Ping Pong the Animation: the ultimate comfort show
By Nam Woon Kim (he/him)
When Alana suggested writing about comfort shows this week, I immediately knew what I would be writing about. It helps that it’s also my favourite show, but having read David’s piece on mental health in sports it felt extra relevant. It’s by no means a story “about mental health”, and yet by exploring the interiority of its characters growing up it still has everything to say on the matter, and in a refreshingly earnest way to boot.
In many ways, Ping Pong is the ultimate comfort show.
Despite operating through the sports genre, it’s also gentle and reassuring. The story touches on, and perhaps even answers, the question of normalising failure in David’s piece. In any sport, there are winners and losers. Ping Pong doesn’t deny this reality. In fact, when characters lose, they lose hard. Casual and veteran players alike quit the game, sometimes permanently, which often forces them to do some unpleasant soul-searching. The show even gives the most minor of characters an arc, who, after losing in the first round of regionals to one of the main characters, travels the world to find themselves. Several episodes later they return, realising that the answer lies in this humble game.
Winners and losers, it is tempting to extend this logic to life itself. That one person’s gain must be the other person’s loss is a belief-turned-worldview-turned-status quo we’ve internalised and grown up with, but it is one which Ping Pong confidently rejects. This is why Ping Pong is so comforting and perhaps why I love it so much. By tying the story to a setting where there must be a first and second place, the show challenges our perceptions of what being our best self is. Over the course of its lean, 11 episode journey, the show makes the most of its cast to explore the different routes one may take. We learn to appreciate that life can be nonlinear and that everyone truly has their own pace. This feels genuine because this isn’t a story that passively mills about. The story emphasises that none of this is easy, and from the moment the opening credits roll, you’re thrown into the eye of their struggle with explosive punk rock which introduces us to the psychology of the characters.
When my friend, a professional basketball player, introduced me to the show I thought I wouldn’t be able to appreciate it because competitive sports was never important to me. Strangely, only one episode in, I found myself invested and immersed. There was something familiar and reassuring about the emotional rhythm of the show. Ping pong is the show’s structural anchor, but it’s a vehicle for story – the means to an end. Even though there may be only one character that can claim to be the best by the time the show ends, everyone else has gained just as much in their growth as a person. Whether you consider yourself the least sportiest person you know or your family table tennis champion, I encourage you to give this show a try.
The visual craft of Ping Pong also deserves a little bit of attention, even if this part of the show speaks for itself the most. With the themes in mind, every shot is imbued with warmth or fighting spirit whether we’re on the train home or in the middle of a match. On an individual level, each character emotes and moves with life in their own distinct way. In the bigger picture, Masaaki Yuasa, the series director, finds endless ways to frame, condense, and expand space to serve the emotion of a scene. Kensuke Ushio’s score, too, enriches the world with creative motifs and soundscapes that mix acoustic instruments, synths, and even the sound of ping pong being played.