The Japanese Nationals 2014

February 12, 2015

By Atsuko Kuryu
Photos © Keiko Kasai

The 83rd Japanese National Figure Skating Championships were held Dec 25 - 28 at the Big Hat in Nagano. There were 36 ladies, 30 men, 2 pairs and, to our delight, 7 ice dance teams competing. The temperature in the venue was somehow cooler than in previous years, but the competition itself was hot and exciting.

Day one

Men’s short program

The very first skater of this event was Kosuke Nozoe, who competed at his 4th consecutive Nationals. He delivered a good performance, except for doubling his planned triple Axel. There were several new faces this year; some of those skaters had disastrous performances because they couldn’t control their nerves and didn’t make it to the free skating. However, this was only the beginning for them and hopefully they will return with stronger hearts and performances in the future.

Most of the top skaters nailed their performances. Yuzuru Hanyu won the short program with only a minor mistake. He didn’t quite make his opening quad toe combination, but added a triple Lutz instead. He scored 94.35 points. The best jumper of the night was Tatsuki Machida, the last skater out. He landed an excellent quad-triple toe combination, a huge triple Axel and a high triple Lutz. One thing he regretted was the points lost for his spins; he only got levels 2 and 3, which put his win at risk.

Shoma Uno, who rose from junior level, placed third. He landed all the jumps cleanly and showed what great potential he has.

Daisuke Murakami, who recently won the NHK Trophy, had a brilliant performance with a musically wonderful step sequence. He became 4th with 81.28 points. Takahito Mura fell at the landing of his opening quad toe. He was 5th with 78.54 points, while Takahiko Kozuka, who fell on his quad toe as well, attempted a triple Lutz-triple toe combination which turned into a double toe. Still, their performances were beautiful emphasizing their strong points very well. Sota Yamamoto missed his triple Axel, while Hiroaki Sato almost delivered a flawless performance. They became 7th and 8th respectively. The following skaters were Keiji Tanaka, Ryuuju Hino, and Shu Nakamura who are already well known internationally.

Ice Dance

Cathy/Chris Reed’s speed was outstanding, and they won the short dance with 57.18 points. Their opening twizzles were very unison and their step sequences had wonderful flow. Cathy’s costume flared up and down beautifully during their performance.

Emi Hirai/Marien De LaAsuncion followed them with the score of 51.54, while very new faces Kana Muramoto/Hiroichi Noguchi earned 50.90 points. Emi/Marien’s performance had pretty good harmony and technique, but somehow lacked dynamics. It was an astonishing score though for a couple who just started last year.

Kana/Hiroichi had wonderful speed and consistency and it seems like there’s another couple now who can represent Japan on the world stage. Kei Nishimura/Kentaro Suzuki are a very charming couple who has something eye-catching. MeiIto is such a beautiful and impressive dancer and Kokoro Mizutani, who has much experience as an ice dancer, led her well. Nanako Takeda/Kaoru Tsuji and Stephanie Casagrande/Georgiy Chernyshovall showed basic performances, but with some beautiful elements.

Junior pair

Ami Koga/Francis Boudreau-Andet delivered a performance that made the audience lyrical; there were some satisfactory sighs. The triple twist seemed a bit tight timing wise, but the throw triple loop and double Lutz were wonderful. Their score was 43.78 points.

Senior pair

Narmi Takahashi/Ryuichi Kihara showed some visible improvements. They now danced to the music very well and had speed and energy during their near flawless performance. They received 50.18 points which was the first time they were over 50. Ryuichi said they were happy because they had done so well and felt like they had improved little by little with every performance. Narumi was a bit anxious when they first started skating together, but now they knew the timing and had good balance, which made her very happy.

Day two

Ladies short program

What mostly interested the Japanese media was the great success of Wakaba Higuchi at her first appearance at Nationals. At the tender age of 13, she delivered a wonderful performance and media immediately speculated if she would tie for youngest National champion with Emi Watanabe, who got the title some 42 years ago. Wakaba’s amazing short program had power and speed, and her energy took the venue by storm. She landed the 3 jump elements perfectly and her energetic step sequence got the audience going. She scored 64.35 and took the lead.

Satoko Miyahara’s consistent and graceful performance topped her a little with 64.48. She is, I think, the perfect package. She has musicality, grace, consistent jumps, gorgeous spins; she seems to have it all in a lady skater. But the audience seemed less excited with her performance than with Wakaba’s, maybe because the program seemed to run on autopilot. The day’s most successful program was saved for last.

