Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, March 27, 2006

It's That Time of the Year Again

The biggest annual ritual has finally come and gone. I'm talking about the music club's regular concert, which always takes place at the very end of the school year. It provides a handy punctuation mark of sorts to indicate that yet another chapter in the history of ye olde academy has come to an end. It is also the culmination of a year's worth of effort in the music club.

This is this year's concert program. Don't ask me where the idea for the motif came from. Most of the time I have no idea.

Last year's regular concert was an extremely ambitious, two-day affair separated into Wind/Jazz Night and Orchestra Night. From a performance standpoint, it was spectacular, but it was a logistical and operational nightmare. This year we decided to go back to a single program, this time in the afternoon, but we stretched it out into three hours. There was a lot of concern about whether the brass section would hold up, but it still seemed the best way to go.

The program may have been shorter this time, but there was no wanting for flair. Quite the opposite, in fact. The music program was currently at a peak, particularly with regard to the brass section, and we would be losing a whole bunch of power players, so we decided to flaunt it while we had it. We displayed this in no uncertain terms with the opening, in which all the brass sections plus the sax section marched out onto the stage and cut loose with John Williams' Olympic Fanfare from the 1984 L.A. Olympics. That in itself was pretty impressive, I thought. And that was just the beginning...

Next up was my part of the program, the Seishin Flying Eggheads jazz big band. I actually decided to play it safe this year, mainly to save the brass players' chops. There were no screaming Maynard Ferguson or Chase tunes on the roster, neither were there any extended, unaccompanied solo breaks or whole sections ad-libbing together. It was kind of a low-key set, but I think that actually helped the kids relax a bit and get in the groove. They looked happy (at least happier than usual), they sounded fine, they were tight, and they pulled off one of their best performances ever. We started with the R&B favorite "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" followed by a 50s-style rock n' roll (sorry, Paul, "shuffle swing") chart called "Run With It" that featured the sax section. Then we toned it down with a Latin-style ballad called "Beneath an Orange Moon" that featured some fantastic solo work by lead trumpet Daichi Onizawa. This led into "Blue Bossa", perhaps our theme tune for the past year as we performed it many times and got many requests for it. This time we beefed it up a bit, supplementing the sax and trumpet spots with a well-executed bass solo (by departing 11th grader Kana Kitazawa) and some cool solo break work by the percussion section. Next, while the bassist put away her electric and got out her upright wood bass, I told a bit about the history of jazz and then, in salute to the roots of the big band, we closed out the show with "Take the A Train" and "A String of Pearls", the latter featuring a trade-off of debut solos from our two 8th grade sax players that included some amusing stage antics. When it was done, I stood the band up, bowed, and then immediately counted off the encore, "In the Mood", a number that always gets the crowd going.

All in all, it was a very entertaining and well-performed set, and the kids were definitely in the groove for a change. It wasn't perfect, but, then again, if it's perfect it's not jazz.

After a 15-minute intermission the concert band came on, directed by Mr. Karatsu (who stillreminds me a lot of Dewkid!). Their program was rather ambitious. They opened with an ensemble in which the lead and backing players were reversed and the senior members deleted altogether. They played "Sinfonia Nobilissima", which is pretty standard concert band fare. After that, the senior members came in, everyone assumed his or her usual post, and they played the tune that took them all the way to a silver medal at the regional championships last summer, "Antiphonale for Brass Sextet and Band". That is a weirdly intimidating and jarring piece, going from mysterious, close harmony to atonal noise to haunting melodies to discordant shrieking to loud power chords. It is also very impressive when played well. (At the contest they used a smaller ensemble consisting almost exclusively of senior high kids. Not surprisingly, it sounded tighter then than now, but it's still a wild ride!) They closed their set with Alfred Reed's "Praise Jerusalem!", which is based on Armenian church music and is very melodic (and, as with most of Reed's works, has plenty of punch). For the encore, they played an excerpt from Van der Roost's Jewish dance work, "Puszta", with the entire band playing the last few notes of the piece and then jumping up and yelling "HEY!" It was pretty melodramatic, I can tell you.

The Seishin Gakuen concert band at the East Kanto Regional Championship, autumn 2005.

After that, there was another intermission, and then the orchestra came on under the baton of Mssr. Maestro Ogawa. If the audience thought they were impressed up till then, they hadn't seen anything yet. This time Mr. Ogawa took an extraordinary risk; they performed Tchaikowski's 6th Symphony. The 6th is called "Pathetique", not because it's pathetic but because it is an exploration of the emotion of sadness. When one hears the name "Tchaikowski", one usually imagines either the dramatic imagery of his ballets or the martial flair of "1812 Overture" and "March Slavonica". Well, in "Pathetique" there is some unbelievably raw emotion, enough to rival Wagner or any heavy metal band. It starts out with one sitting in a dark room holding his head in his hands, progresses to standing in the middle of said room shrieking at the top of his lungs and pounding the walls, switches to "Oh, why am I bothering myself with this crap when there're things to see and people to do," and then ends with the walls suddenly closing in again, this time for good. My God...that ENDING! A low and richly melancholy cello/contrabass rumble that just trails away into dead silence...silence that is, in itself, the closing fermata. The audience just sits there numb, waiting for it all to sink in, before finally realizing that it's all over. Then they go crazy.

It is hard to express the level of musicianship required by a piece like this. I'm not talking about the level of technique required, though it is considerable. You can play the tune exactly as written with perfect precision, and you would be not only playing it wrong, but butchering it. You can't play a piece like that as it appears on paper! That's the trap that most youth orchestras fall into simply because the kids and their directors don't know better. A real symphony requires musical sense as well as a deep awareness of what is happening within the musical work. The Seishin Orchestra is currently at a stage where the kids can do that to a remarkable extent, and this performance reflected that.

As expected, the wind players were starting to show signs of wear. They had already been forced to go through a three-day marathon of rehearsals (over my protests) not to mention the brutal chop-busters in the concert band set (since Mr. Karatsu refused to show any mercy...he was out for MEAT!!!!). Frankly, I was amazed they did as well as they did. During the first and second movements of "Pathetique" there were a few pretty clear splats in the trumpets and horns, but then they found their legs again and pulled it together for the demanding third and fourth movements. All in all, it was an impressive performance. The fact that it was carried out by a group of kids whose average age is 15, many of whom have played their instruments for only a couple of years at best, is nothing short of miraculous.

