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Ode to Joy: Ping Pong the Animation

Ping Pong is an Anime about two high school boys who play table tennis. But first, an introduction.

I’ve been thinking about writing a series of posts for a while. A long while in fact. They’re going to be centered on the human mind, its limitations, as well as its limitless potential, through the madcap lens of different media. My closest claim to any expertise on the human mind is reading the novel Neuropath once, but I do have a certain expertise when it comes to my own mind. It might be difficult for you to relate to this series, I cannot know, but hopefully you gain something from them. All I can say, at this point, is that I wish I had read something like this 10 years ago.

This fall I was in bad shape, quite literally. Bad posture had made my back slightly crooked, and I had been bedridden for so long that I had trouble breathing while sleeping. Developing a couple of new allergies probably wasn’t helping. So, I started going for walks, and doing back-strengthening exercises, and I saw progress. Nevertheless, I was constantly exhausted, and my back was aching, and sometimes after a long walk I would simply collapse on my living room floor. It seemed like a never-ending struggle to get rid of this, in hindsight, quite debilitating condition. It was at this point that I rewatched Ping Pong: The Animation.

Technically, it was a Re-Re-Re-Rewatch. This show has been one of my absolute favourites, ever since I first watched it. The first couple of times I loved it, but upon having watched it again and again, I think it is much more than just a good show. It is a story of two high schoolers, Smile and Peco, playing table tennis. The characters are wonderful, superbly written, with incredible development across the 11 episodes. The animation is fantastic, with an expressionist style that differentiates it from pretty much any other anime, conveying intense motion (and emotion) with a rough, choppy elegance. The soundtrack is excellent. In fact, as I’m writing this post, I am shocked at how much depth is packed into its runtime. This post will simply scratch the surface.

It blends genres in an interesting way, being ostensibly a sports anime, but eschews many of the staples of the genre, leaning so heavily into the literary bildungsroman that it ends up dominating the show. It is a show of contradiction. It is not really about table tennis, to such a degree that it absolutely is about table tennis. It is essentially about a super-hero, while still being wholly based in reality. In some senses it is very different from most anime, while still being Extremely Fucking Anime.

As you can hear, I recommend this show. I think even people who aren’t into Anime in general can enjoy it. Anyway, I’ll have to go into the story, so if you’re one of those people who care about spoilers, go and watch it!

Blood Tastes Like Iron

The narrative of Ping Pong is in many senses very traditional. We follow a cast of high school students playing table tennis, with each having their own arc throughout the show. Their only common demoninator is a general dissatisfaction.

A lot can be written about each of the characters, but mainly we follow Peco and Smile, as well as Dragon, the primary antagonist. Smile is withdrawn, quiet, and spends a lot of time playing video games.

He is generally associated with robotic, machinelike imagery. He is incredibly talented, but lacks ruthlessness and drive, which is developed by his coach through the show. Near the end of the show, he has become dedicated to analytically and brutally demolish opponents. He often hums a broken version of the main musical motif.

Dragon is a star player – and has both the drive and the talent to take it to the top. There is a darkness within him: We discover that he plays table tennis in order to avert the shame that has fallen upon his branch of the family following his father’s financial demise and suicide. As long as he keeps winning, he cannot be shamed by his family.

And then there’s Peco

Peco is a great player, but he is cocky, loud, a braggart, arrogant, and yet he gives up easily when things don’t go his way. After a couple of defeats at the hands of more dedicated players, he quits. He stops playing table tennis. He stops cutting his hair, he starts dedicating a lot of his time to analyzing snacks, and his lowest moment is either spending his christmas drunk on alcoholic chocolate, or jumping from a bridge into water in the middle of winter. Tough choice.

Now, he had essentially given up long before quitting table tennis. His playing had become stale and joyless. And that, we find out, is why Smile has stopped smiling.

But Peco is the Hero. After his lowest moment, he picks himself up, and gets back in the game, spurred on by an old picture of Smile, smiling while playing table tennis. He gets back into shape, but overpractices, and gets a knee-injury. This appears to be the defining conflict of the last couple of episodes: Can he overcome Dragon with a hurting knee? And will Smile drive a stake into his old friend’s injury in the final match? (by the way, neither of these matches matter at this point, from a competitive perspective: All of these characters have already qualified for the national championship)

Now, throughout the show, there has been constant talk of a Hero. Smile chants “Enter the Hero/Enter the Hero/Enter the Hero” several times, in his thoughts. But as Peco starts falling behind in the match against Dragon, it is Smile’s voice in Peco’s mind that appears. It is essentially a pep talk, but not the usual sports anime talk of determination and drive for victory. It is an ode to the joy of simply playing table tennis. That Peco’s strength comes from joyfully engaging in play. Then Smile’s voice tells Peco, that his knee is fine.

And then my back pain disappeared.


I originally intended this post to end on that note, as a sort of dramatic revelation on the nature of back pain. However, I felt like it could be misconstrued, and so I want to clarify some things.

First off, if you have any kind of back ailment, see a doctor (or physician? I don’t speak American). It can seriously debilitate you, and even if you find out that it is psychosomatic, it is still incredibly useful to know.

Because the symptoms of psychosomatic illness are still real. The point of this story isn’t that you can think back pain away. The point is that your psychological well-being is intrinsically connected with your body, and seeing a therapist, watching a show you enjoy, or writing a blog post, can help alleviate these physical symptoms.

Back in the 19th century, they called it “spinal irritation”, in order to help the patient “save face”. There’s a stigma related to illnesses that aren’t “real” (Hypochondriac is a particularly nasty term), but for all intents and purposes, they are real. But because there is no pathology connected to the illness, doctors often have no clue how to handle them.

I really hate that the term “mind-body connection” has been hijacked by spiritualist conmen. Because the connection is there, and it can be influenced, nudged in the right direction. I firmly believe that finding joy in life is the key to it. Telling someone “you’re just imagining it”, or “the right mindset can heal you” doesn’t help. But joy can help.

Going back to Ping Pong, what it does for me, is that it is an ode to joy. It reminds me that greatness (to me at least) resides in joy, not discipline and coercion. And it relieves stress to know that I’m not alone in thinking this way.

The next post will (probably) be about the mini-series Maniac, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and representation. If you thought this one was a bit personal, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Stay Tuned.


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