Rika Hongo won the short program with 66.70 points, which even surprised her when she saw the scoreboard. She landed a huge triple toe-triple toe combination as well as a triple flip and double Axel. Her combination was weaker than Wakaba and Satoko’s (triple Lutz-triple toe), however, she collected more GOE and higher levels and won the short program.

Kanako’s performance seemed perfect and she surely expected a high score. But with two under-rotated jumps it came up as only 57.55, which put her 9th, a big surprise in the ladies field. Miyu Nakashio, Riona Kato and Yuka Nagai followed Wakaba with 60.07, 58.10, and 58.00 respectively. Kaori Sakamoto finished 7th, which meant all 7 top skaters were junior age.

Men’s free

Overnight leader Yuzuru fell on his opening quad Salchow, but landed the other jumps perfectly and gained all of 192.52 points. He wasn’t quite his usual powerhouse in the beginning of the program, but after a minor mistake on the combination spin, he recharged and finished the rest perfectly. As we were informed afterwards, Yuzuru was not in great shape and didn’t produce his best, although his technical score was over 100 points. I can only imagine how far he can go in the future. “Because I had to suppress my power I didn’t feel fulfilled,” he commented after the short program. “I want to prepare for Worlds through continuing training and visualizing how I can deliver the best performance.”

The Junior national champion, Shoma, ranked second after landing 2 quads and 2 triple Axels. His only mistake was a hand-down at the landing of a triple toe-triple toe combination. He was so exhausted that he sunk down on the floor by the boards just after he got off the ice. This was new for him and showed how tense he was during his performance. True, he had to skate 30 seconds longer than in his junior free programs of previous years. His technical elements earned 87.55 points, the second highest score. Overall he got 251.28.

Takahiko Kozuka had a tough time earlier in this season, but flourished here. Both of his quad toes were regarded as under-rotated, but he landed two gorgeous triple Axels. And his level 4 step sequence was so outstanding that 6 out of 7 judges gave him GOE+3. His total score was 245.68 points which earned him bronze. It was not Tatsuki’s day. He was second after the short program, but seemed off already during the warm up. He landed a quad toe, but then repeated the same jump and doubled one of the planned triple Axels. He kept adding more mistakes and got only 66.55 points for the technique, which was 6th in the free skate. He later declared his retirement and I couldn’t help wondering if things had been different if he had delivered a good performance. In the interview after his free program he said: “It might be time for me to move on to a new stage”. He seemed to want to convey a message.

Takahito Mura, who was 5th in the Grand Prix final, has had trouble with his performances lately. His program is nice enough with a great step sequence where the vocals really help out. He attempted 2 quads and triple Axels and landed all of them, however, he repeated failed triple jumps later in the program. The lost points left him off the podium, along with Tatsuki. Takahito was the first substitute for the World and after Tatsuki’s retirement, he received the spot. It was sad that Tatsuki retired but Takahito will use this chance to achieve the best results. Sota, the silver medalist of the Junior Grand Prix final, displayed a brilliant performance with good speed and consistent jumps even though he fell on his opening triple Axel. He became 6th with overall. The winner of the NHK Trophy, Daisuke, delivered a disastrous free skate after the wonderful short program the day before. He failed 4 of the jump elements in the early part of his program. Some jumps were clean but it was too late. His technical score was only 51.00 points, 120.80 total for the free skate. Keiji Tanaka’s free skate was mediocre, but thanks to the attractive music and choreography, he stayed 7th in the free skate and overall. Takahito, Daisuke, and Keiji will be sent to the Four Continents Championships in Korea in February.

Ryuju has improved his presentation skills while he lost some of the consistency of his jumps. A name you will want to remember is Hiroaki Sato. He stood out in expressiveness already as very young, and I have mentioned him several times before in my reports. His jumps used to not be as good as his ability as a performer, but he has improved a lot this season. He has a triple Axel and all other triples, just not yet so consistent. Hiroaki finished 10th with an overall score of 174.42, and will represent Japan at the World Junior Championships.