The Seishin Gakuen orchestra at the All-Japan Selective High School Orchestra Festa in December 2005

Personally, however, I think the most moving performance by far was the encore. I'm sure a lot of my feeling that way has to do with the fact that I arranged the piece myself. I'm talking about the "'Time to Say Goodbye' meets Ravel's 'Bolero'" creation that I discussed before. I crafted that work specifically for this event, and I designed it to showcase as many of the 11th grade members as possible. It was their final appearance with the Seishin Gakuen music club, after all, so it really was time to say goodbye.

So imagine if you will:

After three curtain calls to rousing applause following "Pathetique", Mr. Ogawa signals the orchestra to sit, and the stage goes to total darkness. Then, toward stage left, a spotlight slowly fades in to reveal Eri Kitaki, who starts the opening melody of "Time to Say Goodbye" freely and without accompaniment. It sounds so desolate. Eri has only been with us for a little over a year. She was a "Room 5" student, i.e. she entered our senior high from a different junior high, but she waited almost till the end of her first year to join us. Over the past year she has been in the concert band and has also alternated on lead in the Flying Eggheads. She's a serious and determined player. However, she's also notoriously inconsistent, as the two unfortunate bricks in her solo show.

Eri hits her final note, which fades away as another instrument comes in together with a spot toward stage right. It's Asuka Uchiura on tenor sax. She has been my loyal captain of the Flying Eggheads for the past year and a very strong jazz player. That's not bad at all, especially considering that, in her 7th and 8th grade years, the term "airhead" would have been too kind. Back then she had a noted tendency to just sit and stare blankly without any idea what was going on around her. Needless to say, her grades stank, and her early attempts at playing weren't much more promising. But that was then, and this is most definitely now. She did an outstanding job in tonight's Flying Egghead set, ad-libbing with confidence with a tone worthy of a professional. Now, in a classical mode, she is playing flawlessly.

It sounds even more beautiful a few measures in when, together with yet another spotlight, Miho Watanabe comes in to accompany her on harp. Miho was another tough one to figure out at first. Academically capable but scatter-brained and excessively emotional, she had a brief flirtation with the "bad" crowd in her mid to late junior high days before she cleaned up her act and started showing both maturity and leadership ability. A naturally talented pianist and percussionist, she took up harp and struggled hard to get a handle on it...only to break her hand when she was needed most. Mr. Ogawa was pretty hard on her for that, and she never forgave herself. I wrote that harp part specifically for her as her farewell performance, but I had to work to convince her to do it (she wanted to play snare). I'm glad she did, and the tears I see in the eyes of some people backstage show others think so, too. She should consider herself more than redeemed.

The harp/sax duet comes to a conclusion, and a single snare starts the Bolero beat but in 4/4 time. Then the cellos and violas come plucking in. After a few bars, Chiaki Oshima plays a low, subdued opening solo on flute. She's still only a 10th grader and so isn't leaving us yet (thank god), but she still deserves mention. An excellent flautist and an award-winning pianist (for the Eggheads and numerous solos throughout the year), she is one of our crowned stars, so it's only fitting that she get a bit of spotlight. She's followed immediately by a similarly minimal solo played beautifully on clarinet by Ryouka Takasu. Ryouka is a departing 11th grader, and her story is a troubled one. When she first joined us as a 7th grader, she quickly earned a reputation as a whiner who often made false accusations, which kept her reputation in the gutter. However, she immediately showed strength on clarinet...and when she played piano at the chorus concert she blew away all the older competition. She won awards both as a soloist on clarinet and as an accompanist for others on piano. Then, halfway through her 9th grade year, she developed an inner ear infection. Her doctor ordered her to give up music. She did so with much flowing of tears. It didn't last. As soon as the infection had subsided a bit, she immediately came running back. That was last year. She could barely play, and it hurt. It took a lot of work for her to get her chops back, but she made it to the East Kanto Regional Solo Championship only a couple of months ago with Chiaki Oshima accompanying her, and they both got gold medals! (Unfortunately, Ryouka was in fourth place overall, and only the top three went on to the nationals.) The only problem is that she is now totally deaf in one ear. She doesn't seem to consider it a vain sacrifice, and I won't argue with her.

The accompaniment fills out a bit, adding the second violins and a flute, and the dynamics grow a bit. Then we hear the melody of the chorus of "Time to Say Goodbye" played through fully for the first time, this time by Yumeka Noguchi on bassoon. Like Eri Kitaki, Yumeka was a "Room 5" student who came from another junior high. When she first came to me in the music office almost two years ago, she seemed really cold and withdrawn when she said (without making eye contact), "I can play saxophone. Any is okay." I then told her that we didn't really need another sax player, but we desperately needed a new bassoonist. She wasn't happy, and it took her more than a month of stewing and pensive blatting on a bassoon in an isolated corner before she said she'd do it. (She later told me that she'd never played classical music in her life since her junior high band had only played pop tunes. That made it even tougher for her.) I was really worried about her, especially because she continued to seem like a hopeless wall flower. Boy, oh boy, was I wrong. Come summer, she suddenly went crazy, and she quickly turned our whole program upside down. (She was the inspiration for the song "In Your Ranks" on my Open Halls album.) She started inventing themes, planning events, organizing teams, choreographing dance and cheer routines, and otherwise turning our music club into something far more active and colorful than it had ever been. She also started challenging the way Mr. Ogawa, Mr. Karatsu, and I were running things, saying with sometimes deadpan frankness that we were putting people to sleep and needed to spice things up. She was probably right, but she continued to be seen as a controversial figure all along. Unfortunately, she was more interested in entertaining than mastering, and she continued to struggle on bassoon, a difficult instrument, right up till the end. However, she proved time and time again that she could do it if she tried, earning awards in solo and ensemble competition. She also pulled off her difficult solos in "Pathetique" and this one in "Time to Say Goodbye" quite well. (As a side note, right before today's concert Mr. Ogawa was saying, "Noguchi is hopeless! That girl is hopeless!" After the concert, he was saying, "Noguchi is amazing! That girl can do anything!" Go figure!)

Noguchi's low bassoon crooning is followed by a shrill echo on an Eb clarinet. It's Meika Nakagawa, the student chief of the music club. She was never a strong leader, but she was always a prudent one. She never made the common mistake of either trying to be in charge of everything or in charge of nothing at all. She knew her responsibility and kept a handle on things, but she also delegated authority and used the chain of command the way it was intended. As a result, she headed up a first class team, one of the best I've seen if not the best. Her solo was pretty good, too. Good job, chief!

