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Nov 13, 2011

NHK 2011: the Menfolk

What a sartorially drab podium...

Daisuke Takahashi thoroughly obliterated the competition at the 2011 NHK Trophy with a total of  259.75 points, a giant 24.73 lead over silver medallist Takahiko Kozuka. Mr. Takahashi's total score of 259.75 is the season's highest score so far and his short program total of 90.43 is the third highest total score ever, a remarkable accomplishment given that Mr. Takahashi had multiple under-rotations in his long program, and did not manage to land a fully-rotated quad the entire competition.

But despite all that...I have to say that Mr. Takahashi deserved his astronomical scores at this event. He was just in a completely different league in terms of both execution and intent in comparison to his beleaguered competitors. One could argue that the hometown advantage was on Mr. Takahashi's side, but no matter how one slices it, he was just brilliant this weekend.

Let us begin with his In the Garden of Souls short program. Mr. Takahashi's performance of the program here was, in my mind, the performance of the season so far. I know I had previously said that perhaps the judges were rather GOE-happy in scoring this performance, but the more I watch the program, the more I believe that the very substantial GOE was justified. The spins, a persistent weakness of Mr. Takahashi's, actually looked decent. The jumps--3F-3T, 3A, 3Lz--were all smooth as butter. The 3A particularly was to die for, with just gorgeous height and distance covered. But with Mr. Takahashi, it's never all about the jumps--it's the program itself and the performance that just shines. Such beautiful transitions that capture the nuances of the music (which is unfortunately less common than one thinks), linking all the elements together so that the entire program is a completely seamless whole. A common criticism of CoP programs is that the structure of CoP scoring leads to fragmented programs that are less the sum of its parts, but In the Garden of Souls transcends that. I also love how the choreography blends in original movements within the program as well--the moment when Mr. Takahashi grasps his knee and arches his back before going into the camel spin is very inspired, and perfect for that particular moment in the music.

The proverbial glue that held the entire thing together was, of course, Mr. Takahashi's performance of the program itself. Mr. Takahashi's ability to express the nuances of music with his entire body--including his feet--is unmatched by any of the men skating today. And, as I've said before, the sheer command Mr. Takahashi had during this short program was just intoxicating to watch. Mr. Takahashi really was a Man among boys at this competition, and it's perhaps for the best that nobody had the misfortune to skate after him. It was very gratifying to see Mr. Takahashi receive such high PCS (though I personally would have marked him even higher), as it is a glimmer of hope that the judges still acknowledge artistry, musicality and the other intangibles that make our beloved sport unique. We can only hope that this will continue outside of Japan.

I still prefer In the Garden of Souls over Blues for Klook, but I admit that the long program is slowly growing on me. Nonetheless, its great to see Mr. Takahashi completely morph from INTENSE SRS BSNS to a much more languid and playful creature overnight. Aside from the fall on the under-rotated 4F and a slight bobble here and there, the jumps looked improved from Skate Canada and Blues for Klook gelled together much more nicely as a result, given the fact that the jumps are so seamlessly woven into the choreography as a whole.

Takahiko Kozuka finished a distant second with 235.02 points. Seeing the sea of Daisuke banners and the enormous amount of flowers and gifts bestowed upon Mr. Takahashi, I wonder how Mr. Kozuka, the reigning national champion and world silver medallist, feels? It's never fun to be the Sasha Cohen to a Michelle Kwan, particularly if the Michelle Kwan is sticking around for quite a while. Anyway, musings about Mr. Kozuka's psychological state aside, I really don't think his Inner Urge short program fits him very well at all. Mr. Kozuka deserves credit for it being an unusual choice of music, but I feel it almost requires a sort of oleaginous charm on the part of the skater to  really work....something that Mr. Kozuka doesn't quite have. The result is that the music carries Mr. Kozuka, instead of the other way around. Pity, because I do like the very light and quick step sequence at the program's end.

On the other hand, Mr. Kozuka's Nausicaä long program is a much better fit for his style. Unfortunately, despite having the advantage of skating directly after Brandon Mroz (one really appreciates the quality of Mr. Kozuka's skating skills and beautiful quiet blades after watching Mr. Mroz), it was just not Mr. Kozuka's day on the jumping front. Mr. Kozuka is not exactly the type of skater who can seduce the audience/judges into forgetting that he has made mistakes, and his marks really reflect that when compared to Mr. Takahashi's. I still think there's still potential in this program, but it needs to be completely clean and skated with more conviction. 

Ross Miner placed third overall, despite a sixth place finish in the short program and a fourth place in the long program, indicative of some rather jumbled skating at this event. On a choreographic level, his program to Ennio Morricone's The Untouchables is actually quite good and far superior to Michal Brezina's, but Mr. Miner lacks that extra touch of command and oomph that maximises the interpretive impact of his choreography, as well as the big jumps that excite the judges into giving out some extra PCS and GOEs. Nonetheless, a good effort, and Mr. Miner deserves to be commended for his good effort for his bronze medal, his senior Grand Prix first. 

Konstantin Menshov placed sixth, apparently portraying the frustrations of a motorcycle racer fed up with all the traffic in Russia in his long program. This Precambrian fossil's in-air position in his jumps is often highly dubious (though he does somehow manage to land his jumps nonetheless), the quality of his bladework not quite at the level of the top men, and his choreography and performance level just needs more oomph and attention to detail. Mr. Menshov is simply not the kind of skater to survive on the international stage without his jumps evidenced by his finish here at NHK. 

But despite all that, I cannot help but respect this man, who has the balls to not only portray such a whacked-out concept in a sport where skaters have no scruples in skating to the same tired pieces of music over and over again, but also chooses to skate it with a woodland version of Clair de Lune mashed together with traffic sounds and electronic music. Respect. Just respect. Mr. Menshov is clearly insane and moreover, he is his own man in the sea of Plushenko clones that make up the men's ranks in Russian skating. The fact that Mr Menshov also skated in the short program with a toy alien on his chest only makes me respect him more. At the advanced old age of 28, he's unlikely to be around for very long but I look forward to whatever bizarre programs he wishes to unveil in the future. 

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