The Hero Appears! “Ping Pong” and the Asobi Spirit

In which the Josei betrays her English major background by writing a nice long essay about Ping Pong the Animation, the so-good-it-makes-me-angry anime based on the manga by Matsumoto Taiyou (Tekkonkinkreet) and directed by Yuasa Masaaki (The Tatami Galaxy).

Probably it goes without saying, but Here There Be Spoilers. I’m assuming anyone reading this has watched the entire series – so if you HAVEN’T seen it yet, you should go to Hulu or Funimation and watch it all right now, then come back when you’re finished.

The rest of you can hit the jump and read on. Go go ani-crit!

Asobi [ah-soh-bee]
遊び

noun.

Playing.

When we think the word “play,” we tend to think of games – sporting event or competitions. But play is both much broader and much narrower than that, because play isn’t really an action. It’s a state of mind.

Play is a place we go that’s separate from our own world, defined not by everyday rules but instead by a unique set of play-laws. Play is uncertain; we won’t always know how it will turn out. Above all, play is something we do willingly and for its own sake. Sure, it might lead to real-world rewards, but that isn’t why we’re doing it. No, we play for the sheer joy of playing.

Simply put, we play because it’s fun.

This is the “play” at the heart of asobi, and it is, I think, the spirit that embodies the Ping Pong animated series.

“Talented people who know exactly who they are don’t seek anything. Those who don’t know who they are… They’re the ones who struggle hardest to win in order to prove something.”

—Koizumi Jou (“Butterfly Joe”)

Ping Pong is a story about table tennis, but like any great work of fiction, it isn’t just about table tennis. It’s about that moment when adolescence shifts to adulthood and we begin to focus on results, on success instead of experience. The world pressures us to be productive. The games we play, the hobbies we enjoy, they can’t just be “for the fun of it,” anymore. They have to bear fruit. We’re expected to be good at them. We’re expected to be able to make a career out of them. Asobi, suddenly, has become work.

Ping Pong takes this period in its teenage characters’ lives and examines it with intelligence and empathy, capturing all the tension, loneliness, and disorientation that comes with it. The artwork is ugly and slanted, the backgrounds often stark and sometimes missing altogether, highlighting the isolation of the players. The angles are sharp and the characters contorted, as if physically squeezed by the stress placed upon them.

And yet even though characters are often pictured alone, the screen is just as often split, detailing expressions and actions from multiple people at once. Each player is isolated in his own slashing panel, yet he shares the game – and thus the pressures of it – with those crowding in around him.

The multiple panels from multiple angles also serve to highlight the differences between each character – both in their actions and their mental states. While they all deal with the pressures of winning, they deal with them from very different places in their lives.

“The thing is, talent isn’t something that only goes to those who want it.”

—Kazama “Dragon” Ryuuichi

Dragon is the titan, the “winner,” who continues to compete despite having long lost any love for the sport. For him it has already become a job, and a lonely one. Kong is another young semi-professional devoted to victory, although for him victory is a means to an end (going home), and not the end itself. When we meet them both, they are working, not playing.

Across the table, both Smile and Peco begin the series as people playing for enjoyment. But Peco’s sudden string of losses robs him of that joy, and as such he spends the middle of the series drifting aimlessly, denying the game he still loves. Smile, meanwhile, loses his love of the game through victories, not defeats – but more importantly here, he loses his best friend as well. Smile becomes like Dragon, a “winner” uninterested in winning, an isolated victor as aimless as Peco.

Perhaps the easiest to sympathize with is Akuma, a minor character whose tragedy nevertheless resonates: He is the workhorse who cannot overcome his lack of talent. The Japanese often say “ganbatte” to each other before a competition or exam. It’s a cheer of sorts, a call for tenacity and optimism – “keep at it,” “work hard,” “do your best.” It’s the same message touted by underdog sports series and films the world over, where we’re assured that if we work hard we are certain to find success.