The Bolero rhythm comes up some more, and now we have a duet between Chiaki Oshima on flute and Daichi Onizawa on trumpet. I remember Daichi when he first joined us. He was a little, smiling, spunky thing, always eager to please. The first thing he did with our band was get cut out of me, personally. That was the one year that I directed the concert band at the contest (and hated it). I had to remove two members to meet the official limit, and he was the most obviously disposable. I hated doing it, but such is the life of a director. He was disappointed, to be sure, but he then became my official "gopher" and made himself very useful. Actually, he did that till the end, but he also came to be very good at that trumpet of his. (Personally, I think Mr. Ogawa's son, Sanshiro, already a phenomenal trumpetist as a 7th grader, spurred Daichi to work harder. He and Sanshiro turned out to be quite a team!) Daichi was by far my strongest jazz player and best ad-libber in the Eggheads (not to mention an arranger...together with Sanshiro), but he's also a very competent classical trumpetist. His chops are smarting, but other than his red face he's not showing it.

We go through a couple of turns. The rhythm is even stronger. The melody is played by a woodwind/string ensemble, and then it is played by most of the orchestra. Then a countermelody appears. It's a variation on the original Bolero melody, tweaked a bit so it fits in and around "Time to Say Goodbye". It is played by a small grouping headed up by our top two horn players, the 11th grade dynamic duo Funasaka and Kimura. (I don't know how to read their first names!) I don't know about Funasaka, but Kimura played trumpet in elementary school. Mr. Ogawa convinced both of them to play horn, which is one of the toughest instruments and also one of the most important in an orchestra. Incredibly, those two quiet, smiley girls took to the thing like a shot, quickly outclassing their seniors in the section. It is mainly thanks to their ability that the horn section has been perhaps the tightest in the entire outfit for the past three years. The loss of any 11th grader is painful, but in their case it'll probably be excrutiating.

Watanabe leaves her harp and steps up to a second snare drum to double the rhythm, showing her superior rhythmic expertise to the 10th grader who has been carrying it till now. It all builds to a crescendo, and suddenly "Time to Say Goodbye" becomes pure Bolero, though still in 4/4 time. The stage is now all brightly lit with fancy light patterns as the final barrage of dissonant chords comes blasting out, punctuated by mad-dog howlings from the trombones.

The trombone section. There are no 11th graders there. The three members are in grades 7, 9, and 10. They don't have a whole lot of strength, and they are the only members of the entire music club that have performed every single piece from start to finish. (The trumpets, you see, have enough people to rotate.) That's why Mr. Ogawa stuck in a couple of alumni players. Just-graduated senior Tanaka is there, adding his not-yet-forgotten loud, high-flying wail. On the other end is third-year college student Uchida, a member of the Kashima Philharmonic, who is providing power punches on his bass trombone. It's an interesting combination of young and not-quite-so-young, strong and not-strong-but-getting-better. I'm just amazed the younger ones are even still playing. This has been a horrendous ordeal for them, I'm sure, but they seem to be enjoying those wails.

And then there is that ending. The Bolero ending. 4/4 or 3/4, it still comes out the same; one of the most maddening endings in classical music. I'm sure Ravel must have done it just to tick off the conductor. It's an ending that can take days of practice to perfect. In fact, when our orchestra performed "Bolero" five years ago they spent scads of time on it and never got it quite right. This year's orchestra? They had it licked after one half-hour rehearsal. Spot on. It's done, the audience is cheering, and tears are flowing freely now.

Alright. Sadly enough, it's time to say goodbye. Thanks for an excellent and very eventful year, and thanks for the memories.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Springtime Magic

Today is the Vernal Equinox, one of the two times during the year that day and night are of equal length. In Japanese it is called Shunbun no Hi (春分の日, perhaps literally translated as "The Day of the Spring Portion"). Throughout history, this day has meant more than just the beginning of Spring. In many cultures and religions it has had special significance. It has been believed to be a day (and night) of special power, when flows of cosmic energy are in flux and there is all kinds of magic in the air.

Or is that just the pollen? (Actually, I'm feeling better today. The sugi are behaving themselves.)

Anyway, Sunbun no Hi has special significance in Japan, as well. It is a national holiday because it is one of the three times during the year that families gather to clean their ancestors' graves and leave incense and offerings to appease their spirits. After that traditional chore is over, the families then have a feast at home. Naturally, my family here observes this event together with the in-laws. Not doing so is not considered a very good idea, since it could irritate the ancestors' spirits and lead to all kinds of bad things.

Before you laugh, on three different occasions I failed to attend to the family graves on such festival days, and when I did, either my computer or my home studio (both in one instance!) strangely malfunctioned and became unusable...but then mysteriously cleared itself and went back to normal after I finally saw to my filial "duty". I'm sure it's just a lot of really weird coincidences, but why tempt fate? At any rate, my wife and her parents are definitely traditionalists, so we went through the routine today in and among our respective schedules. I guess that's why I'm able to write this post now.

(I wanted to take pictures of the family tending the graves so I could post them here, but my wife just about had a heart attack when I even suggested it. Superstitious to the end...)

Even so, there were still wondrous things that happened today. The most obvious was Japan's national baseball team at the first-ever World Baseball Classic. During the preliminaries they were falling all over themselves. Then, as if by magic, they managed to find their kiai enough to shut down unstoppable South Korea 6-0 in the semifinals. Well, today was the final round, and Japan was facing Cuba. (You have to understand that facing Cuba in baseball is kind of like facing Brazil in soccer. You just don't expect to win.) The wife, kids, and I were in a ramen shop having lunch, and the game was on. When the 7th inning ended, Japan was ahead 6-3. During the 8th inning, Cuba scored a 2-run homer. It was 6-5, our hopes were fading fast, and we had to leave the ramen shop (unfortunately) to get to work.

Guess what? The final score was 10-6. Japan won. It was a springtime miracle, to be sure, but it was also a testament to the various talented, quality players on the Japan team (who finally pulled out of their slump when they needed to). This evening half the nation was shedding tears of joy (and the other half was in a drunken stupor).

There was another mysterious occurrence today of a totally different nature.

I first heard Tangerine Dream's Poland album in 1986. It's a recording of a live concert performed in (wait for it...) Warsaw, Poland in 1984. My roommate in college at the time had a cassette tape copy of it. He said it was his favorite Tangerine Dream album, but he didn't like the way it ended. In fact, it didn't really end at all. It just stopped. I mean, the music built to a crescendo, and then just...nothing. Silence. Dead stop. Cut off in the middle. It was weird. (Actually, my roommate called it a "rip-off", but whatever.)

