Sunday, December 26, 2010

Japanese Nationals 2010: A Long Time Coming, Part I

Every season for the past several years, it seems that Takahiko Kozuka, irrespective of his successes, has always been considered the third-ranked Japanese male skater. Part of it is his age, part of it is his inability to really hold it together when it counts (although Nobunari Oda seriously has this problem so this is probably not a valid reason), and part of it is Japan's fascination with preserving order. In any case, all of that changed this wonderful Christmas weekend.

(Side note: Nothing quite demonstrates an overall Japanese indifference to Christmas than holding its Nationals roughly between December 24 and December 26, year after year. Hah.)

I'd seen Yuzuru Hanyu's name around various times, mostly at Nationals and on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, but had never really paid attention or watched any of his programs. God, he is ADORABLE! There is something about him as he talks to his coach before his performance that makes me want to hug him. This is also possibly the first time I've ever seen a Japanese person cross himself. Cognitive dissonance, I tell you.

I was just thinking that Yuzuru's costume was a watered-down version of a Johnny Weir when the commentator mentioned that his music was from Swan Lake. Hah, perfect. Yuzuru's opening triple Axel--amazing! The knee bend coming out of it--and I feel like Dick Button saying this, horrors--was incredible. I loved his triple Lutz + triple toe combination as well. His transitions and choreography still need some work--sometimes it felt like he was just gliding as he waved his arms around--but he is still only sixteen. Besides, Evan Lysacek and Evgeny Plushenko never really moved on from that, and they both own Olympic Gold Medals.

At first I thought that Yuzuru's second-to-last combination spin was traveling out of control, but then it turned out that the cameramen were doing very wonky things with the angles. Ugh. Anyway, another combination spin later, Yuzuru was done with his first short program at senior Nationals. Commence the official anointing of Japan's No. 4, and one of its Great Hopes for Sochi. Let the media hounding begin!

Oh, Daisuke Takahashi, no. That hair really needs to go. Whether you slick it back or make it curly, it will not transform you into a Latino. Although I already knew before I started watching the program that he would not score well, it was still jarring to see Daisuke stumble on the jumps that are usually so easy for him. It was evidence of his sheer willpower that he managed to pull of the triple toe loop after an off landing on his opening triple flip, and that he stayed on his feet after his triple Axel. All admiration for willpower aside, though, whoever gave him a +1 GOE for the triple Axel needs to be examined. Maybe someone got an extra dose of the Daisuke Will Be Sent to Worlds memo.

The camera work was out in full force again as Daisuke's spin appeared to wander all over the rink, which really annoys me. Why take a spin shot from the ceiling? His triple Lutz was basically eked out, which was still bizarre to see even after the first two jumps. Despite it all Daisuke never forgets to perform, though, and somehow found the energy and smiles to bring it in his straight-line step sequence. No words necessary, indeed. (Amazing that on a technical level, Takahiko would later go on to beat him even in the step sequence, though.)

Shizuka Arakawa mentioned that Daisuke was injured in his collision with Takahiko at the Grand Prix Final, which doesn't surprise me but is still news. It wouldn't be news if I'd actually kept track of the Grand Prix Final, which I still need to do and probably will in the down time between now and Worlds, except when interrupted by US Nationals.

I just love every moment of this short program. Nobuo Sato's send-off words seem to capture exactly who and what he is--a gentle but strict coach who expects the best and is proud of what his students do--and I love that his wife's only comment is for Takahiko to fix his collar. Perfect pair, I tell you, except for the past where she looks 20 years younger than him.

I'm a little iffy on Takahiko's shirt--it goes well with the music and helps overcome his natural shyness on the ice--but it's also not him. But whatever. Takahiko covered so much ice on his opening triple Lutz, then just sort of tacked on a high, effortless triple toe loop. No big deal. Caroline Zhang needs to take a look at his free-leg tap-in. I loved his triple Axel, and although his triple flip wasn't quite as impressive as his combination it was still clean and smooth. I was really struck by his stroking speed throughout the program. Mao Asada, pay attention.

I think Takahiko's--for lack of a better comparison--ape-jumping at the beginning of his step sequence, as well as the strange, ad-libbed nose-rubbing, was just the icing on the cake. Eek! Perfect! His quiet fist-pump was adorable, and Nobuo Sato really looked rather pleased. I did notice, though, that there was no congratulatory handshake after the scores were announced in the Kiss & Cry. Also, is the distance between a conscious effort to give the sponsor logos as much air time as possible? Anyway, in one word: FINALLY.

More than anything I feel obligated to watch Nobunari Oda. I should probably find a fluff or two on him, preferably with Mao Asada in it, to make me like him again. Although I appreciate the tight, fast rotation and the nice flow out of his triple Axel, I really disapprove of the long lead-in. I kind of enjoyed how the commentators remarked that his last jumping pass needed to be a combination, which I think even the casual observer of the short program would pick up on fairly quickly but still seems like an appropriate reminder when it comes to Nobunari. Fortunately for him, he remembered.

Of course, no Nobunari performance would be complete without an unbelievable mistake (except those rare times early in the season when everything is just perfect), and it came in the form of a slip in the middle of his step sequence. Fantastic. He came back after it to nail a great combination spin, though, and his performance was more than enough to put a not insignificant lead over Daisuke. Intrigue!

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