I saw The Lego Movie for the first time on the plane to Boston about two weeks ago. I might mention that it probably became my most favorite kids movie in a long, long time (if you haven’t seen it, please check it out!). Or I might mention that I loved it so much I cried when I watched it the second time on the way back, still thinking about what it had to say many days later.
A story about toys and potential, causing me to break into tears? Absurd, you might say. And maybe it is absurd. It is no surprise then, that for the past 11 weeks, Ping Pong has had a similar effect on my life, albeit a different fashion. After all, Ping Pong, much like The Lego Movie, is love letter about failure and heroes.
Here is one truth. With defeat, comes failure. And with failure, comes disappointment. In Asian society, failure is perhaps the worst and most terrifying sin a person could commit. You are brought up to believe that your entire self worth lies in the eyes and recommendations of the people around you, and thus, there is nothing more devastating than realizing that you have disappointed someone – whether it be yourself, family, or society. For Wenge, that crushing despair of never being able to make his mother or his country proud again is enough to stop him in his tracks and wonder what is the point. For Kazama, a man who is defined solely by victory, defeat and disappointment is such a petrifying thought that he must lock himself in a bathroom and close himself off to the world to calm himself down. After all, if you’ve failed the people who matter most to you, in the area that you’ve dedicated yourself to for years, well – what are you then? You’re certainly no hero.
But here is another truth, and perhaps a sadder one. Failure is the inevitable finish line for athletes, regardless of greatness. Maybe that’s a pessimistic way of looking it – that as competitors, there is only so much time before our bodies break down and we lose to someone younger, better, fresher. We either go down in history as someone to be remembered or forgotten, but even then, it’s just a memory. As players, we are bound to finally fade away to be replaced. And while Ping Pong seems to suggest that this is terrifying, cruel, and depressing (which it is), it is also a new way to pave for a better life. It is a liberation. A way to shut one set of doors, and open another. Defeat is not an end; it is a means to a beginning, if you allow it.
Take Sakuma for example – a man who endures rigorous training to the point where it crushes his own self confidence and pushes him to violent ends. Sakuma may have played ping pong to win, but it had a disastrous effect on his mental health, and finally, it was only after Smile’s victory that Sakuma gave up the sport once and for all to start something new. It originally seems sad, but a couple of episodes later, and we see a different man – a wiser one. This version of Sakuma not only convinces Peco to pick up the sport, but also manages to coerce his former captain, Kazama, into realizing why he plays ping pong in the first place. Sakuma hasn’t done a complete 360 – he still misses ping pong very much, as shown by his silent crying and confessions of how he did love ping pong, in the end. But he’s moved on, and has landed in a better and healthier place.
Another example is Wenge, the Chinese prodigy who is forced to regain his honor on the shores of Japan before being welcomed back by his country. He originally starts off as brash and arrogant, looking down on all of his Japanese teammates. However, his attitude drastically changes as he loses to Smile; a devastating loss that changes his outlook on winning. From then on, Wenge becomes more warmhearted toward his teammates and forgiving about his mistakes. He invites them to a Christmas party; he offers lessons, telling them to not give up on their dreams. Wenge cracks a smile. He makes friends, and somehow, it’s not really about the loss anymore. Wenge has gained something much more valuable in the process. Beyond the tallies of wins and losses lies something far more important. Wenge begins to appreciate ping pong as a means to connect to other people and learn more about them (and thus, himself).With defeat being the constant in so many of these people’s lives, you would think that Peco was the only hero Ping Pong could give us. After all, Peco’s entire purpose of returning from the depths of despair is to accompany Smile and play with him honestly – a feat that is remarkable, almost inhuman, but driven by positivity and a record of victories. In comparison, Wenge, Sakuma, and Kazama are just opponents knocked down by talent and hard work. But the show obviously shows us something different. Wenge, Sakuma, and Kazama are players with their own unique approach to ping pong and are portrayed as human beings with personal struggles and dreams.
And with this, Yuasa (and by default, Matsumoto) gives us the last, remaining truth – possibly the most intriguing, and the most powerful one. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe the concept of a “hero” isn’t rooted in victories, but rather, losses. A hero’s journey is entrenched in losing to someone and remembering what one should take away from that experience to improve and help others. In this sense, everyone in Ping Pong is a hero. They are all overcoming their own setbacks, becoming different – better people. But most importantly, they are becoming empathetic, being inspired, and inspiring the best in others. Smile is a hero in how he releases people from their burdens, while Peco is a hero because he gives way for reevaluation. It is true that both of these players catalyze a reaction. But the choice to change is conscious, and that step is made by the individual alone, making him a hero as well. Kazama, Sakuma, Wenge – they’re all heroes.
You might say then, well, are they going to become someone great? Are they going to go down in history? Heroes after all, are famous, revered by the greater population. And Ping Pong answers, no. They don’t. Out of the main five, only Peco and Wenge are the ones to enter the Olympics – and even then Peco still has his knee problems, and Wenge cannot return to his country and play for them. As for the rest – they might not satisfy what society and their families expect of them. But they are still inspiring, nonetheless. They are not traditional heroes. They are ordinary ones. They are everywhere, in you, and in me. The Lego Movie examines this quite clearly with its main character understanding that even the most extremely normal human being has the potential to be a hero, in inspiring good in others, and overcoming crushing personal odds. There is a meaning even behind the most mundane, disappointing, and trite of experiences. All you have to do is make the most out of it. It is a talent everyone shares. The hero in The Lego Movie and in Ping Pong isn’t special. On the contrary, he’s defined by his humanity and capacity to change for the better.
Ping Pong is a story about breaking repetition and contrived expectations of yourself. Someone hits the ball at you. Sometimes you rally back. Sometimes you miss the ball or hit it out of the court. But despite the losses, the ball keeps coming back at you. You start a new game. Life goes on, and for the players of Ping Pong, that is a blessing and a curse. But you in the end, have the power to change the course of your life. You alone have the ability to take whatever has been flung at you and fling it back, twice fold, or simply leave the court.
Because you are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are the special – the hero. And so am I. And so is everyone.