Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


A New Ozeki

Posted in Sumo by bourdaghs on the March 30th, 2010

I’ve just managed to catch up on my sumo, watching the video of last Sunday’s final day of matches from the Osaka tournament. They certainly saved the best for last: ozeki Harumafuji threw everything he had into a fierce bid to stop yokozuna Hakuho’s drive for a perfect 15-0 record in the final match of the basho. Hakuho prevailed in the end to take home the trophy in his first tournament as sole yokozuna, but I’m glad that I picked Harumafuji to win the bout in fantasy sumo anyhow. (It helps that I got my eighth victory and therefore a winning record for the tournament as a whole that day, despite my predicting an upset loss by Hakuho).

The big story of the tournament, though, was sekiwake Baruto. Coming into the tournament, it was public knowledge that 13 or more wins would earn him promotion to ozeki, the sport’s second highest rank. He finished at 14-1, knocking off all the existing ozeki and losing only to the yokozuna. It was clear from the start that something had changed in Baruto: Estonian by birth and the first blonde to reach the top division in sumo, he has always had a charming disposition, his face frequently lighting up with a smile that reminded me of illustrations of gentle giants from childhood picture books. The goofy grin was gone in Osaka: Baruto showed a serious visage throughout, reflecting a new seriousness of purpose. He also unleashed an expanded range of techniques and remarkable power. I only saw him smile once the whole tournament: as he walked down the back corridors on the last day after Hakuho’s victory over Harumafuji had eliminated his title hopes.

(Photo source: FourTildes)

The promotion council will meet tomorrow to make Baruto’s promotion to ozeki official. I hope we continue to see the new serious Baruto in the coming tournaments–but I also hope we’ll see that smile again someday, as he holds up the trophy for his first tournament win. I suspect that will happen before the end of 2010.

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This and That

Posted in baseball,Current Events,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other,Sumo,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the March 20th, 2010

The sumo tournament in Osaka has reached the midway point, and as expected sole yokozuna Hakuho (7-0) has dominated. But two promising rikishi have also stepped up to take advantage of the opening created by yokozuna Asashoryu’s sudden retirement last month: ozeki Harumafuji, the former Ama and a disappointment since his promotion to ozeki a couple of years back, is now 7-0, as is sekiwake Baruto, who could win promotion to ozeki with a championship in this tournament. Baruto in particular has been impressive: he just looks much more serious about things this time around, his goofy grin a thing of the past. Down in the maegashira ranks, Tokitenku is also 7-0, but that’s just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

In the meanwhile, spring has arrived in Chicago (never mind those snowflakes falling outside the window as I write these words). I celebrate by listening to Minnesota Twins spring training games in the afternoon at my office. I’m pretty optimistic about the coming season, despite noises being made by local White Sox fans….

In the category, “It’s bloody well about time”: Universal betting on lower prices to boost CD sales.

Ray Davies continues to wow them on his current tour. MSN.com reports that “Ray Davies rules on second night of SXSW.”

The coming week should be a hectic one for me. I’m in Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday for the NCC 3D conference, then up to Princeton for the “Rethinking ‘Hihyo’: Postwar Literary Criticism and Beyond” workshop, then back down to Philadelphia on Thursday for the 2010 AAS Annual Meeting.

I leave you with the late Alex Chilton. I saw him play with the reunited Big Star seven or eight years ago at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. It was a joyous occasion, especially when they covered The Kinks’ “‘Till the End of the Day.” Ray Davies dedicated that song to Chilton in his performance at SXSW this week (where Chilton had been scheduled to play) and spoke from the stage about how Chilton had visited him in the hospital after he was shot in New Orleans. A great songwriter and a wonderful voice: so long, Mr. Chilton.

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This and That

Posted in baseball,Music,Sumo,The Kinks by bourdaghs on the March 13th, 2010

On the dark side, tomorrow we take our first step into that gray new world known as post-Asashoryu sumo. Yokozuna Hakuho is the prohibitive favorite to take home the title in Osaka (has it really been a year since I was there in person for Day 8 last March, watching Asashoryu knock off Baruto in a fierce match?). Ozeki Kotooshu seems the only possible threat to Hakuho’s championship, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Kotooshu over the years, it’s that he shrinks like a banana souffle anytime he gets close to something good. Perhaps his recent marriage will change things, but my money’s on Hakuho (ho-hum: the subtle sound of a middle-aged man yawning).