Last year I found a CD copy of Poland in Shibuya and bought it. It really is a good album (if you like Tangerine Dream), and I consider it one of my favorites. However, there was that damnable cut-off in place of an ending. The store-bought CD was no different from my old roommate's tape copy. The liner notes of the CD explain that that particular concert was held during a cold snap in Warsaw, and it was plagued with all kinds of problems. Not only was it held in an unheated hockey arena whose glass roof was in serious danger of collapsing (with the three members of the group having to have cups of hot water brought constantly to keep their fingers from going numb), but it was plagued throughout with equipment and power failures. Apparently the sudden cut-off at the end was due to a blackout that occurred at an inopportune moment. It sounded like a reasonable explanation. At least it did till this morning.

As I said before, the CD copy cuts off at the end just like my roommate's tape copy did. I dubbed it onto an MD (since I play the album a lot), and of course it sounded the same. Then, recently, I ripped it into mp3 files and copied them onto the hard drive of my car's navigation system.

Imagine my surprise when I listened to it on my way to ye olde academy this morning and it DIDN'T CUT OFF! It built up to the same noisy crescendo as before, but then it kept on going...tapering off into a quiet, mysterious ending followed by cheering crowds that fade out the way a live album should. Whathef...???!?!?!??? You mean that there really was an ending all this time?????!?!?? And why couldn't I hear it before?? Why couldn't my roommate hear it before??? Why couldn't the people who wrote the liner notes hear it before???? And why is it only on the mp3 copy?????

Curiouser and curiouser...or should I say seltsamer und seltsamer?

Weird. Welcome to Spring.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Identifying with a Dark Lady

Japanese soap operas differ from their American counterparts in a number of ways. The most obvious distinction is the fact that all of the Japanese ones are miniseries, i.e. they only last one season. If a certain drama is particularly popular, a sequel may appear at a future date, but the single-season run always has a very definite beginning, middle, and climax. That usually means plots that are far more solid and less convoluted then the on-and-on-and-ongoing American soaps. Sure, most Japanese TV dramas are rather cliche love-triangle stories, but a lot of them are very unique and interesting. Some are just plain bizarre.

My wife almost always has one particular drama that is her soup de saison, so to speak. I tend to be rather apathetic toward them. However, every once in a while one of the networks puts on a drama that is either so interesting or so audacious that I wind up getting wrapped up in it. That has happened again recently, and this particular drama is as disturbing as it is entertaining, particularly because of the unique relationship my wife and I have with it.

The name of this drama is "Jo'ou no Kyoushitsu" (女王の教室, lit. "The Queen's Classroom"), and it was apparently taken from a novel. It centers around Ms. Akutsu, a female elementary school teacher who seems to be quite literally a Dark Overlady from HellTM. She dresses all in black, keeps her hair tied up so tight you could bounce a 100-yen coin on it, and maintains an icy glare that would freeze the blood of a balrog. When she walks into the classroom, you can almost hear minor chords and Latin chanting in the background. (In fact, come to think of it, sometimes you really do!) To say that she runs a tight ship would be an understatement. She is ruthless and cruel, particularly to the girl who is the drama's #1 protagonist and anyone who befriends her. However, at the same time she strangely dismisses with icy contempt the class screw-off, a boy with attention deficit disorder (among other problems) who is the show's #2 protagonist. Malevolence personified, some of the things she does are unbelievable in their sheer audacity. While her fellow teachers constantly try to get her to lighten up, first with rhetoric (that only gets them frosted in return) and then with underhandedness (which creates more problems than it solves), Ms. Akutsu drives her charges mercilessly. Any attempt to impress her or get a speck of warmth out her ends in cryogenic doom.

The girl who is the primary target of her wrath has a strong personality and is a natural leader type. Not willing to take Ms. Akutsu's cruelty sitting down, she and her friends are constantly trying to come up with ways to defy their Dark Overlady. It never works. The Black Teacher from GehennaTM seems to have an almost supernatural knack for figuring them out and turning their plots against them. Most of the time the lead protagonist just winds up giving her famous look of imminent doom:

However, Ms. Akutsu always seems to keep turning out to be right in the end. Even her most unbelievably sinister acts have a tendency to come out for the better, with someone learning a very valuable life lesson in the process. The harried students finally figure that out when the Dark Overlady is finally removed, not because of the various machinations of the students and faculty but because of a mysterious illness that has something to do with her shadowy past. As soon as Ms. Akutsu is replaced by one of her more typical, kinder, gentler (and more indulgent) fellow teachers, the students realize just how much they've all grown thanks to the Dark Overlady and try to get her back. In the end, they realize that Ms. Akutsu showed them far more genuine love than anyone else on the school's faculty.

That was the original series. The sequel has just come on, and this time the main point is Ms. Akutsu's strange past, when she started out as a more typical, kinder, gentler teacher herself but learned her own brutal lessons the hard way. Even so, as with the first series, there are two main themes that keep popping up:

1. Love and indulgence are not the same thing.
2. There is far more to education than just passing tests and graduating from a prestigious school.

You have to understand that both of these themes run completely counter to the culture of education and parenting in modern Japan. Overprotection and certification without content are the primary name of the game. (I should know. I teach at a "high-level", college-aimed school.) In the first series, the teacher that tries the hardest to bend or break Ms. Akutsu and then finally replaces her (to the students' eventual chagrin) keeps going on and on about how the most important thing for a teacher to do is to "love the children" (i.e. just smile sweetly and be nice to them all the time).

When I heard that, it immediately struck a nerve because Mr. O (among others at the academy) always spews the same line. We've even had more than one very heated argument about it. Anyway, I responded to what that teacher had said by echoing what I'd earlier said to Mr. O, "Love them? How the hell is spoiling them the same as loving them?"

An instant later, Ms. Akutsu said almost the exact same thing, albeit more dispassionately.

This sort of thing has happened to both my wife and I on several occasions.

You see, that's what's so disturbing about this drama. Ms. Akutsu is a dark demon of a teacher (by design, as it turns out) who thrives on cruel and unusual punishment. However, my wife and I keep finding ourselves agreeing 100% with her philosophies (though not necessarily with her methods). As with Ms. Akutsu, in our respective schools we are surrounded by fellow teachers that seem to live in some vacuous idealist's essay collection rather than the real world, and we find that a constant source of frustration. However, the popularity of this TV drama would seem to indicate that there are people out there that think the same way we do. I'll take that as a hopeful sign.

