Friday, February 10, 2006

UFO Catcher Championships!

I can be something of a complainer. Japan often makes me vent my spleen more than I used to, and my long-suffering wife will testify to the fact. I often find myself surrounded by formulaic and superficial crap, and it makes me shake my fists in anger.
Yet, every so often something happens in Japan that either knocks me sideways with spectacular creativity or is so close to my own often quirky sensibilities that I want to start purring like a cat in the sun.
Having been here for 2 years, I had completely failed to see any of the superb TV shows that I have witnessed in the last two weeks. How could I have done this? Well, I seldom watched the box back in the old apartment, and now that I have Yoko the TV seems to be on a lot more, and she can explain what is happening in some of the more alternative shows.
Last week there was an absolute cracker of a show that at once made me feel glad that I had come to Japan and made all those little pockets of bullshit worth experiencing. Last thursday saw an event that should be held worldwide.

Championship UFO catcher!

For anyone unaccustomed to the game, you have to guide the gripper above a toy and hope that it descends and picks it up before depositing the said toy in the hole for collection. It's a concept that has been popular in fairs throughout most of the world for years, but in Japan it is something of a national hobby.
In order to determine who would be the grand champion of Japan (or at least Tokyo), they held some regional events, in which wannabe champions battled it out. The semi final matches (pauses to consider the greatness of what he about to say) were played using oden instead of toys! Yes, the combatants had to accurately line up the pincers to pluck tofu and boiled eggs from a vat of hot water!

The second semi final in particular was spectacular, with the contestants (a man and a woman) plucking slippery eggs and soggy triangles of tofu out of the soup with such ease that they could have been in a circus (seeing the vast steel arms for the first time descending at pace towards a miniscule egg that was completely submerged in broth , I think I shouted something along the lines of "not a fucking chance!!") It was only when the man underestimated a difficultly places tofu piece that we had a winner.

The final would prove to be an epic battle. Two housewives, one big machine full of various toys with numbers on them showing their points value. The rules of the game were simple. If you manage to land a toy, you keep going until you miss, and then it's your opponents turn. The first woman to reach 30 points is the winner.
The shorter dumpier contestant got off to an absolute flier, and quickly racked up a chain of 6 or 7 toys on the bounce. At this point Yoko chimed in that she had landed toys with low point values, and only had 15 points to show for it. "Not good for the future," she grinned with a little too much villainy.
When she misjudged her next attempt, it was the turn of the second contestant, and she was able to put three toys in the hole. She fluffed the attempted grab on the whale shown below (even though it was right next to the hole) but the point values of the toys meant that she had 19 points and was ahead by 4.

The dumpy woman put away the 3 point whale and added another 4 with a large plastic beetle. Knowing that an 8 pointer would win it for her, she made a brave attempt to tease a large plush Elmo doll partially obstructed by smaller bears. She lifted it but it fell short, landing in such a way that all the snaggable parts were covered.
The other contestant didn't even consider going for Elmo. With only 19 points it wouldn't have won it for her outright, and she clearly realised that if she messed up, the dumpy woman could win the match with a conversion. She plumped for another of the whales, this one was 4 points, a low value but capable of putting serious pressure on her visibly sweating opponent.
It was now 23 against 22. Elmo was prominent but face down, and there didn't seem to be any way that he could be taken. Both players had clearly seen that a highly gettable 9 point dog was beneath him, so neither wanted to risk things unnecessarily. (Luke: What tactics! Yoko: Shut up, Ru..)

After taking what seemed like 10 minutes sizing up her options , the second woman made something of a nothing effort, trying for an almost impossible mushroom in the corner. Undoubtedly a waiting move. My god this was a chess match and no mistake! The dumpy woman saw something that noone had seen, and was able to snatch a little dog from the back middle. An impressive 7 points, giving her 29 but there was nothing easy left.
Taking her time just as her opponent had, you could almost see the thought bubble above her head saying "Go for Elmo! Gamble! GAMBLE!" Finally she made her choice. She pressed the button and the gripper whirred across... she was going for Elmo!! She judged it perfectly and the steel arms closed around the toy's midriff. It started to lift and for a few seconds it looked absolutely on the money. Elmo raised up and the grip looked true. But just when the beginnings of a victory smile formed on the dumpy woman's face, Elmo slipped and plopped back, in almost exactly the same position.
ALMOST exactly the same position. To me and no doubt most other viewers, Elmo was the same as he had been. However, a reverse angle reply in the studio showed that his arm was ever so slightly exposed. That was all the invitation the second woman needed, and despite my cries of opposition ("whaaaaat? are you mad?? you'll NEVER make that!") she snagged the arm perfectly and Elmo rose like a rescued child, gliding over and dropping into the hole without a sound. The dumpy woman could only look on. Her opponent had won.


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