Even darker, this is the week we learned the Minnesota Twins may have to live without relief ace, Joe Nathan. There are some viable replacement candidates already on the roster, including the marvelous Pat Neshek, back after an injury-related break of nearly two years, and Francisco Liriano has been tantalizingly good so far. But the loss of Nathan has Twins’ fans literally offering up parts of their own bodies in hopes of resuscitating Nathan’s pitching arm.

On the bright side, I’m taking Satoko to see Ray Davies in concert tonight at the Riviera. The last show we saw by him here in Chicago, a little more than a year ago, was transcendent, and reports from previous gigs on the current tour are quite positive. Here’s a little taste of what’s in store for me:

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Akebono Sings!

Posted in Sumo by bourdaghs on the February 10th, 2010

Former yokozuna Akebono performs Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in this commercial for the Japanese re-broadcast of the “Glee” television series. I don’t know about you, but I stopped believing about ten seconds into the thing….

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So Long, Asashoryu

Posted in Sumo by bourdaghs on the February 4th, 2010

The great Monogolian yokozuna Asashoryu has announced his retirement. Just a week after his victory in the New Years tournament gave him his 25th title and third place on the career championship record list, he stepped down to take responsibility for an ugly, but still murky, incident that took place on the sixth day of the tournament, when he got into a late-night drunken brawl that is the subject of an ongoing police investigation.

It’s an incredibly sad moment for this sumo fan. Asashoryu at his prime was one of the two or three greatest sumo wrestlers ever, combining astonishing technique with a terrifying determination to win. The look in his eyes just before a match, especially a match against a difficult opponent, was something fierce. He was also, however, always daunted by internal demons and seems to have been battling depression for the last few years, though it has never been announced as such. On top of that was the extra pressures he faced as a foreign sumo wrestler: he became the sumo wrestler the tabloids loved to hate. Early on in his career, he was able to transform that hostility into a source of energy, but lately it seems only to have worn him down.

He was clearly past his peak, and yet he is only 29 and his victory in the most recent tournament demonstrated that he still had some terrific sumo left in him. It’s an awful waste. Moreover, do you know how boring sumo is going to be without him? In terms of talent, personality, and charisma, none of the other wrestlers can touch him. So long, Asashoryu, and thanks for a truly thrilling ride over the past decade.

Symphony, Sumo, Symphony

Posted in Classical,Music,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 24th, 2010

The weekend began Friday afternoon at Symphony Center for a matinee performance, Pierre Boulez leading the Chicago Symphony as part of the celebrations for his 85th birthday. I’d never seen the great man conduct before and was struck with his economy of motion: no over-emoting for him. Whatever the style, it worked: the orchestra played as well as I have heard it. The program opened with the latest incarnation of Boulez’ own Livre pour cordes, a particularly warm instance of serialism. They moved on from there to take on the tricky twists and turns of Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, played brilliantly by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich as the keyboard soloists. It’s a work in which Bartok explores the percussive nature of the piano, setting the keyboards in complex dialogues with drums, xylophones, and other struck instruments. The program closed with a thrilling rendition of Stravinsky’s The Firebird played in the full ballet version. John von Rhein, the Chicago Tribune’s classical music critic, was similarly enthusiastic in his review of the Thursday evening performance.

In the meanwhile, on the other side of the world, yokozuna Asashoryu, the bad boy from Mongolia, took charge of the New Year Sumo tournament. He wrapped up the title on Day 14. It was his 25th career championship, putting him in third place in the record book. The victory came in the final tournament for Uchidate Makiko, Asashoryu’s long-time nemesis on the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, making it all the more satisfying. Moreover, Asashoryu gave us yet another spectacular example of his trademark misbehavior during the tournament, coming close to getting himself arrested in a drunken brawl late at night after Day 6. The tournament, as expected, also saw the retirement of the great ozeki Chiyotaikai. Yokozuna Hakuho managed to defeat Asashoryu in their direct meeting on the final day, but that victory was purely moral, as Asashoryu was simply killing time until the trophy ceremony.