I don't intend to impersonate Darth Vader in my classes, however.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Moving to the Center Again

Well, I finally did it.

Three years ago I decided I was fed up with the "same old, same old" center-part hairstyle that I'd had since my high school days. I had mucked with it here and there over the years, but it had still been the same, basic story: parted right down the middle. Well, three years ago I took the plunge and had my hair parted on the left.

After making that fateful choice, I received quite a few compliments. However, as it turns out, I received even more complaints.

Part of the problem is that my hair has a mind of its own, and it keeps changing it. I'd chosen a left-part because it had been tending that way naturally. Well, after officially parting it that way, it stopped cooperating after about a year and started trying to curl the wrong way. I tangled with it, fussed with it, put various chemicals in it, and tried to whip it into submission. Sometimes I succeeded. Other times I just looked and felt ridiculous. Meanwhile, the comments of, "You looked better before you changed your hair," just kept rolling in, particularly from my wife.

Well, I finally gave up and gave in. I left work an hour early yesterday so I could get my hair cut ( had been months, and I was starting to look like John Lennon with left-parted hair) in time for today's senior high graduation ceremony. I had the stylist put it back in a center part. I came home last night eagerly anticipating my wife's words of joy when she saw it.

The verdict? She said, "No, that's not quite right." *sigh*

So today, sporting my new hairstyle, I went to ye olde academy for the senior high graduation ceremony. Only one person said anything at all. Oh, well. I had work to do. The graduation ceremony is one of the few times in a year that I actually wear a suit. First, as usual, I worked the reception desk at the main entrance during the first half. Then I went up and directed the orchestra for the second half, which included conducting "Auld Lang Syne" over and over and over again as the graduates marched out. (In American schools they use Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance". In Japan it's a Scottish New Year carol...go figure.)

We were lucky this year. Somehow we managed to time it just right so that I was able to signal the switch to the coda (which is rather long) and hit that last fermata just as the last graduate left the hall. Bull's eye! That's twice in three years that I've managed that!

Time to go back to the music office, have some lunch, and peel off this &%$# suit. The damned thing smelled like moth repellent when I first put it on. Now it smells like moth repellent and B.O.. It's not pretty, believe me. But at least it's BLUE!

Actually, the tradition is to wear black suits at graduation. I'm such a boat-rocker! (Sorry, Unker...don't take that literally!)

Incidentally, we found out our grade assignments for the new school year that starts next month. As expected, I was stuck in Grade 9 again. (This is me yet again in Grade 9, baby! This is me yet again in Grade 9!) That means I get to go on the school trip and do the work training thing again. At least those are fun. I also noticed that Mr. O is in Grade 9 again, too.

The principal knows that I haven't been too happy about having had to work with Mr. O in Grade 9 English communication for the past three f****** years (understatement of the year), and he was prepared to intervene. However, Mr. O went directly to the new Grade 9 chief teacher and begged and pleaded. The grade chief formally requested that Mr. O be put on his staff, and the principal can't easily justify denying that. Apparently Mr. O did all that from the goodness of his heart because he knows that I'll be upset and at a loss if he can't teach Grade 9 O.C. with me (his words...DEFINITELY NOT MINE). I swear...that guy is so totally disconnected from reality. I have expressed my frustration and dissatisfaction repeatedly in no uncertain terms, and he STILL believes I actually prefer working with him! He takes the term "vacuous idealist" to a whole new level.

The English department chief and the chief English teacher of the new grade say that they're going to try to intervene on my behalf, but there are two problems. One is that the rest of the English department (as well as most of the faculty of the school) considers it a given that Grade 9 O.C. will be taught by the (in)famous Moody/Mr. O "team". The other is that Mr. O is, to put it frankly, an arrogant and horribly self-righteous, would-be activist who takes pleasure in bullying people into accepting his "righteous" point of view. He has also shown that he won't hesitate either to involve the Teachers' Union (which he heads), go to the school's owners and give them one heck of a sob story, try to rally the parents to his cause, or threaten legal action if the school tries to impede him in any way without very firm backing. (Yes, he has repeatedly threatened if not actually done all of those things in the past.) I think the odds of my being rescued from another year of ulcers and gray hairs complements of His O-ness are very low...unless I simply refuse to do it, and that could hurt my continued employment at the school.

At this rate, I'll be lucky if I have any brown hair left on my head by this time next year, but at least it'll be parted down the middle. (Then again, it seems to be trying to part itself to the right now...*sigh*)

Sunday, March 12, 2006

From the Front Lines of the Traffic War

I must be crazy for even attempting this, but oh, well.

It's Sunday evening. The day's chores are done at last, and I have loaded up in my BLUE RAV4 to go on a "quick" shopping jaunt to Narita. "Quick" doesn't take into account the fact that it'll take me more than half an hour to get to my destination in the first place...and more than half an hour to get back. Considering the time, and the state of things back home, it seems like a pretty rash venture, but this shopping trip is overdue. I've been wanting to do this for almost a month now, but I've always been preempted, whether by my job or by my mother-in-law ending up in the hospital (and me being asked to make trips down to Tokyo to visit her). This weekend my mother-in-law is staying with her mother in Tokyo and has kind of a tight schedule (i.e. no chance for a visit) and my school music club is busy with things that don't involve me. My work for the day is over, and I have a couple of hours.

Time to rock!

I usually like to cruise at around 120 kph (75 mph) on the expressway. (I was told by a policeman that that's the unofficial maximum speed allowed by the police...unless they're in a really bad mood). This time, when I pull out of the toll gate and climb up onto the darkened on-ramp, there are lots of taillights in front of me. There is a line of trucks ahead of me in the granny (left) lane that is creeping along at just under 100 kph (63 mph). Hitting my blinker and my accelerator, I veer quickly into the passing (right) lane to go around them, but I come up short. Ahead of me in the passing lane is a red Toyota Harrier SUV (sold as a Lexus in America) with a blue Mercedes in front of him. They are moving along at an unbelievably placid 105 kph (66 mph).

I debate being a "real" freeway driver and flashing my lights at these unwelcome interlopers, but in the end I decide to play it cool. (Last time I flashed my lights at someone, he hit his brakes. It probably served me right, too...) I stay behind the red SUV until we finally clear the line in the granny lane. Then I hit my blinker, slide left, and accelerate up to 130 kph (81 mph) to pass.