Yet with characters like Akuma and (to a lesser extent) Kong, Ping Pong soundly rejects the ganbatte mentality, reminding us that, sometimes, your best simply isn’t good enough. Akuma’s fall is a painful moment in the series, and one that will no doubt hit home for anyone who has ever dedicated themselves to a goal and come up short even so.

“Call me if you’re in a pinch, chant these words three times: ‘The Hero Appears! The Hero Appears! The Hero Appears!’”

—Hoshino “Peco” Yutaka

All of this could make Ping Pong a very dreary watch, and there is a brutality to the early episodes that can be downright heartbreaking at times. But as the series progresses and the focus shifts from Smile to Peco, it becomes clear that Ping Pong isn’t just interested in deconstructing the ganbatte mentality and society’s obsession with victory. It is also interested in providing an alternate path by returning to the heart of the game, and to the reason why these characters began competing in the first place.

But how does one return to asobi when there is so much pressure to play for rewards? Simple: You have to lose.

In the world of Ping Pong, losses are liberating, a door that swings open rather than closed. Only in losing does each player come to find that which is most important to them. Smile reunites with his best friend. Peco reunites with the game he loves. Kong finds a new home. Akuma finds a family. Even Dragon, probably the least content in the epilogue, is freed from his lonely prison, developing connections with other players and continuing to compete because he wants to, not because his family demands it.

“I thought winning would make everyone happy,” Dragon’s grandfather remarks as his family falls apart around him. But of course he would think that. Butterfly Joe never granted him the loss he needed, so he never understood that it’s the low points that define us. He never understood that the act itself is just as important as the end result.

He never learned the freedom that could come from failure.

“The hero transcends logic.
The hero overturns what we thought we knew and drives away the darkness.

He’s so uncomplicated…
And he shines, bright and joyous.”

—Tsukimoto “Smile” Makoto

And this is where The Hero comes into play. Smile believes in The Hero, a figure who will come to save him whenever he’s in trouble. He starts to call on The Hero when his coach pushes him to play competitively instead of just for fun, and he continues to call on him until he finally arrives.

The Hero is Peco, of course, Smile’s friend and protector since childhood, but like Ping Pong itself, The Hero is more than that. He is, I think, the embodiment of asobi, a spirit of pure playfulness. He is the joy we feel when we do the things we love. In this case it’s table tennis, but it could just as easily be playing soccer or drawing comics or planting a vegetable garden.

It’s no accident that Peco has to face all three of the remaining major players (Kong, Dragon, and Smile). All three are still playing for something other than asobi, and so it is The Hero’s duty to rescue them – to remind them of how it feels to simply play for the sheer joy of playing.

And for each of them, The Hero does just that. Each game features the imagery of flight – an airplane, a seagull, winged hero. Flight has been used throughout the series as a symbol of loss, but here it takes on a second meaning: freedom, as the players transcend the outside world and all of its rewards and goals and devote themselves entirely to This Moment, to the closed-off world of the game. Each player admits to themselves during the match that they are having fun. And, despite their losses, each player finishes with a smile.

“Maybe I’ll end up just an unremarkable player from now on.”

“What’s wrong with unremarkable? I like players like that, personally.”

—Dragon and Smile

In the end, Ping Pong rescues its characters by making them remember the joy that preceded hard work, the asobi at the heart of competition. It’s fitting that Peco and Kong – the two players who found the most happiness within the world of table tennis itself – should also find the most success within the sport. Dragon still struggles, unable to shake himself of his desire to win, to be a “remarkable player.”

And Smile? Smile’s ping pong was always about friendship, and so his path takes him to a world where he can encourage play for the sake of play – for the sake of doing something you love with people you love, and for no other reason. He becomes a coach at the tennis dojo, a keeper of the asobi spirit.

In the end, Smile becomes a Hero as well.

——–

End Note: My explanation of play is drawn from the definition provided by Roger Caillois in Man, Play, and Games (1961). I paraphrased and tweaked it slightly, but the central concepts are the same.

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