I’ve recently been catching myself rewatching the last few episodes of “Ping Pong” over and over again. Although much of the anime is inspired by the 2002 film based on the Ping Pong manga, every frame and shot of the show is made with the complete dedication that only a genius like Masaaki Yuasa could uniquely offer. “Ping Pong” is far from a typical sports anime; it’s a complex story of emotional growth that traces itself through a group of ping pong players. It’s difficult not to scream out in internal joy when we see folks like Kazama and Smile finally becoming enlightened at the end of the show.
Yes, enlightened. The main character Peco, despite his initial flaws — his arrogance and indulgent personality — is a hero who, in his own quest for personal enlightenment and self-improvement, touches and changes the lives of the people he meets along the way. Through his hardships and experiences, we see Peco learn from his mistakes and develop into a perfect Buddhist teacher, capable of uplifting even the most ignorant and unenlightened of people, doing so so with the sublime and simple grace of a true hero.
“Ping Pong: the Animation” shares the common narrative of the Ping Pong Learner, always on his quest for enlightenment, continually interpreted and reinterpreted in the personal lives and emotional developments of the characters. Ping pong is the human activity that has brought a cast from far-flung and diverse backgrounds and dispositions together, each of whom carrying a personal definition and purpose to ping pong in his or her heart. We see this when Butterfly Jo, the Old Lady of the Dojo, and the CEO of Poseidon come back together for a brief reunion, talking among one another with the coarse, lively language of young friends; this scene is the first and only time we ever see all three of them on screen at once.
In the very first episode, we encounter a naive Peco whose heart is fundamentally pure and good but has been tainted by the material vices of competitive greed and arrogance. Peco is a local ping pong star, famous for his tournament championships and good playstyle, but he has grown lazy and complacent through his repeated wins. We see a condescending and elitist Kong Wenge, a player from China who has fallen from grace and angrily wishes to regain his lost face, so obsessed with honor and status that he cannot find any enjoyment out of playing ping pong in Japan. When the unpolished Peco challenges Kong, Peco loses in a humiliating 11-0 match and suddenly realizes how large and vast the world of ping pong is and begins to question his own talents. He realizes then that he is not the center of the universe of ping pong, and with his pride already wounded, he suffers a crisis when he another match against Manabu, a dorky childhood rival that Peco had long condemned as being talentless and unsportsmanlike. In despair, Peco is taught his first lesson.
But like most unenlightened creatures, Peco does not initially understand the true nature of what he was taught. His sudden exposure to such dangerous amounts of information, instead of enlightening him, ironically causes him to forget his own purpose in life. Peco abandons ping pong as a sport altogether and figures himself to be a small fish struggling in a vast pond. He no longer understands what “talent” is and indulges himself in material pleasures, eating chocolates and cigarettes without a care for the world. He largely abandons his previous identity as an athlete, and along with it, his relationship with Smile, the introverted and misunderstood friend that Peco had protected for years from bullying. Smile, now alone, takes over as the local ping pong ace.
With Peco largely gone, Smile begins retreating more and more into a stoic and robotic persona, engaging in no emotional exchanges and playing ping pong with a frighteningly intense strength. Smile crushes Manabu AKA “Akuma” after the latter arrogantly challenges him to an informal match, but Smile strangely shows mercy to Kong Wenge, sparing him from a humiliating defeat by deliberately throwing a game. But this discrepancy in Smile’s merciful behavior can be explained.
In sparing Kong but crushing Manabu, Smile actually allows both players to become closer to enlightenment. Kong would never allow himself to lose to Smile, as Smile is a low-ranking student from a no-name high school. In contrast, Kazama is a high-ranking player, the star child of Poseidon and Kaio. Kong knows that Kazama may be a worthy opponent and he opens himself up to the possibility of defeat, and with that, the possibility of enlightenment. Kong’s ensuing panic when he sees the monstrous Purple Dragon therefore marks a step closer in Kong’s journey of self-discovery.
Eventually, Kong’s panic subsides when he realizes that both he and Kazama are fighting as fiercely as they possibly can, and with Kazama as the objectively better player at that point in time, Kong realizes that there is no shame in losing. Even Kong’s coach, who screamed at Kong as he almost lost to the low-status Smile, realizes that it was only natural for Kong to lose to Kazama.
Kong leaves the match with a smile on his face. With a new perspective on life, Kong is reborn and begins rebuilding his life in Japan, not as an arrogant, status-obsessed celebrity but as a humble and loving ping pong coach, surrounded by loyal students and friends who accompany him and his mother on a cold Christmas Eve.
Similarly, when Smile defeats Manabu, the latter finally comes to a realization that he had been running from his entire life; he simply does not have the talent for ping pong. His natural deficiencies (such as his incurably poor eyesight and implied learning disability) mean that his union with ping pong is a completely unharmonious one; although it is true that Manabu could spend tens of thousands of hours improving himself, he is only paddling against a roaring river and will inevitably be swept away by more talented players. Like the ping pong ball that eludes his grasp during the final round, Manabu’s dreams of ping pong greatness are simply unattainable.
With this, Manabu liberates himself from the futile hardship of playing ping pong, for only suffering can come from his competition in a field where he is at such a natural disadvantage. Like Kong, Manabu slowly but steadily rebuilds his life as a new man. Reborn, enlightened, and free from the blindness of purposeless competition, Manabu realizes that he must talk to Peco, who has become an unbridled hedonist.