I also want to spotlight some skaters in the lower ranks. Daichi Miyata completed two wonderful programs, using his whole body effectively and became 11th. Jun Suzuki finished 14th, a nice come back to Nationals after two years of absence. He spent that time preparing for the entrance exam to the university (which is very tough in Japan). After he was accepted, he resumed his competitive skating and is now on the way to regain his skills. We’ll see what will happen. Daisuke Isozaki is also a very clever skater with his own type of expression. I hope he will appear on TV someday soon so more people get to enjoy his distinctive performance style.

Day three

Ice Dance

Cathy/Chris Reed won the title with 146.80, 10 points ahead of the runners up, Emi/Marien. This might have been a bigger margin than they expected. Cathy stepped out of their twizzles and the straight line lift lacked its regular speed. But on the whole, both speed and expression was much better than the other dance teams. Their level 3 circular and diagonal steps were gorgeous, and the spins were beautiful and fast.

Emi/Marien regained their dynamism in the free skate with some slower movement in their steps. Emi looked beautiful and sharp and Marien moved very fast during the lifts. Their steps might need a little more speed. Their technical score was only 1.4 points behind Cathy/Chris. Kana/Hiroichi were 8 points behind Emi/Marien. They totally rocked their unexpectedly wonderful performance. Their twizzles and rotation lift were quite unique and the audience cheered. I saw great hope for the future in this couple.

Kentaro found a charming partner in Kei, and their version of The Fantom of Opera was dramatic. Mei/Kokoro’s free dance was really cool with brilliant circular steps. Mei’s posture was beautiful throughout the whole performance. Nanako/Kaoru had better speed in the free dance than in the short, and Stephanie/Georgiy showed some interesting spin positions.

Senior Pair

Delivering an appealing performance, Narumi/Ryuichi got 100.6 points in their free skate. It was the first time for them to receive over 100 points in the free. Although Narumi stepped out of the side-by-side combination jumps, the overall impression was nice. They nailed two wonderful throw triples. They moved vivaciously and there was a special unity between them. Ryuichi showed improvement all around, but especially in the lifts. “I can do more difficult lifts now. It’s not so much because of my muscle development, but because I have learned the timing”, he explained. They said their goal this season was to qualify their free program for Worlds and score more than 100 points in the free skate. Ryuichi added that he wanted to include a triple twist if possible. I think we can expect a lot from this developing pair.

Junior Pair

Ami/Francis, who are training with Richard Gauthier in Montreal, showed a beautiful and lyrical program. But there were some minor mistakes; Ami two-foot landed the triple toe, which was also under-rotated, and the twist and throw triple looked all right, but got some minus GOE. The solid lifts and wonderful spins contributed to an overall fair impression. Ami said she was nervous because it was their first Nationals, but she enjoyed it. Francis said he loved Japan and the Japanese people very much and felt really happy to skate in Japan. They were the third substitutes for the Junior Grand Prix final; an excellent result in their international debut year. I am proud to say we now have another pair!

Ladies Free

The heap of young powers kept shining in the free skate. Miyahara’s fabulous performance put her in first, after the frustrating second place after the short program. She altered her jump elements, knowing her triple-triple combination in the short program was regarded under-rotated. She included a double Axel-triple toe instead. Skating last in the competition she enchanted the audience with her expressiveness and grace. She received a big standing ovation. Some of her jumps were still under-rotated, but it didn’t affect the overall impression. She collected many +GOEs and won the title with an overall score of 195.60 points. “I changed my opening jump from a triple-triple to a triple-double-double because I needed to feel strong”, she explained, “I felt frustrated behind Rika Hongo in the short program, but that was why I could skate so strongly in the free skate”.

The winner of the short program, Rika, also had a solid and powerful performance. The way she timed the jumps matched the music perfectly, and her power and speed reminded me of the Valkyrie in the Norse Mythology game. She got a standing ovation as well. As did Satoko. Recently she hadn’t made any visible mistakes even in the atmosphere of tension, a reason for her big breakthrough this season. She is a beautiful skater with gorgeous jumps. I hope she and Satoko keep a healthy rivalry and bring about a new era of Japanese ladies.

Young hopeful, Wakaba, popped her attempted triple Lutz and failed to combine it with a triple toe. Although she added the missing triple toe to a second triple Lutz in the middle, her spirit seemed a bit dampen. She made some more minor mistakes and stayed in third with an overall score of 181.82.

