Every year, Japan Open gives us a glimpse into what the eventual season-ending showdowns might be like, and it was no different this year. The ladies' event featured six women who could one could imagine finishing in the top 10 at PyeongChang. The men's event had three of the Big Six. And yes, it's a pro-am free skate only event. Yes, the scores have not historically been the most accurately reflective of other competitions. But it still makes for a good show, and a good preview of the upcoming Grand Prix series. Let's start with the men.
Slow and steady?
There's something to be said about Javier Fernandez winning his first two competitions of the season. And not only that, he won Autumn Classic over Yuzuru Hanyu and Japan Open over Shoma Uno and Nathan Chen.
Fernandez didn't win because he was delivering loads of quads or absolutely clean programs. But he was solid at both competitions, and he took advantage of mistakes from his rivals to come out on top. As he had said last year, Fernandez won't take the risk to add new technical content in his programs (we've seen that he is capable of the quad loop). Does this become a theme for the Olympic season? If these Olympics are anything like 2014 with the messy men's free skate, it may be that slow and steady wins the race.
For Chen, he is definitely ramping up his technical in anticipation of his showdown with Hanyu in Moscow next week. It wasn't quite where he wanted it to be (cue NSFW gif of the two seconds after his ending pose) but he went from three planned quads at US Classic to five at Japan Open - and not coincidentally, five *different* quad types. He is not approaching his jumps with nearly the confidence that he had late last season. And as the season progresses and he gets more of that spark back in his jumps, the combination with this nuanced choreography is going to do wonders for him.
In Uno's case, he looked practically invincible at Lombardia Trophy a few weeks back, but he was human here at Japan Open. Even he admitted to having nerves at this event - better to have them now than in PyeongChang. Knowing him, you have to believe that he will be back with a vengeance at Skate Canada coming up in two weeks.
In music news, Olympic favorite Evgenia Medvedeva made an unexpected change for her free skate. After debuting a free skate a few weeks back at Nepela Trophy, she came to Japan Open with a revamped competition-ready version of her Anna Karenina exhibition. It is a program choreographed by Daniil Gleichengauz, who is on her coaching team.
But perhaps the biggest departure is that she did not work with Ilia Averbukh on this program - Averbukh has been the choreographer of her last two season's free skates. And Averbukh himself noted in an interview after the competition that he did not know about the switch.
Choreographically, it's a slightly different look for her than we are used to - expectedly so, considering the change in choreographer. Compositionally, she has ditched the more aggressive back-loaded layout that she had at Nepela in her first free skate for the layout that she is more comfortable with, putting the flip-toe and lutz back in the front of the program.
I find this program to be a refreshing step forward for Medvedeva, significantly featuring a waltz from the film. It's not a wholesale change in her choreography, but it certainly puts her in a different light than we've seen over the past couple of seasons.
Signs of growth
Of all the women in the event, the one who caught my eye the most in her growth in presence and choreography was Mai Mihara. And even since Autumn Classic a few weeks ago, you could see huge improvements for her in the way she owned the program and commanded the mood in that packed arena. Having the home crowd behind you doesn't hurt, and she definitely fed off of that. She's got more potential for growth even within this season, but she is in the midst of a transformation into a truly all-around skater.
Making her case
Another competition down, another one to check off for Mirai Nagasu. At the beginning of the season, many thought Nagasu may be fighting for the third spot against Mariah Bell (they faced off at US Classic and will face off again next week at Rostelecom Cup). But for a second competition in a row, Nagasu has beaten reigning U.S. champ Karen Chen, and this time quite handily.
Though Japan Open is not among on the criteria for the Olympic team selection process for US Figure Skating, her performance here will no doubt leave an impression, and perhaps most notably on her, that she belongs.
What Nagasu did was more steady and proficient - eight triples rotated (ROTATED!), seven landed. Her one flaw in the entire program was a step out of her triple axel. It was not the emotion we've seen from her in her Demons short program from two seasons back or the choreographic intricacy we know she has in her Chopin short program. And you saw that in her score - it's potentially a 140+ program that scored in the mid-130s.
Her free skates have been known to be less all-around as she's had to figure out how to skate a four-minute program and rotate all her jumps. Skates like this one will do wonders for her as she tries for her second Olympic team. But incorporating all the choreography that Jeff Buttle had to offer and all the musical connection that we all know she has in her will transform it into an Olympic podium vehicle.
And finally, a shoutout to Nobunari Oda. Four seasons removed from Olympic-eligible competition and still putting out programs with the hardest technical content that he's had. I'm not joking when I say he has a more than realistic shot at making the Olympics again.