What we learned from an intriguing NHK Trophy weekend

Takahashi's progress; Kagiyama and You have opposing fortunes; look ahead to Japanese nationals

By ZK Goh

It was a weekend of contrasting fortunes for Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games champions You Young of South Korea and Kagiyama Yuma of Japan, while all eyes were on the return of Takahashi Daisuke to elite international figure skating.

The 2020 NHK Trophy provided a number of interesting talking points as Japanese skaters – plus You, the only athlete competing not to represent the host country – geared up for their respective national championships next month.

While Kagiyama was imperious and Takahashi showed that his transition from singles skating to ice dance is making good progress, there were setbacks for You at the fourth and final Grand Prix of the season.

Here is what we learned from an exciting weekend in Osaka, with an eye on nationals, where Kihira Rika, Hanyu Yuzuru, and Uno Shoma are all expected to compete.

Takahashi's progress

With Kihira, Hanyu, and Uno not taking part in the event, arguably the biggest name present in Osaka was Takahashi, the Vancouver 2010 bronze medallist in men's singles.

This was the first international event in which he and new ice dance partner Muramoto Kana would compete for the first time, having teamed up in January this year before the coronavirus pandemic began affecting their training.

However, in the few months that they have had to train, it's clear great strides have been made in their progress, especially artistically.

While Takahashi still has some things to work on technically – he tripped on his twizzles in the free dance, for example – those challenges are surmountable.

"There were some things I did well and there were things I need work on," he reflected.

"When I competed in the singles, I tried to stay light by controlling my diet. But now I'm eating a lot more, trying to add weight and strength for the lifts. I eat differently, train differently and I'm starting to get the hang of lifting. But I'm not comfortable yet. It's definitely an area I need to work on."

At nationals (scheduled for 25–27 December in Nagano), as in Osaka, they will have to overcome the current top Japanese ice dancers Komatsubara Misato and Tim Koleto.

American-born Koleto is now naturalised as a Japanese citizen, which grants him eligibility to represent Japan at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games – which is also the stated goal of Muramoto and Takahashi.

Japan only qualified one ice dance team for PyeongChang 2018, where they were represented by Muramoto and the late Chris Reed. If that scenario repeats itself for Beijing, there is a long way to go for Muramoto and Takahashi to pip the husband-and-wife team of Komatsubara and Koleto to that one spot.

Kagiyama lays down marker

The Lausanne 2020 champion Kagiyama was probably the lone bright spot of the weekend in the men's competition after disappointing skates from experienced campaigners Tomono Kazuki and PyeongChang 2018 Olympian Tanaka Keiji.

While Japanese junior champion Honda Lucas Tsuyoshi capitalised on Tanaka's off weekend to win bronze, it was Kagiyama who caught the eye with five cleanly-landed quadruple jumps across his two routines.

The 17-year-old has clearly been working on perfecting his quadruple Salchow (of which he landed two this weekend) and quadruple toeloop (landed three), and he didn't just land them cleanly, but he also did so with grace and style receiving very strong grade of execution scores from the judges for them.

It would not be an exaggeration to say Kagiyama looked like a skater who has been competing consistently at the senior level for years, let alone this having been his first senior international event. His margin of victory – over 49 points – only emphasised how far ahead of everyone else in the competition he was.

"The way I see it I'm starting all over again because this is my first senior competition. Last season definitely added to my confidence but that was that," he said after his short program.

Nationals will pose a different task, however, with the return of both Hanyu and Uno expected.

Sakamoto reminder; You's nerves

This was a loud reminder from Sakamoto Kaori that she's still around and still a force.

The 2018 Olympian, who had a somewhat disappointing season last year, was simply flawless on both days to comfortably clinch victory.

That said, it was not easy for her – the 20-year-old said she was disappointed to lose points on her spins in the short program, and admitted to being extremely nervous.

While Sakamoto performed despite – or perhaps thanks to – her nerves, South Korea's You did not.

An uncharacteristically poor short program, which left her last after the first day, ended any hopes of another Grand Prix medal to add to her Skate Canada bronze from last year.

However, she rebounded in the free skate to finish seventh overall. "I learned a lot from this competition," she said afterwards.

"Next time I think I will be more comfortable and not very nervous like yesterday and having a panic."

What next?

The senior Japanese national championships are scheduled for 25–27 December in Nagano.

They will serve as the final internal selection event for Japan's team for the World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, in March. January's Four Continents Championships in Australia have been cancelled.

Hanyu is registered for the event and expected to make his season debut at the championships, after choosing to sit out the Grand Prix season to protect his own health.

Uno, the four-time defending national champion, is also on the entry list. The Stéphane Lambiel-trained, Switzerland-based skater was due to skate at the Internationaux de France Grand Prix before that event was cancelled.

Kagiyama, last year's bronze medallist, clearly showed this week he is also a force to be reckoned with. But has he improved his elements to the point of being able to consistently challenge Uno and Hanyu? His winning score in Osaka (275.87) is still lower than what Hanyu received (282.77) to win national silver last year.

Sakamoto has always been one of the better Japanese ladies, winning the 2018 Four Continents Championship. However, perhaps surprisingly, her win this weekend was her first career Grand Prix triumph.

She was national champion in the 2018/19 season, but only managed a disappointing sixth place last year.

Sakamoto is clearly capable of pushing Kihira, and with a lack of competition so far this season for the latter, this may be Sakamoto's chance to restore herself to the top of Japanese ladies' skating.