As soon as I come alongside the blue Mercedes, it immediately speeds up and matches my pace.

Over the calm, soothing strains of Secret Garden issuing from my car stereo, I yell, "You asshole!"

Fortunately, this doesn't last long. Next thing I know, the Mercedes is way behind me and receding rapidly. Then I remember that a hidden speed camera is coming up. I quickly decelerate to 115 kph, which is still unofficially legal (and I've heard the speed cameras are down on Sundays anyway), so I suppose I'm okay. Once I'm past that, I speed up to 120 again and cruise along comfortably.

A little while later I see another clot of slow-moving traffic coming up ahead in my lane. I also notice in my rear-view mirror that someone is coming up fast from behind. Yep, it's the blue Mercedes again, with the red SUV in hot pursuit. Not wanting to get cut off, I immediately punch it, getting up to 150 kph (94 mph) just in time to whip into the passing lane and pass the herd of snails before getting cut off. As I do so, the Mercedes rides my rear hard. I pull back into the granny lane ahead of the herd, and the Mercedes follows me. The SUV doesn't. He stays in the passing lane and starts to fall back. After following me for a while, the Mercedes returns to that lane and disappears into the rear distance, too.

What is going on, here?

I pass the Taiei Rest Area and, expectedly, another clump of slow cars appears. There is a big archway loaded with speed cameras up ahead, so this is always something of an obstacle course. I prepare to maneuver around it when I see you-know-who coming up fast in the passing lane again. This time I have no room to accelerate, so I have no choice but to let blue Mercedes and red SUV pull up alongside me, match my speed, and trap me in. Slobbering and fogging up my windows, I bide my time. We start the approach into the speed camera gate, and apparently the driver of the red SUV panics. He drops just a little bit behind, enough for me to squeeze in between them. Meanwhile, blue Mercedes is gaining ground on the granny lane. It isn't long before I have an opening. Next thing I know, I'm zig-zagging through traffic at just under 160 kph (100 mph), but not for long. As soon as I'm clear, I'm back down to 120 again.

My two antagonists are once again falling behind very quickly. This is just plain strange.

I run across one more pack of slow pokes before the Narita exit, and I speed up and whip around them. There's no sign of the bandits now. They appear to be gone for good. Aw, but no, I've spoken too soon. Here they come again. I slow down to 115 kph about a kilometer before the exit, and the blue Mercedes goes shooting past me at very high speed followed very closely by the red SUV...who is followed closely by a white Toyota Celsior (also sold as a Lexus in the U.S.). Now what?

Oh, well. I'm off on my ramp now. Time to make a speed record hitting the shopping mall and then getting home again in time for dinner.
(*Sigh*) Another day, another couple hundred clicks on my odometer...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Waiting for Burnt Buns

And so, once again, I am sitting in the waiting room of some medical facility somewhere. Yes, I am most definitely waiting, too. We made the appointment yesterday, and we are listed as number seven, but we've already been here for the better part of an hour with little activity in this crowded, little clinic.

Actually, "clinic" isn't the right word. This place doesn't use the Japanese word iin (normally translated as "clinic"). Instead, it's a "treatment center". It's easy to see why.

This is actually the first time that I've been to this place. In fact, I hadn't even been aware of its existence till two days ago, which is strange. It's right in the middle of what used to be the center of my town, only a few blocks from my son's kindergarten. It's a very new-looking place, and the waiting room still has a faint smell of plaster, varnish, and new paint, but it's apparently quite famous. I've heard that people come all the way up from Tokyo to visit this facility, which explains both the crowded waiting room at such an early hour and the fact that they are the only medical facility I've ever seen in Japan that puts an appointment sign-up list outsideduring its off hours. You see, although the sign on the door indicates typical fare for a clinic (internal medicine, pediatrics, dermatology, gastroenterology), this place's main specialty is burn treatment. The doctor after whom the center is named, a very interesting woman who wears Birkenstocks, is apparently a very reputable burn specialist.

Guess why I'm here. No, it's not for myself. It's for this much smaller and wigglier life form sitting next to me. Allow me to bring you up to date.

A few nights ago my son was next door at my in-laws' house to take his bath. (We all bathe over there since our own house is sadly bathless.) Suddenly, I heard him let off a barrage of piercing shrieks, soon accompanied by my father-in-law's yelling. This is actually not such an uncommon occurrence. You see, my father-in-law has always indulged my son, and if the little whipper-snapper doesn't get what he wants from his grandfather he tends to go into screaming tizzy fits like that. (He doesn't do that around me or his mother, though. He knows better.) It just seemed like same old same old until my son came home and informed me that he had burned his butt.

Before and after my son bathes, he always goes into his grandparents' living room to change because it's warmer in there (and he gets indulged by his doting grandparents). Well, apparently this time he saw the cat sleeping by the oil stove, went over to pet the cat, lost his balance, and wound up sitting on the stove. He was still pantless at the time, too.

From the description my father-in-law gave me later, it was a second-degree burn, but he'd had no idea what to do. He'd broken the blisters (AAAAHHHH!!!!) and put ordinary band-aids on them (DOUBLE AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!). He assured me that it had been "only two tiny, little burns", one on each butt cheek less than one centimeter in diameter, and that they'd been well within the gauze pad on the band-aids. If that was true, they were really not that big a deal, but, frankly, I was afraid to take the band-aids off to look at them. In any case, Taiki went to sleep immediately, so we decided to wait and take him to that burn center the next day.

When the doctor looked at the burns the following morning, she found that my father-in-law's description had been less than accurate. They were each more than four centimeters in diameter, i.e. a high risk of shock, dehydration, and especially infection. Unfortunately, that was also considerably larger than the gauze part of the band-aids, with the result that there was some tearing of flesh, making it even worse. The doctor told us to bring the little boy back in every morning for the next ten days (which matches up with a second opinion I got from American sources on the internet).

Well, that's why we're here today. This is day three, and it's my turn to bring the little guy in.

Considering the size of the crowd in the waiting room and all the people coming in and out of the parking lot, the wait turns out to be not so long. (I LOVE appointments!!!) We go into the treatment room, and I get a good view of what could be called assembly-line medicine. Right now three people are being treated at the same time in there, with the doctor and a whole team of nurses pulling supplies off a very well-stocked and impressive-looking tool bench (for lack of a better term) in the middle of the room. A man in a factory uniform is getting treated for burns covering his entire face and most of his neck. Another man, a burly but likeably friendly sort, is having burns on one arm looked after. A woman is getting care for serious burns covering both her hands. It's pretty amazing watching the team work.

