Life is like a game of ping pong

This is a little bit of writing from my newsletter where I post about my comics projects, new drawings, and writing about what I’m reading. Here I discuss the comic Ping Pong by Taiyo Matsumoto.

I’ve read and loved some of the major Japanese comics like Ghost in the Shell and Akira, but I can’t lay claim to plowing through shelves of tankōbon like many of my younger peers these days. So I’m trying to change that, with forays into Berserker and, soon, the beloved Chainsaw Man.

First up is Ping Pong, Taiyo Matsumoto’s 1,000+ page comic about friendship and table tennis, which falls into the subgenre of sports manga I know absolutely nothing about. I also knew zilch about table tennis, but now feel I can confidently nod if people start talking about chops and pips-out fast hand attackers.

Ping Pong is less about immersing you in the sports’ specifics than the heads of its two protagonists, best friends Peco and Smile. Peco is a young, ambitious player who wants to be great and may have to come to terms with his limits. Smile, on the other hand, is already effortlessly better than everyone and rapidly losing interest, even purposely losing matches to spare his opponents feelings. Peco, loud and cheerful, plays off the analytical and detached Smile (who never smiles) as they navigate their training-obsessed coaches over the course of several national and international high school tournaments.

One reason you’re here is Matsumoto’s loose art, which allows for both lovely character moments and transformative action. Here, the repetitive action of table tennis is rendered as monumental collisions between opponents squaring off as if they are in a DragonBall Z fight. The other reason to read Ping Pong is for sports psychodrama, where characters are crushed and challenged by loss, regroup for training, and deeply question the level of devotion and exhaustion required to maintain peak performance.

Ping Pong was originally serialized in Japan from 1996-1997, turned into a live-action film in 2002, and given its English translation release in 2020 through American manga publisher Viz Media. That's the version I'm reading, which comes in two large volumes with the now-standard unflipped artwork you read from right to left.

The story culminates in an impressive set piece, Peco’s semi-final match against a ruthless opponent nicknamed "Dragon” taking place over an incredible 100-page sequence. It takes maybe five minutes to read the entire bout. On my first pass I read it first as the action would flow in real time, with my eyes darting back and forth across the angled panels. There is minimal dialogue, with the characters’ huffs, the “poks” of their paddles, and the squeaks of their shoes acting to set the pace. I then went back and read it slowly, admiring Matsumoto’s page design and noticing the limits he pushed his art. Speed lines turn to blurs and then a surreal warping of the players’ bodies, as the velocity at which they move seems to defy his ability to record it.

The story is ultimately a simple tale of friendship and competition with reflections and training mantras constantly opening pathways to broader lessons. What is a sport, my friends, but the game of life? There’s something to admire in both characters, with Smile seeming to recognize being great at table tennis won’t matter to his life in even a year’s time, and Peco’s drive for self-improvement while preserving his hyperactive, joyful personality through a deadaning training regimen. The two bat koans back and forth the entire series. From “We’re all just killing time until we die” to “How can you hope to cross an ocean on such scrawny wings?” The weakness in their psychological game is constantly pressed to the point where it exposes holes in competitive sport itself. That backhand chop will get'cha.

After a huge defeat halfway through the story, Peco quits, having seemingly reached his skill limit within the sport. “I used to be so damned good,” he tells a teammate. “I would close my eyes, swing that racket, and the ball would just come to me.”

“Why didn’tcha just keep doing it, if you were so good?” his friend responds. “Why’dja quit?”

“My reflexes became reactions,” Peco says. “Reality was closing in on me.” Later, as he dives into the ocean with his clothes on, he thinks to himself, “I’m done with table tennis. I’m just not cut out for a game this depressing.”

Let's say I could relate.

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Matt Bors

Cartoonist and editor of The Nib. Working on the comic Justice Warriors. Sign up for my newsletter: http://tinyurl.com/hpt7zve