The World of Shoma Uno: Part I

«Shoma is in his own little Shoma World, and I don’t want to disrupt it»

(Mihoko Higuchi)

Source (in Japanese); English translation


December 2015, Piazza San Marco in Florence. Toward the end of the day I go to the bar for a traditional aperitivo with hot appetizers. I grab a glass of red wine, some food, sit down at a table, turn on my laptop, and open the ISU results page for the Grand prix final in Barcelona. Men’s free skate is on. Patrick Chan has just had his redemption skate after a really rough short program, with one of his best results of the season — 192 points. Boyang Jin stuns the audience once again with his technical complexity and youthful energy. Skating on his home turf, Javier Fernandez throws down the gauntlet to Yuzuru Hanyu, scoring 201 points. To which Yuzuru responds with one of the best and most iconic skates of his entire career. And the bronze medal goes to… Shoma Uno. Shoma? Is is that junior skater who won the Junior World Championship and the Grand Prix Final last season? Hmmm.

Finally, I manage to find a video with the entire men’s event on Youtube. Well, let’s see. Anticipating the pleasure of watching Yuzuru’s historic performance, I press play. At one point, there comes on the ice that enigmatic junior skater, Shoma Uno. Gosh, he is so tiny! And dressed in that funny green costume. Puccini, Turandot? And the aria Nessun dorma? Well, well, well. So ambitious. Here we go.


And here we went indeed. By the end of the skate, upon regaining my consciousness and coming back to senses, I realised I am a Shoma Uno fan. My heart was beating suspiciously faster and probably skipped a few beats during the skate, and a treacherous moisture in my eyes spoke volumes about my emotional state. Almost immediately after that I started reading about Shoma. I did a lot of reading: I read anything I could get my hands on that could be translated by Google Translate or already existed in English translations. And even more watching – all his junior programs, novice programs, videos with him as a small kid. Then I opened a blog and started writing about it.

So what exactly happened on that December evening of 2015? How did a wild and unrestrained fan of Shoma grow out of a perfectly normal and reasonable individual midway upon the journey of his life

A little later, probably just after reading Mihoko’s interview, I realised that I had indeed found myself within a forest dark — in that little beautiful world of Shoma Uno mentioned in the interview. And that the doors had closed behind me on that December evening of 2015, and the key had softly clinked in the lock, forever trapping me inside.


This two-part article, the first part of which you are now reading, sums up some preliminary results. First of all, the preliminary results of Shoma Uno’s brilliant career, which is still far from over: the career of a three-time Olympic medalist, World Champion, Four Continents Champion, four-time Japanese national champion and the winner of countless silver and bronze medals in the competitions of any caliber. This post is an attempt to look at this successful career through the lens of Shoma’s top ten best skates. An attempt, once again and probably for the last time, to grasp the essence of his skating and the significance of his contribution to the development of figure skating.

It is also, in a way, the final outcome of my own blogging activities. In the course of this impromptu walk through Shoma’s best performances and programs, the reader will find many side paths leading to more detailed analyses of various programs. I have written — much better and in much more detail — about many of those programs before. I have talked at length about one of them with its creator. And I thought a lot about all of them, of course. I rewatched all of them countless times. So this post is, in a sense, also a retrospective on the life of my blog. A parting glance back in an attempt to understand and appreciate the meaning of this rather large and important episode of my life. A glance that I hope will not turn the reader, or this blog itself, into a pillar of salt.

A couple of final remarks before I start diving in. The list of “best” programs and skates presented here is, obviously, very subjective. Every Shoma Uno fan (and/or figure skating fan in general) has a different one, and that is completely fine. I would put it this way: the closer we get to the top five or maybe even top three of this list, the more objective this rating gets. There are two or three skates and programs here, I believe, without which any ‘top 10’ list would simply be untenable. But the bottom half of the list covered in the first part of the article, is a very subjective choice.  So it is worth clarifying my criteria. In compiling the list, I was guided by four of them: 1) the quality of the program itself, 2) the quality of Shoma’s performance, 3) the importance of this performance in the wider context of Shoma’s career, and 4) my personal feelings and impressions about this performance (which often depended on whether or not I saw it live, for example).

That is it now. The journey to the Shoma World begins. Fasten your seat belts, put on your rose-colored glasses, prepare some tissues to wipe away the tears of emotion and delight, and most importantly, do not, under any circumstances and even under serious threats, mention the lutz in vain.

Enjoy the read!

X. «Turandot» (GPF 2015, FS)

Do you recall Francesca’s monologue from Dante’s «Divine Comedy»? Particularly this part?

Yet if you long so much to understand

the first root of our love, then I shall tell

my tale to you as one who weeps and speaks.

