When Kazuhiro Kokubo won the U.S. Open for the second time in a row on March 12, 2011, a number of streams converged: Most crucially, a Japanese rider had just excelled in snowboarding's marquee pipe battle the day after a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit large parts of his homeland. (The 23-year-old acknowledged the tragedy by foregoing a victory lap to ride down the flat-bottom with his arms in the air, a very powerful gesture of prayer for Japan.) And for snowboarding, The Open had just reinforced its reputation as the one big halfpipe contest in which original style is revered and rewarded -- a history reinforced by Kokubo's winning performances in both '10 and '11.
Given his age, Kokubo has been around for a long time. In 2003, the then-14-year-old became the first Japanese rider, and youngest competitor, to ever grace the U.S. Open podium, with a second-place finish behind Olympic gold-holder Ross Powers. Kokubo went huge, and his methods and frontside 900 set new standards for transition riding. Any of the 15,000-plus die-hard snowboarder spectators there could appreciate his amplitude, but the many shreds pipe-side were probably even more wowed by the kid's style. He was -- and remains -- bursting at the seams with the stuff.
If you are in doubt, watch his pipe run from last year's Winter X. He didn't podium, but you don't have to look very far to find a lot of people who think he should have. Even Sal Masekela himself tweeted after Kokubo's score was posted that he didn't understand why it wasn't higher.
To the mainstream, Kokubo is the best-known Japanese rider of all time, thanks in part to the overblown Olympic controversy surrounding his choice to untuck his shirt and sag his pants (or "dress like a snowboarder") when he first arrived in Vancouver for the Games. To snowboarders, the style that he is famous for is a whole different beast.
Kokubo's halfpipe airs are like Terje Haakonsen at his catlike best. Even the big spins have a high point, a focus, a moment. Kazu's nonchalance when leaving the lip are reminiscent of Danny Kass' greasy, improvisational pipe style. His famously massive and tweaked "chicken wing" McTwists echo the sport's great McTwisters: Trevor Andrew, Keir Dillon, Todd Richards, et al.
Just don't ask Kazu to talk about his style. Our first attempt to get him to deconstruct his own loose, skatey air sense went like this:
Imagine asking Michael Jordan how he flies when everyone else just jumps and him answering, 'I make sure my shoes are tied.'”
"Well, I don't try to make my style," he explained, through a translator. "That's something [that] comes naturally. When I am really cooking with gas, I do some tricks just do it when I want to. Eventually, it became my own style. Other than that, I do some stretches, relaxing at home to keep my condition in best shape."
Imagine asking Michael Jordan how he flies when everyone else just jumps and him answering, "I make sure my shoes are tied."
Another question on the topic netted this response: "When you say style, some people take it so seriously, but when I ride, I don't think how I want to ride. I just ride when I want to and just enjoy it. Style means different things to different people. Everyone who rides has a style. Some I think good, some I think not good, but it doesn't matter what I like because there is always someone who will like the style you have. Maybe some people like my style, maybe some do not, but it is OK. Everyone is different."
When you watch a full, top-to-bottom line of Kazu's in heavier mountain situations, like the spines and cliff zones from his opening part in Burton's new film "Standing Sideways," there's an expressive, exuberant use of powdery terrain nuances that brings to mind Nicolas Müller or Gigi Rüf. He's creative. He's fast. And he's fearless.
Kazu has never had a rep as a rider who toots his own horn, be it about style, accomplishment, fame or influence. But a reputation for doing huge airs? Sure. Big, open-mouthed Muppet smile after he pulls something rad? Check. Respect of his top peers, the snowboarding media, and any kid who has ever tried to grab his board and make it look cool for a second or two? Yup.
Many of snowboarding's style masters -- Devun Walsh, Peter Line, MFM, Jamie Lynn, Müller, Terje -- tend to talk about other riders they admire, or otherwise crab-step around questions that try to deconstruct the essence of what it is that makes them so great. When I pointed out to Kokubo that, in doing this very thing, he was in good company, he replied, "Thank you. I never thought my name would be in the same sentence with Nicolas and Terje "
It takes a bushel of skill, character and talent to stand out in the current crowd of snowboarders. Beyond the obvious, giant, red shadow cast by Shaun White's incredible success, you have "all pipe" riders who've progressed through snowboard academies, being groomed to hit the Olympic teams for their respective countries. These competition packages come complete with crazy moms, cowbells and the promise of the Big Cha-Ching. Other "kids" come out of nowhere it seems (well, OK, usually Finland), with huge bags of technical tricks, amazing consistency, and more leftover corks than a sommelier after a long night at work.