Yuka bounced back to 4th overall with 168.55. Despite the young age; maturity and elegance were big factors, but her solid jump technique should also be remembered. Her landings are very soft and with a flow. Unfortunately she has been in the habit of popping her jumps at least once in competition recently, and she did it here as well. But other than that, she offered a beautiful performance and got 110.55 for her free skate.

Piling up under-rotations and popping her planned triple flip, Kanako got only 48.18 points for technique, which put her 13th. But the overall impression was not bad. Her style is mature and feminine, which might be one of the reasons for her high PCS. In the Kiss and Cry there were tears in her eyes while she waited for the score, but thanks to the high PCS, she stayed in 5th place overall with 168.29 points.

Kaori showed off her wonderful jump technique and earned the third highest technical score. She finished 6th, while Riona nailed her beautiful free program and placed 7th. For Miyu, well, it simply wasn’t her day. With several mistakes she stayed 12th in the free skate. She has had ups and downs and commented: “I think I can manage good performances when I’m not expected to. I really want to learn how to deal with pressure.” Haruka Imai wasn’t able to show what she’s made of this year, but she is one of the most charming skaters and hopefully she will be back in shape soon. Both Mariko Kihara and Mai Mihara skated well.

I want to say something about the skaters not ranked so highly, but who impressed me a lot. Haruna Suzuki returned to Nationals after 3 years of absence. She finished 18th with a strong program featuring a beautiful step sequence. Shoko Ishikawa placed 19th. She delivered not only a flawless but also elegant free skate and ended her final Nationals. Her last performance as a competitive skater will be the National Athletic Meet in January. Saya Ueno is always graceful and elegant. I couldn’t help getting slightly teary eyed during her brilliant Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. She finished 16th.

Japan has many international top skaters, and after Nationals was over I have a feeling we have many strong and charming skaters as well. Some have excellent technique, others are beautifully expressive. We are thankful for this position and hope it will last for a long time. And as you see in my report, we won’t have to worry for some time since there are many young skaters with growing talents. As long as they keep developing, Japan will remain a powerhouse in figure skating.

Unfortunately this report will also include some sad news.

One is the retirement of Tatsuki Machida. He suddenly announced it after the Japanese World team was made public. The audience was surprised and sighs of disappointment were heard. Tatsuki had stayed hidden behind three other top skaters for so long, but after encouragement from Stéphane Lambiel he rose to the frontline. It made him proud of himself and he found some self-confidence. He had decided to become an Olympian and made it happen through hard work. He won his first Grand prix event in 2012, and has since gotten three gold medals and a silver. After finishing 5th, both in the team and men’s event at the Olympic Games, he won silver at the 2014 Worlds, just 0.33 points behind the champion, Yuzuru Hanyu. Tatsuki vaguely hinted about retiring after the 2013-14 season, but few people believed it since he was at the height of his career. He talked about entering the master’s program at the Waseda University, one of the top level universities in Japan. He said he was proud he passed the exam by his own power, and that this could open the door to a great second career. I believe he took the first step towards success as a scholar.

The other sad news was about Yuzuru’s medical condition (urachal remnant). He had been advised to have a thorough examination before Nationals as he had experienced abdominal pains since the Grand Prix final. A couple of days later it was reported that he would be hospitalized for two weeks following surgery. He will not be able to skate for at least a month after being discharged from the hospital. It is not yet clear if he will be able to compete at the 2015 Worlds. We sure wish him a speedy recovery.

The Japanese team as announced:

Worlds 2015

Men: Yuzuru Hanyu, Takahiko Kozuka, Takahito Mura

Ladies: Satoko Miyahara, Rika Hongo, Kanako Murakami

Pair: Narumi Takahashi/Ryuichi Kihara

Ice dance: To be announced, as Cathy/Chris Reed haven’t yet reached the minimum score for the short program for Worlds. As soon as they do, they will be added to the World team.

Four Continents

Men: Shoma Uno, Takahito Mura, Daisuke Murakami

Ladies: Satoko Miyahara, Rika Hongo, Yuka Nagai

Pair: Narumi Takahashi/Ryuichi Kihara

Ice Dance: Cathy Reed/Chris Reed, Emi Hirai/Marien De La Asuncion

Junior Worlds 2014

Men: Shoma Uno, Sota Yamamoto, Hiroaki Sato

Ladies: Wakaba Higuchi, Yuka Nagai, Kaori Sakamoto

Pair: Ami Koga/Francis Boudreau-Audet


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