That performance of the Turandot in December 2015 was indeed the ‘first root’ of my love, so it is inevitable that my tale should start with this skate. What struck me then? I was immediately struck by how perfectly the skater matched his music. Puccini, as well as the Italian verismo more generally, is hyper expressive and bloodthirsty. It is, in a way, a kind of musical “hyper-realism,” where all emotions are stirred up and all feelings are exposed and brought to the limit. This kind of music can easily crush even experienced skaters. Yet somehow Shoma managed to become its conduit. He managed to convey all its power and passion to the audience without spilling a drop on the way. And instead of crushing him, Puccini’s music elevated his skating and made him look bigger on the ice. It made his skating look very mature and powerful.

All this was astounding, of course. But it was near the end of the skate, at the climactic vincerò, where my heart completely gave up and surrendered. When it seemed as though all Shoma’s strength had finally ebbed away and the music was about to consume the skater, Shoma revealed his ace in the hole in the form of the cantilever move. And stunned the entire Barcelona crowd.

Looking back at Shoma’s career now, the importance of Turandot becomes fairly obvious: with the first version of this program he won his first important international medal, the Grand Prix final bronze. A little over two years later, with the new version of this program, he would win his first Olympic medal. Perhaps that new Olympic Turandot was in many ways more powerful and mature. And it is certainly hard to compare the 2018 Olympic silver with that first bronze won in December 2015. Nevertheless, it is the first version, the green version, that is closer to my heart today.

Because that is where my journey to the Shoma World started.

IX. «This town» (Four continents-2018, Gala)

It may well be that This town, the result of Shoma’s first collaboration with choreographer David Wilson, will not be on everyone’s top-10 list. Seemingly unassuming and modest choreography with a slight touch of sadness and longing for the lost love, simple jumping passes (a couple of triples and a double axel), and a simple black shirt and jeans that look so incredibly unpretentious compared to Shoma’s magnificent and luxurious costumes of the time… It is easy to overlook and underestimate this program. Yet it is anything but forgettable. The simplicity of its style and clarity of its movements makes it only easier to discern and understand the essence of a very different – lyrical – side of Shoma (for a more detailed essay, click this link).

What catches the eye? Smooth and subtly expressive skating. Very soft arms, especially the hands, perfectly translating all the subtle shades of this music’s slightly melancholic nature. Excellent upper body flexibility that enriches the program with more details. And, of course – and perhaps most importantly – exceptional musicality: every single jump nicely rounds out a corresponding musical idea, every movement agrees with the underlying musical rhythm, nothing is out of sync, everything seems important. A kind of musicality that comes from within a skater is a rare talent indeed.

Then you pay attention to the lyrics and notice other nice choreographic touches: arm movements conveying the dissipating scent of the beloved’s perfume («the smell of your perfume still stuck in the air»), hands reaching out to the audience on “everything comes back to you”, 3-turns and twizzles circling around on “over and over”…

And then there are butterflies flying in this town, too — twice in the course of the song.

But the main thing that ultimately draws your full attention is just how heartfelt and poetic his skating truly is, to the point where it seems as if every movement is being born deep inside the skater’s heart — every movement is painfully honest and up-front. You believe in such skating. And you do not want to leave such a world.

“Over and over the only truth

Everything comes back to you”

But we are not actually leaving just yet – our journey to the main sights of the Shoma World has only begun.

VIII. «Dancing on my own» (Challenge cup, The Hague, 2020, FS)

The next skate gives us a good excuse to continue our conversation about David Wilson and the melancholy of the dances he created for Shoma. This particular free skate was used for two consecutive seasons (2019-20 and 2020-21): similarly to «This town», it is lyrical in its tone, it is about a breakup, and it too has dance elements. The difference is that in «This town» the main character dreams of dancing with his beloved (‘if the whole world was watching, I’d still dance with you’), whereas in the free skate Shoma dances all alone:

“But I’m not the guy you’re taking home, ooh

I keep dancing on my own.”

Both the skater himself and those who support him have been through a lot with this program (those who are interested in learning more about it can go read my interview with the choreographer, David Wilson). It is Shoma’s farewell to the old coaching staff and the beginning of a new life; it is the period of struggles, too: of being alone in the Kiss & Cry, of all the tears of Grenoble; it is also a period of recovery and a rise to the new heights that came with the unexpected triumph at the Japanese Nationals soon after the Grenoble disaster — a long recovery of lost positions and formation of a “new Shoma”. This program ended up becoming the true and heartfelt confession of that period. A small tournament in The Hague, in which Shoma participated right before the World Championships (which was eventually cancelled), was the climactic point in this long process of recovery and rebirth of the skater.

Which is why it is impossible to assess this program objectively, especially when you happened to be one of the witnesses both of the Grenoble disaster and of the Hague rebirth. Some people will like this program, others will find the choreography unassuming: too much depends on the viewer’s perspective. In my personal opinion, the list of Shoma’s top-10 skates would be incomplete without the miracle in The Hague. It would be missing a key element of the skater’s career.

One particularly memorable moment here is the “farewell” after one of the spins, when the skater reaches out to the audience on

«I just came to say goodbye.»

