Have you ever watched an athlete realize that they aren’t good enough?
It happens more often than you might think. Amateurs, professionals, superstars—they’ve all had moments where they knew they just didn’t have it. There’s a despair and an isolation in that realization, standing in the playing area, helplessly watching a superior opponent tear you to pieces.
To celebrate winners overcoming incredible odds, sports have to constantly produce multitudes of losers. And yeah, it’s satisfying to focus these stories on people who win it all, but to think they provide a complete view of sport or competition is extremely incorrect. More often than not, sports break people down, show them something glorious and then take it away at the last moment.
And losing is just the start of the unpleasant experiences sports can provide to you. Competition of any kind has a way of eating at you, making you think that the only thing that matters is winning the next game. And if you lose the next game, maybe the sport never mattered in the first place. Maybe nothing does. Maybe you should just give it all up.
Everyone wants to be great at something. To this end, most sports animes follow a protagonist with an unshakable belief in themselves, a plucky hero who rises from nothing to become a titan. Their arc might require them to let go of their ego, dig down deep and work harder, or connect with their teammates, but it rarely requires them to really contend with the despair of defeat.
Ping Pong: The Animation, the 2014 Masaaki Yuasa series based on Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga, takes the opposite approach. The 11-episode series finds nearly all of its greatest moments in defeat, and in doing so, says something radical: defeat isn’t something to fear.
The Robot, the Hero, the Demon, and the Dragon
Ping Pong follows two high school boys, Tsukimoto Makoto and Hoshino Yutaka, nicknamed Smile and Peco. The two best friends have played table tennis for years, and they’ve both got loads of talent thanks to coaching from Obaba, the owner of the neighborhood table tennis hall. Smile appears emotionless–his peers call him a robot. Peco is a greasy brat, a prodigy who boasts that he is the Hero from Planet Ping Pong.
By the time he gets to high school, Peco is utterly convinced of his abilities, because he has never played against someone in his age group capable of beating him. This all changes in the very first episode, when Kong Wenge, a ringer from China, joins a nearby school. They play a pickup match, and Kong routs Peco in a complete shutout, a skunk.
The defeat shakes him, but he doesn’t fall apart completely—until his next loss, to his childhood friend Sakuma Manabu, aka Akuma. Akuma has no natural talent, and Peco knows it—but perhaps as a result, Akuma works much harder than Peco, and wins by outsmarting him. This defeat is so painful that Peco quits table tennis altogether.
This is a series that knows exactly how painful losing can be, but also how much personal growth can be born from it. Every character in the series—except possibly Smile, who never minded it in the first place—has to deal with defeat, and the lessons they learn are powerful. Kong Wenge, exiled to Japanese table tennis after a string of losses on the Chinese national stage, thinks he can return to prominence if he performs well in Japan. He is obliterated by top dog Kazama Ryuichi, aka Dragon, and has to come to grips with the fact that he isn’t going home anytime soon. Akuma—triumphant after beating Peco—gets destroyed by Smile, who matter-of-factly tells him that he simply has no talent for the game.
These moments are heartbreaking. Ping Pong’s unique, emotive animation style allows it to go beyond the standard anime reaction shots, but it doesn’t stop there. Taking its cues from the manga, the series’ mise-en-scène is most readily comparable to Expressionism. The visuals show what each point-of-view character is feeling, dropping the viewer into their mental state. Smile’s opponents regularly see him as a robot, calculating their weaknesses. As Kong loses to Kazama, Kazama morphs into a terrifying dragon. Kazama himself sees defeat as a pitch-black abyss stretching below him.
Ping Pong’s ability to get inside its characters’ heads is its greatest strength. We feel these boys’ pain so strongly because we can see their emotions in all their surreal, childish grandeur. We see Kong imagine his plane home, far out of his reach. A side character gets ethered so hard by Smile that he decides to leave the sport and travel the world for a year. When Peco gets himself together and ends up playing Kazama, his intimidating opponent grows into a giant.
These sweat-drenched, agonizing moments are poignant and affecting, and they could only be accomplished by a writer intimately familiar with the pain, emotion, and pressure of competition. And Matsumoto knows that there is more to life than competition, even if they are intertwined.
Pain, No Gain
An average sports anime is only really interested in its characters as they relate to the sport, and so the lessons the characters learn tend to serve only to make them better at the game itself. But Matsumoto, Yuasa, and the creative team behind Ping Pong know that sports aren’t always a positive influence on young people. So when Ping Pong’s characters lose, it allows them to realize that the sport isn’t helping them, because it understands that losing is okay. Beating yourself up for a game isn’t.
The best example is Akuma, the kid with no talent who wanted to play table tennis more than anything. Accepting he’s not destined to be great is a bitter pill to swallow, but once he does he finds a certain mental peace. Similarly, one of the most exhilarating moments in the show comes when Peco plays Kazama, the Dragon, and gets skunked in the first game, just like he did against Kong.
This time, Peco doesn’t collapse. In fact, the loss is just what he needs to stop worrying about the rest of the match. Once he stops overthinking and just focuses on the fact that he loves table tennis, a weight is lifted, and he starts flying. In response, Kazama, the top of the food chain, the boy so driven by a trauma-formed need to succeed that he spends hours before every match locked up in the nearest bathroom, begins to fly, too. The background fades into white as the two players forget everything else, even the fact that they are supposed to be competing. Together, they turn a match that should have been a bitter fight into just two kids having fun.
If you only love a sport when you’re winning, then you don’t love the sport. At its heart, Ping Pong: The Animation isn’t really a story about a kid becoming the greatest table tennis player in the world. It’s about a group of young men growing up around table tennis, and each one individually coming to grips with what the sport means to them. The characters don’t learn how to win, they learn how to have a healthy relationship with competition. For Akuma, that means giving up on his playing career. For Peco, it means becoming the table tennis hero he always said he was. For Kazama, it means not attaching a crushing weight to every match. And they all arrive there thanks to defeat.
The average sports anime lets you feel the vicarious satisfaction of winning. Ping Pong: The Animation teaches you how to lose.