of this rut
And it’s too straight and narrow, no escape routes around…”
“Staking your life on ping pong is revolting,” says Smile, the ostensible “protagonist” of Ping Pong. In the context of a sports show, that seems kind of like sacrilege – what can be more important than giving it your all, than pinning your hopes on the pursuit of a crazy ping pong dream? But in the context of Ping Pong, his words make sense – because Ping Pong isn’t really much of a sports show. The matches are emotive and interpretive, the “training arcs” don’t exist, and instead of characters learning new techniques, we get rambling Christmas song montages. There’s no romance in believing in victory here – in the context of Ping Pong, Smile’s belief in a hero that will save him seems to almost be some kind of ironic joke.
There’s a realism to Ping Pong that could easily be mistaken for cynicism. For all the show is ostensibly about the sport of ping pong, the real world is constantly creeping in. As the wunderkind “hero” Peco boasts of becoming the best in the world, and the seasoned ace Kazama trains for victory at any cost, characters like Peco’s team captain beg off practice because they have to go help at the family store. As the protagonists strive to be the best for all their various reasons, others simply struggle to get by, and the real world is always waiting in the distance. Ping pong may mean the world to some of these characters, but it is not the world, and believing in the supremacy of ping pong talent can only comfort you until you start to fall.
“No paths to choose from, lost for a decision
Alone, I don’t know what I want, lost in wild fancies
I compare myself to others, and fall further and further…”
Failure is a constant refrain in Ping Pong. It’s inevitable, really – the show closely follows five very different competitors, and clearly not all of them can be victorious. Ping Pong is full of harsh, crippling defeats, defeats that shake the foundations of who its characters thought they were. Wenge, the Chinese player who finds himself shipped off to Japan, clings to ping pong as a way home – but when he is defeated, he is forced to reckon with the fact that Japan may now be his home. Sakuma, Peco’s one-sided childhood rival, hopes his hard work will eventually overcome the effortless talent of his peers – but defeat at Smile’s hands forces him to realize that sometimes you just don’t have the aptitude to achieve your dreams. Characters fall and fall hard in Ping Pong, and the show is permeated by both the fear and consequences of failure.
But for all that, Ping Pong is not a cynical show – in fact, it’s about as far from cynical as it could possibly be. It is realistic, yes – but it also deeply optimistic, and has tremendous empathy for its characters. It may not believe in achieving your dreams, yes. But goddamn if it doesn’t believe in people.
“I’m the only one in the world, always the only one in the world
But I’m still gonna do this, you know?”
Ping Pong doesn’t show its characters failing because that’s just the way it goes. It shows them failing because they need to fail – because it is through failure that we grow, and through discarding our immediate pride that we can learn who we truly are. Characters like Wenge, Sakuma, and Peco all suffer terrible defeats in Ping Pong, but those defeats make them stronger. And not simply “ping pong stronger” – Sakuma realizes his path is not ping pong, and Wenge ends up finding pride as a mentor to his teammates. Failure in ping pong is not the end of the world – in fact, it can actually be a window to a more honest engagement with it.
“Honest engagement” is a key refrain in Ping Pong. At the beginning of the show, its characters stand apart – sizing each other up, judging each others’ talents, they see each other not as people to be engaged with, but obstacles to be overcome. But as its various characters begin to fail, and subsequently discard their fear of failure, they come to rely on each other, and on those around them. As absolute belief in victory becomes less and less realistic, Smile’s steadfast belief in a hero strangely becomes that much less absurd. And by the end of the show, even the deeply fear-driven Kazama can see what Smile sees in Peco.
“Maybe there’s no job I’m the only man for, but
Will I fade away without doing anything?
Will I fade away without doing anything?
Like hell will I fade away without doing anything!”
Peco is the hero of Ping Pong, and he represents all that the show values and believes in. He soars high above the people below not because he is that much greater, but because he does not fear defeat – because he plays for his earnest love of the game, and his earnest love of those he plays with. Though characters like Kazama and Smile are content to remain safe in their own cages, Peco lifts them up with his belief, and they lift him higher in turn. Heroes have no weaknesses not because they are invincible, but because nothing can take their love of what they do from them. Peco plays because it is a pure expression of his engagement with the world, and those who engage with the world are not afraid of defeat.
If you just read Ping Pong’s opening song lyrics out loud, they’d sound panicked, even desperate. The story of a boy who’s got nowhere to go, who is preoccupied with how he’ll be known, who throws himself forward because he has no other choice. But in song, they’re joyous, a celebration – he’s gonna throw himself into space, sure, but he’s gonna have fun with it. Though the image of the bird in flight is dominant in Ping Pong, at the end of the opening song we see what it really represents – Peco leaping into the sky, flying and windmilling and then falling like a shooting star. But it’s clear he’ll get up again, clear he’ll once again take to the sky. You’re not going to “win” at life – victory is not something you can cling to forever, and life is made up of skinned elbows and busted knees and broken teeth. But that’s no excuse to stop trying, and certainly no excuse to stop enjoying yourself. It is not the pursuit of victory that lends us strength, that makes us heroes to each other, that makes life worth living. The proof you’re alive is the taste of blood in your mouth, and you’ll never taste that if you don’t leap out into space. It is not the power to fly that lifts us up – it is the courage to fall.
PS: This post was all storytelling all the time, but Ping Pong is a gorgeous production on all fronts. Feel free to check out my smaller posts about its scene transitions, sound design, visual storytelling, and shot framing.