«I just came to say goodbye.» This farewell almost became prophetic: in Grenoble, Shoma stopped (very) short of retiring. When he dropped his head in the Kiss&Cry and burst into tears, hearing the support of his fans. He almost said goodbye. But he didn’t.

That is why this skate is so valuable: it gave us all hope. It showed us a new Shoma. And it dispelled the dark clouds of loneliness and melancholy. It was one of the key performances of Shoma’s career and certainly one of the skates that stuck in my memory, and will undoubtedly stay there for a long time.

VII. «The Moonlight sonata» (Four continents-19, FS)

The 2019 Four Continents Championship brought Shoma his first gold medal at a top-tier event and gave us a wonderful performance of the «Moonlight Sonata» which received the then highest ever score of 197 points (a much more detailed analysis of this program is available here). At the time, there were very few indications (if any) of the upcoming drama and uncertainty of the next two seasons.

There are different ways of approaching and assessing the «Moonlight Sonata», as there are different ways of approaching the previous program: in its minimalism and muted expressiveness, one can see either clarity and precision, or gaps and choreographic emptiness, depending on the viewer’s perspective. One can feel the expressiveness of silence, or one can take silence as a sign that the skater simply has nothing to say.

For me personally, the silence of this program reveals Shoma’s lyrical gift and musicality in a very special way. In the silence, details that are easy to miss in ‘busier’ and faster-paced programs became more «audible», more pronounced. The essence of the «Moonlight sonata», to me, is its choreographic sequence that consists of a single spread eagle. What is there to admire, what is so special here, one might ask. It is in the details: in how every note of the piano melody is reflected in the movements of the skater – in the movements of his arms, in the turns of his head, in the shapes and curves created by his upper body.

For me, these are the most valuable details of Shoma’s skating. And the essence of its attractiveness. And it is the silence of the “Moonlight Sonata” that allows these details to speak so loudly and so clearly, that brings them to the fore.

VI. «The Kreutzer sonata» (Junior Worlds-15, SP)

Do you know what the main difficulty in performing classical music like Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven is? You need to be extremely precise. One wrong note — and your audience will hear it right away. The same applies to interpretations of this music in figure skating. Unless the skater «gets» the music right, finds the right level of expressiveness and times his movements extremely well, there is a great risk that his skating will be ‘out of tune’, so to speak.

Shoma’s “Kreutzer Sonata” is a striking example of the incredible maturity that his skating reached during his last junior season. There’s nothing juvenile about this program: there is no child’s talk here, it is an adult-to-adult conversation. A conversation in which a young skater never goes out of tune.

What makes this program so refreshing is also the choice of music. Figure skating fans often (and justly) complain about the predominance of the same classical pieces that are being used over and over again. In this sense, the choice of Beethoven’s Sonata No.9 for violin and piano is a welcome exception. How many programs do you know that are based on classical chamber music — sonatas, trios, quartets, quintets, etc.? You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand.

One moment in the program which is especially dear to my heart is the camel spin. As is often the case with Shoma, this moment is dear because of its very unassuming and not straight-to-your-face, but extremely deep and precise, musicality: the way the skater begins the spin at the beginning of the musical phrase and ends it right at the end of it, and especially the way he raises his hand on the g-sharp of the violin part and then his foot (reaching the half-Bielmann variation) on the following high a:

In another wonderful performance of this program at the 2015 senior Four continents championship, Shoma switched to a more difficult jump layout (with the quad toeloop at the beginning), but precisely because of this added technical complexity this little detail was lost and, in fact, the entire spin moved to a different position within the program. That is why the simpler version from the Junior World Championships is dearer to me.

There is some inexplicable quiet magic in such precise matching of music with movement — in how, despite all the rigid rules for getting levels that restrict spins so much, the skater still finds ways to respond to the melodic line.

The kind of quiet magic that is so characteristic of Shoma’s skating. 


We’re halfway done, so let us take a little break. Sit down on the grass and refresh yourself with a couple of sandwiches — you will need some energy for the second part, where we are going to step away a little from the wide paved road of our narrative.

To be continued….

3 thoughts on “The World of Shoma Uno: Part I”

  1. The 2019 idf version this town is the best for me, even though the jumps were not so clean. He also changed some movements (I’m not sure if he forgot the original ones), which made this town more Shoma town. Dancing on my own is an very interesting program. No matter what mood Shoma was in, his performance was never out of the music, especially the second part . When he fell many times, the whole program was in Shoma sad shadow. When he performed well , he always entered step sequence with warm smile. With the light and bright , it’s like the lonely young man finally found his own way.


    1. Oh, I do remember the IdF version — I saw it live! He looked so… different there, compared to the short and free skates just a few days prior. There was no tension and no drama, and it was very clear to me that he wanted to express his gratitude to all the fans with that skate. And yes, I remember there were some structural changes there, too, mostly due to the insertion of cantilever.


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