Then it's my son's turn. They pull the curtains shut around him, have him uncover his posterior and lie down, and then they remove the large, gauze bandages they've put on him.

It's not pretty.

They set to work removing the dead skin, disinfecting it, and replacing the bandages. Amazingly, though my son trembles, shuts his eyes, grits his teeth, and hisses, he doesn't let out a peep. That's incredible considering this is the same boy that shrieks like a banshee in heat if he gets a drop of water on his sock. He also acts like he's dying in agony if his sister so much as touches him. Now he is displaying courage, and the nurses are all impressed. (Frankly, I think that explains it all right there. My son, though still in kindergarten, is a notorious flirt, and a couple of those nurses are very pretty.)

Soon it's all done. Happily toting around a lollipop given to him by one of the pretty nurses, my boy follows me back out to the lobby, where I pay the (thankfully very small) bill and make the appointment for the next visit. When we go back to the car for the short trip home, he is all smiles and energy as if we were returning from a school picnic.

Youthful energy is such an enviable thing...but I can do without the burnt buns, thank you!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

It's Nose Blowin' Time Again...

Ah...spring is bursting out all over!

Temperatures are coming up, coats and hats are coming off, green leaves and flowers are coming out, and the sugi (Japanese cedars, though they aren't really cedars) are turning brown.

Everything is wonderful except that last tidbit. When the sugi turn brown, it means they are locked and loaded, ready to unleash their withering barrage of pollen on the general public. You see, cedar pollen is a natural WMS (Weapon of Mass Sneezing). It is a potent allergen, and there is a very good chance that, if you are not sensitive to it from the beginning, you will be in a matter of years.

I was immune for the first ten years I lived in these islands. My eyes and sinuses are grim evidence that I am no longer.

A replanted sugi forest near Kyoto.

The ironic thing is that there are apparently more sugi now than there were before the war. In old times, the tree, widely believed to have originated in China, was often planted around temples, palaces, and important roads, but it wasn't as widespread as it is today. During the militarization efforts of the early 20th century widespread forests of all kinds were clear-cut. Even more were hacked down in the years immediately following the war in order to rebuild devastated cities. Massive replanting efforts were then undertaken, but the focus was put on sugi because of both its commercial value and its rapid rate of growth. As a result, there are now many large stands of sugi that were of different kinds of trees before the war. Needless to say, the hayfever problem in modern Japan is many times worse now than at any other time in history.

I know I feel like shyte right now.

The drugstores aren't complaining. At this time of the year they set up whole aisles of allergy pills, nasal sprays, skin lotions, and pollen masks. Since one type of medicine only tends to be effective for a while before the body builds up a misguided tolerance to it, one often has to experiment with different kinds in order to find one that works. Needless to say, the drug companies make a killing.

Much more benign hinoki.

Unfortunately, the forest around Kashima Shrine is mainly a combination of hinoki (Japanese cypress) and sugi. Both hinoki and sugi are very fragrant (in fact, they are both used for their fragrance), but...since ye olde academy is right next door to and partly surrounded by that forest, I think you can guess how it is here at work. Not even air conditioning helps completely. Wouldn't you know it; our campus is even ringed by a line of gorgeous sugi. I think they did it on purpose just to make us suffer...

Sniff sniff...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

When Black Is Really BLUE!!!!!

It's Sunday, i.e. Housecleaning Day (weird, guitar-reverb fanfare), and my wife seems to be taking a trip down memory lane. Usually she monopolizes the stereo with either The Cure or The Smashing Pumpkins, but for some reason Motley Crue's Girls, Girls, Girls album is blaring from the speakers right now.

Ah...80s metal. Droning bass line and power chord guitar riffs. AC/DC was often credited with (blamed for?) having started that trend, which was immediately imitated by everyone else, when they became the band du jour with their Highway to Hell album at the start of the 80s. Actually, groups like Judas Priest and the Scorpions were doing the same sort of thing in the mid to late 70s, but the difference was that those two bands definitely had a more European (i.e. influenced by classical and psychadelic music) flavor. AC/DC, though Australian, was firmly grounded in traditional, blues-based rock and roll. In other words, their style (if you'll forgive me, Paul) was very American.

I was never a big Motley Crue fan, though I preferred their songs to a lot of what was oozing from the radio in those days. Now I find myself strangely enjoying this album. Listening to it with a more experienced and critical ear than I had in my school days (daze), I can hear those American roots loud and clear. It's even more obvious when bassist Nicky Sixx breaks the rules, gets off the drone, and riffs with the guitar. Solid blues scales and a sound that gets pretty funky at times. Then there are the times when the bass line is a shuffle swing a la old time rock and roll. And there are also those old rock standards, such as "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" and "Jailhouse Rock", that Motley Crue performs quite respectably. Definitely very American, far more so than AC/DC. Considering Motley Crue actually IS an American band, it only makes sense.

Which brings up another surprising point. Another obvious difference between AC/DC and Motley Crue is the sound. As far as I know, Angus Young of AC/DC has always used a vintage Marshall Super Lead 100, first with all the knobs turned up to 10 and then with the tone stack pulled out altogether. It's a very classic rock sound. Mick Mars, on the other hand was very much a child of the 80s, so to speak, using a more modern (at that time) Marshall amp (probably a JCM 800) boosted with a distortion pedal. It's a very intense sound, and the more I listen to it, together with that obvious blues influence, I can't help noticing that it's reminding me more and more of a band I really like that was also suddenly popular in the 80s but was considered to be of a different genre entirely:

ZZ Top.

Replace Vince Neil's high-pitched screams with Bill Gibbon's smoky crooning, tell Mick Mars to keep his solos in the bluesy groove without those occasional speed bursts, and you'd be amazed how much Motley Crue could sound like ZZ Top on the Eliminator album. I know that realization shocked me, being a longtime ZZ fan. I'd call that more proof of the influence of American blues on 80s metal. You can't get more bluesy...or more American...than ZZ Top and still be considered a rock band.