Friday night ended with another classical concert: Europa Galante led by violinist Fabio Biondi at Mandel Hall. A period instruments ensemble, they opened with two lovely pieces by Telemann. Guest flutist Frank Theuns could easily be the model for a new muppet character. They closed with an edgy version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the schmaltz factor reduced to almost zero, reminding us in the process that a terrific piece of music lies buried beneath all the abuse that mass culture has heaped on to it. Two short encore pieces by Corelli and Gluck (the latter had the violinists plucking their way through) brought the evening to an airy close. The Chicago Classical Review website liked the performance, as the did the critic for the New York Times, who caught much of the same program last week at Carnegie Hall (where, no doubt, the acoustics were better….).

This and That

Posted in Current Events,J-Pop,Japanese literature,Music,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 21st, 2010

The New Year sumo tournament is heading into its final days now with yokozuna Asashoryu holding the lead at 11-1 and fellow yokozuna Hakuho lingering one step behind at 10-2. Hakuho just lost today to ozeki Harumafuji, but perhaps the most exciting match so far was yesterday’s face off between Asashoryu and sekiwake Baruto. See if you can tell who won from this photograph (link courtesy of Moti’s sumo news mailing list). Meanwhile, the sport’s backstage politics have hit the front pages, as former yokozuna Takanohana pursues his reform effort by seeking a spot on the Sumo Association’s board of directors.

Meanwhile, in another fine old Japanese cultural institution, the Emperor’s New Year waka poem for 2010 (source):

Where rays of sunlight
Filter through the trees I see
In the middle of the path
Carpeted with fallen leaves
A clump of green grass growing.

The assigned theme this year was “light.” Back in the old days, this would have been by definition the best poem of the year.

Although I have my doubts about the accuracy of the crowd count figure given, this article shows that legendary J-Rock band X-Japan can still pack them in, even in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Shinbun newspaper is reporting (Japanese-language only) on the hit chart bounce enjoyed by artists featured on the NHK Kohakau Utagassen New Year’s Eve television spectacular. Ikimono Gakari’s “YELL/Joyful” (performed to great effect in the NHK broadcast with the backing of a choir of junior high school students) jumped from #23 to #12 on the Oricon charts the week after the show, while Kimura Kaera’s “Butterfly” moved up from the teens to the #1 slot on several music download sites, including I-Tunes Japan.

This has nothing to do with any of the above, but recently while wading through the Internet, I came across some amazing live performance of Iggy & The Stooges from 1970. Let’s call it “The Sweet Bloom of Youth.” Subtitle: “A Boy and his Peanut Butter.”

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Hatsu Basho

Posted in baseball,Sumo by bourdaghs on the January 9th, 2010

The New Year sumo tournament gets underway in Tokyo tomorrow. Yokozuna Hakuho is the hands down favorite to take home the big trophy. His closest rival, fellow yokozuna Asashoryu, has provided the usual quota of pre-tournament bizarre behavior, although he apparently looked pretty good at the public Yokozuna Deliberation Council exhibition a week or so ago (he also is said to have tired quickly, though). But on that day Hakuho won 27 of 29 matches, including both of his direct face-offs against Asashoryu.

Probably the biggest story going in to the basho is that, barring a miracle, this is almost certainly the last hurrah for the great Chiyotaikai. After two losing records in a row, he has lost his rank of ozeki. He can regain it with at least ten wins this time around, but that seems highly unlikely, and he’s promised to retire if he falls short. He’s always been a tsuppari-style fighter, battering his opponents with powerful arm thrusts, but in the last year or so his blows have lost their sting. According to reports from Japan, his training was going pretty well until about a week ago, when he injured his arm. It will also be interesting to see if ozeki Kotooshu or sekiwake Baruto are able to make their move up to the next level, but in both cases we’ve been waiting for that moment for some time now. I’m not holding my breath.

In the “think spring” category, the recent retirement of pitching great Randy Johnson has led to an interesting tribute over at The Hardball Times: a word cloud of the names of all the batters Johnson struck out over the years, with font size reflecting the number of times each batter has whiffed at Johnson’s pitches. And I leave with you some nice old video of Chiyotaikai in better days, knocking off Asashoryu in an exciting match to clinch the March 2003 tournament championship.

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