Manabu screams at Peco, begging him not to throw away his natural talent. Peco, struck with melancholy at hearing words that are far too true, reminisces on his days as a beloved local celebrity ping pong player. Peco tries to run away from it all by jumping in the river for a semi-delusional swim. However, his clothes, just like his inner doubts and material degeneracy, weigh him down in the river, and he flails helplessly. The already enlightened Manabu knows that he must help Peco, and as he lifts Peco’s unconscious body from the sea, he so too uplifts Peco from his material delusions. Having experienced a revelation in the sea, Peco realizes that he must learn ping pong all over again in order to rediscover his purpose in life, returning to Zen Buddhist “beginner’s state.”
After weeks of dedicated practice, Peco returns to competitive ping pong as a new man with a completely changed style of play. And it is then that Peco encounters Kazama.
For Kazama, ping pong is only a means to maintain familial dignity. Kazama gains no personal joy from ping pong, as victory is his duty, something that he must attain over and over again in order to prevent his “family”, namely his team, school, and family’s company, from losing face. He secludes himself in a bathroom every match in order to isolate himself from these people, because in Kazama’s eyes, these “family” members are not family at all — they are simply faceless blobs to whom he owns a communal mandate.
When Kazama hears that Peco purports himself to be a hero of ping pong, Kazama bursts into an unprofessional fury for the first time in his career, shouting “Aren’t you the hero? Aren’t you going to save us all?!” — but he does so only because Kazama is the one who desires most strongly to be saved.
As the two continue playing, Peco asks himself why he plays ping pong. He recalls Smile’s voice in his head, and Peco realizes that he plays ping pong because it is fun in and of itself.
To Peco, ping pong is not a means to an end. It is simply an end-in-itself, a demonstration of sublime human athleticism, an activity that makes one attuned to the blood in one’s veins, and realizing this, Peco forgets about the material leg-wound that hinders him and fills himself with a contagious enthusiasm. To Kazama, it looks as if Peco is flying, and it is obvious that Peco is indulging in the true joy of ping pong. With Manabu’s words ringing in his ears, “Who do you play ping pong for?!” — Kazama is witnessing something that he thought was impossible; a ping pong player truly having fun for ping pong in itself, not out of competitive arrogance, status-seeking elitism, or familial duty.
Still in denial, Kazama, unwilling to acknowledge how desperately he wishes to be saved, shouts that “There are no heroes! You can only trust your own strength.” We see an image of him peacefully locking himself up in a quiet bathroom stall, only for the hero of ping pong to force the rooftop open, allowing light to reach in for the first time.
Kazama looks up hopefully, extending his arm towards the hero, but the hero takes his hand back. The hero does this because he know that he may show his student the path to enlightenment, but the student must engage in the true path of his own free will. And so Kazama actively acknowledges the hero using his own will, sprouting wings of his own and soaring beyond the isolation of the dark bathroom stall.
In that moment, Kazama remembers the words of his father, a man whom he had regarded as foolish and idealistic for constantly dreaming of flying, a man whom he had held in contempt for committing suicide and abandoning Kazama on the steps of a mountaintop: “Do you like ping pong, Ryuichi? Is it fun?” Suddenly, Kazama realizes that his father was right all along, and he returns to the Zen beginner’s state that he had as a child.
He screams at his team — a stand-in for his “family” — to shut up, for he no longer needs their gutteral screams and vicious reminders of his duty in order to motivate himself. He has transcended the need for duty and discovered his reason for playing ping pong from within, and he begins to play with a newfound vigor, gracefully admitting defeat when Peco finally proves himself to be the better player. Finally free from his filial burdens, Kazama can now finally appreciate his teammates, his father, and his family as something other than a constant reminder of an unavoidable duty.
Throughout all of these successive enlightenments, we have been left wondering why Smile has been playing ping pong this entire time. But Peco knows that Smile has been beckoning him. Unlike the others, Smile is actually completely aware of his own unenlightened state. Smile is unenlightened because he has forgotten how to live, and how to be human. His state of unenlightenment cannot be broken by rational, and logical means; it can only be shattered through the awakening of his human spirit. But Smile has locked himself up in a robotic shell, just as he had when he retreated in a locker in his elementary school days, but he cannot open the locker by himself, for a barrier on the outside prevents his access.
He needs a hero to save him, and that hero is the finally-enlightened Peco. In the last game of ping pong that we see in the show, Smile is stressed to his physical limit, and he reaches his arm to hit a shot that no reasonable man would; in order to hit the ball, he takes off the iron armor that encases him without a thought in the world. He reaches for the ball, not as a calculating machine but as a spirited human man, ascending higher than any robot would, and in so doing, he attains enlightenment in front of a crowd of thousands.
Peco and Smile explore the days of their childhood, becoming children at the ping pong table, each returning to a Zen beginner state, and with adrenaline and iron flowing through his blood, Smile revels in his newfound humanity. We learn that Smile had always asked “Think I can be like you, Peco?” not because Smile wanted to imitate Peco’s achievements, as Manabu did; Smile only wanted to be like Peco so that he could become a fully actualized human being.
Smiles remembers his time learning with Peco, and he remembers the sheer joy that only a ping pong game with his only friend Peco could bring to him, and he remembers why life is worth living. Having finally achieved enlightenment, Smile sheds a tear, smiling for the first time since his childhood.
And it is then that Peco, having brought back so many stray sheep into true enlightenment, has completed his heroic mission. “Ping Pong: The Animation” is not a story about sports at all. It is a story of personal growth and emotional development, a multi-dimensional Bildungsroman that explores the maturity and changing beliefs of an incredibly diverse and vivid cast of characters. It is a story about what it means to be human, and like all humans, it expresses itself in different ways.