As it happens, trends continued to move. While bands like Def Leppard and especially Guns n' Roses were very much in the same vein as Motley Crue, there was a significant branch that retained the British, classical-influenced metal feel. Judas Priest seemed to alternate between the blues and classical modes, but Iron Maiden remained staunchly in the classical camp. I think they probably served as the main inspiration for a number of bands that came to form the so-called "speed metal" genre, which made no bones about its classical roots. Heck, speed-metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen (whose music has been described as "a music theory textbook from the Baroque Era") even included J.S. Bach in the credits on his first solo album! An even bigger influence on heavy metal as a whole was exerted by Metallica, whose use of irregular structures, assymetrical beats, low tunings, unusual chord modulations, and non-Western scales turned the whole genre on its head, and suddenly everyone started imitating them. However, even Metallica's ties to classical music were obvious, as their later recording with a symphony orchestra proved in no uncertain terms.

(Interestingly, though I've liked everything I've ever heard by Metallica, I never really got into them, which is odd. Most of my school-age friends were if not still are Metallica fans. Also, in my college days, for some reason beginner guitarists kept coming to my door asking me to help them learn how to if I could claim to be any kind of expert! They were all into Metallica...and they found it a shock that I wasn't! Then again, I found it a shock that they knew so little about Rush or Jethro Tull...)

So, did blues finally disappear from hard rock? Far from it. Listen to so-called grunge. The guitar sound may be a whole lot dirtier, but both folk and blues can both be heard there very strongly (which is why ZZ Top's Mescalero album was very much in a grunge mode). How about the Red Hot Chili Peppers? That's just funk (i.e. rhythm & blues) with a bit more fire. Heck, even that SUM 41 album a student of mine loaned me (which I'm actually enjoying, by the way) alternates between fast drones and funky, bluesy riffs. The blues is (are?) alive and well in rock even today.

Hey, what th...? My wife just put on one of her Scritti Politti albums. There's another 80s group that just won't go away for some reason. I actually loathed them in my college days, not so much because of the music but because of who listened to them. They were a regular feature of the pretty, plastic, phony social scene that I tried very hard to avoid. During the week or two every year that it didn't rain in western Oregon, the grassy area between the "quad" (four dorms arranged in a square) and the playing fields became "the beach". It wound up a veritable sea of neon colors, flowered baseball caps, loud Bermuda shorts, prism sunglasses, beach towels, insanely stupid chatter at high volume, intelligence-insulting mating rituals, and, of course, Scritti Politti echoing off those red-brick walls at ear-splitting volume. It was pretty much a given that I would do everything in my power to be on the opposite end of the campus until it started raining again.

Actually, now that "the beach" is just another dust-covered memory filed under "look back on and burst out in hysterical laughter", I can listen to Scritti Politti with a bit more fairness. Actually, from a strictly musical standpoint, it's not bad at all. It's just rhythm & blues written and performed by a white man with Miles Davis samples (and occasional Miles Davis sessions) thrown in for effect. Once again, there's that B-word! The BLUES!!!

Back in the mid 19th century, black slaves in the American South had a tradition known as the "field holler", in which they would loudly sing out their cares and woes while toiling in the fields. They sang in a rhythmic "call-and-response" style using a traditional pentatonic (i.e. 5-tone) scale brought over from their native Africa. Later, the scale was westernized a little bit and the rhythm set to the accompaniment of western instruments such as the guitar. This was the birth of the Blues. Who would have thought that, more than a century later, the anguished yells of exploited souls in one of America's darker chapters would continue to have such a profound effect on American...nay, on world music?

Okay, you can put The Cure back on now...or shut up and let me put on one of my ZZ Top albums...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

An Unexpected Heroine

In the 2005 National Figure Skating Championships in Japan, there was no doubt who everyone's darling was. It was a spritely, little teenager named Mao Asada. Cute as a button and loaded with talent, Mao had not only won competitions in 2004 and 2005, but she was the first female skater ever to pull off two triple axels in one event and the first ever to execute a "triple-triple-triple" in competition. Unfortunately, she was still too young to qualify for the Olympic team. Therefore, while she definitely grabbed the most spotlight, people were pinning their Olympic hopes on two other power skaters, well-decorated multi-champion Fumie Suguri and quadruple-jumping media star Miki Ando.

As it turned out, none of them won the competition. That honor rather unexpectedly went to troubled veteran Shizuka Arakawa. As a result, she, together with Suguri and Ando, were chosen for the Olympic team.

Arakawa's career had always been filled with surprising ups and downs. Despite competing at the international level from the late 90s, the best she ever managed in world competition was 8th until the 2004 World Championships in Dortmund, which she unexpectedly won. Until then, she had actually planned to retire from skating in 2004, which was also the year she graduated from Waseda University (with a social sciences degree). She had intended to enter the corporate world like any other graduate. Winning Dortmund convinced her to continue skating. However, she was plagued with everything from injuries to equipment trouble. Her motivation hit rock bottom coming into 2005, and she began to consider retiring again. Ironically, a 9th place finish in the 2005 World Championships convinced her to keep at it, if only to go out on a higher note. (She also said later that her father talked her into sticking with it.) After hiring a new coach and totally revamping her program almost from scratch, she placed third in the 2005 Grand Prix in China (behind Russian Irina Slutskaya and American Sasha Cohen) before winning the Japanese National Championships.

Arakawa was never given much attention by the Japanese media. Although a very technically skilled and graceful skater known for her picture-perfect jumps and back-bending spins, she lacked Asada's high-flying pixie charm, Suguri's passionate athletics, and Ando's photogenic, "easy-as-pie" agility. In the end, it was the judge's eye that counted, however, and she earned the points. She kept the same poise and momentum going into Torino, and, after the short program, it looked like she was headed for a repeat of the 2005 Grand Prix. She was third behind Sasha Cohen and Irina Slutskaya.

Arakawa was firmly convinced that a bronze medal finish was the best she could hope for, so she went into the free program relaxed and just enjoyed herself. Her form was as close to perfection as it could possibly get, and you could tell she wasn't worried about a thing. If she'd earned the bronze, she would have been a happy camper. As it turned out, amazingly enough, both Cohen and Slutskaya wound up falling on their butts. Arakawa, a shocked but very happy camper, brought home Japan's one and only medal of the 2006 Torino Olympics, and it was most definitely gold.

As for Japan's other two skaters, a tearful Suguri came in fourth behind Slutskaya, and Ando, plagued with injuries during training, fell apart and wound up in 15th place. Even so, both are still young enough to stay in the international arena for awhile. Of course, they'll also have Mao Asada to contend with. As for Arakawa, well, she can probably retire comfortably now...unless she decides to give it another go.

(I should probably feel a little guilty about this. After all, the media has been saying that Sasha Cohen was about the only thing that was able to tear the American TV viewing public away from American Idol long enough to pay any attention to the Torino Olympics at all.)