Making an impression is tough when the entire field is so damn good, yet Kokubo's riding can be spotted from space. His style is part of his DNA. His ability to land the impossible has often seen him getting compared to a video game character, like "Remote Control Boy" -- his old moniker in Japan.
Kokubo started riding with his dad at age 4, so he had a head start in this respect. Yet even a lifetime on a board doesn't guarantee good style, only competency. The little dude had perfect, Haakon-esque methods on lock at age 9! Plus, Kokubo isn't just Japanese: He's from Hokkaido, the wilder northern island that has a smaller population, larger sushi portions and the famous powder of resorts like Niseko. Hokkaido is a freerider's paradise that has never been known as a transition mecca.
We wanted to figure out if there was anything especially "Japanese" about Kazu's style, even if epic style always has an international appeal. Hokkaido lensman Neil Hartmann explains:
"I think Japanese and maybe more specifically Hokkaido style is very apparent in Kazu's riding. He loves riding powder and freeriding and I think that shows. The fact that Kazu has gone beyond that and become a worldwide success in the pipe and park is amazing and a testament to his pure skills! I just love his nonchalant, on-the-edge style. I especially like [how], after landing in the run-out of jumps, he has a great way of expressing with his arms. He just has that instinctive natural sense for when and how to put down the landing gear and it feels good to watch."
Kazu's riding is "un-gymnastic." As pipe tricks get flippier and more technical by the second, making them look good becomes harder, too. This is why so many OG riders from the Terje-dominated '90s (including yours truly) enjoy Kazu's transition riding so much. He does the tech tricks needed to podium but always throws in a few classics (Michael Michalchuk to Japan McTwist, anyone?) for style points and sheer size.
Daisuke Nogami, editor of TransWorld Japan, has known Kazu since he was in elementary school, and is clearly very proud of his young countryman: "He rarely jibs, but his attitude towards pipe riding that deliberately includes simple but traditional tricks such as McTwists and B/S alley-oops shows how he is a good and true representation of 'Japanese Snowboarding.' He puts awing before winning. This is because he wants to show snowboarding's stylishness to both snowboarders and non-snowboarders -- even in the backcountry and on kickers."
Kokubo is quick to point out that success in competition isn't an either/or equation, though: "Every contest should be about tricks and style and flow. The winner should be the person who does all the technical tricks and does them higher and smoother. I think if you want to do contests, you have to do spins and flip tricks and also go big and smooth. If you only do style runs or only do trick runs, you shouldn't win [the] contest."
When snowboarders speak of "skate style" they often seem to really mean a big-stanced, boxy kind of approach you see in many jibbers. There's another kind of "skate style," though, that feels more original, more expressive, maybe even more honest somehow. Kazu's parts in the Seven Samurai movies are a case in point. Though they're Japanese vids intended for the domestic market, Kazu's parts post up YouTube numbers of more than 100,000, each because his style is laid raw with little in the way of custom jumps, fancy camerawork or embellishment. Full-speed back threes off pat-downs over 60 feet of dakekanba trees, big 900s, MFM-style power ollies off cornices, switch landings into three feet of pow that would make Jussi Oksanen proud.
Style is substance
Kokubo had a huge year in 2011. Between his second straight U.S. Open halfpipe win and some clearly fruitful filming, he survived a car wreck that could have killed him. Kazu and his wife, Tomoe, also gave back to their country, through JEARS.org, by helping the many animals marooned by the earthquake/tsunami disaster. (No surprise to anyone who's witnessed Kokubo with his basset hounds, Pako and Gomao.)
"In the town [Minami Soma], the tsunami wiped out everything. A whole town was gone, but animals left behind were still there," he explains. "People living within 20 kilometers of the nuclear plant had to evacuate, but they were not allowed to take their pets with them. So I tried to rescue these animals, also delivering dog food, cat food. I even kept some of [the] animals for a while for those who could not keep animals with them at the evacuation center.
"It was my first time to visit [the] disaster area. There were no houses, buildings etc. [and] ships that are supposed to be in the sea were everywhere in the town. The animals left behind were prowling around. I thought it was like a bomb site after the war."
This kid so famous for his style in the air is clearly grounded in the ways that matter. He's thankful for his family, his success, plus the opportunities and friends that have come his way through his preternatural abilities on a snowboard.
Asked if the intense events of the past year have changed him, maybe even scared him, Kazu responded: "Every day is [a] special day. I know all the time people are protecting me and watching over me and my family. I feel like same person inside but busier this year. Everything is better than I ever expected. If everything [stopped] tomorrow, I would be happy with my life. Everyone will be older and every year wiser, and being scared sometimes I think is good. Appreciate life every day and the things around you. Help the people you can and everything will be good."
Style? Substance? Maybe there's not such a big difference after all.