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Thursday, Dec. 9, 1999

Rise and fall of a Japanese matador


By ED GUTTIEREZ

SEVILLE, Spain -- Atsuhiro Shimoyama never planned on becoming a bullfighter. Growing up in the greater Tokyo region in the late 1980s, he opted out of going to college, and instead bummed around searching for something meaningful to do during Japan's wildly inflating bubble years.

Although he had no focus, he did have a naturally graceful body, tall and slender, and eventually found himself accepted into a jazz dance troupe. The group traveled to Barcelona, Spain, and then across the Pyrenees mountains to southern France. It was the first time Shimoyama had ever been overseas and his new surroundings made a deep impression upon him.

Upon returning to Japan, he read Napolean Hill's self-help book, "Think and Grow Rich," on attaining personal success by pursuing fixed objectives. It was also around the same time, that Shimoyama saw the classic bullfighting movie "Sangre y Arena (Blood and Sand)" about the dramatic rise and fall of a bullfighter. Soon a dream was born.

"Looking back," Shimoyama says, "I don't know exactly why I wanted to become a bullfighter. It was just one of those unexplained turns of life," he says in a Seville coffee shop, with long pauses between his words. A few people at the other tables recognize him and start whispering among themselves.

In 1991, he quit dancing and started working as a waiter in a Tokyo hotel for two years in order to save enough money to go to Spain. Shimoyama returned to Spain in 1993 leaving family and friends behind in shock, and headed straight to Andalucia in the south, a traditional spawning ground for bullfighters and birthplace of the sport. Before long, he had located a municipal school of tauromaquia in a town called Alcala de Guadaira, near the regional capitol of Seville.

The small school had only about 25 students -- all Spanish boys from long lines of bull breeders and bullfighters. They ranged in age from 5 to 14, and the older ones had already been training at the school for five years. Shimo-yama, 23 at the time, was at an age when most bullfighters are considered to be at their peak.

He and the other hopefuls trained at a ranch every day in the evenings until sunset, learning how to use the capes, read the personalities of the bulls and drive swords into the spinal columns of hay-stuffed dummies.

In a short time he was facing live 1-year-old 200-kg bulls in practice, which are much quicker than the adults and capable of causing quite a lot of pain with their little horns. After nine months, he made his debut in the lowest division in a makeshift ring in a no-name town. The bull slammed him to the sand five times.

"I thought I was going to die with fear and exhaustion. The crowd was booing and I wanted to run away with humiliation." When at last the bull fell, he felt a triumphant surge of joy greater than he had ever felt before.

One of the members of the crowd who had been impressed by his performance that day was an expatriate American named John Fulton. Fulton had been a top-level bullfighter in Spain in the 1950s and '60s and had been living in Seville as a painter, writer and local legend ever since. Like Shimoyama, the American had also seen the movie "Blood and Sand" as a teenager and decided to leave everything behind to pursue the impossible.

The two took an immediate liking to each other. Fulton became Shimoyama's teacher and manager and instructed him in the classical mode of bullfighting. This graceful style was more in vogue in Fulton's era, and is still the style preferred by serious aficionados. It is characterized by the matador planting himself firmly in the line of the bull's charge, not flinching as the bull rushes by and having the cape elegantly swirl around the body.

The first season Fulton arranged 11 bullfights, and the pair drove around the country attending them with one success after another. Nino del Sol Nacientero (Son of the Rising Sun), as Shimoyama was called, was rising to stardom fast, and the aficionados were saying he was very good. There have been other successful foreign matadors, but almost all of them have come from the Americas, not Asia.

The curious news of the Japanese bullfighter, a first in the history of the sport at such a level, had spread across the country. The Rising Sun had soared to the third rung of the five-rung professional ladder.

Fulton had arranged 30 fights for his protege the next season, but an accident soon brought Shimoyama's career screeching to a halt.

It was in a small town in the summer of 1995 when the horn of a 400-kg bull caught the Rising Sun on his sparkling suit and tossed him into the air. Then a furious horn rammed him under the jaw.

"It was the side of the horn. I thought my cranium had cracked," remembers Shimoyama.

Although there was no visible wound, the carotid artery carrying blood to his brain had been badly damaged, and because practically all of Spain is at the beach in August, it was 24 hours before he was able to receive a badly needed operation.

The accident left the entire left side of Shimoyama's body paralyzed. Soon he began to be racked by epileptic seizures that struck without warning. When he wasn't in extreme physical pain, Shimoyama says he was left emotionally numb.

His rehabilitation has been slow. Now, every week, instead of stepping into La Maestranza, the famous bullring of Seville, he steps into the swimming pool.

Feeling has returned to his left shoulder and he can walk again, though with a bad limp in which he has to drag his left leg. An American neurologist from the International Humane Service checks up on him periodically, and thanks to his treatments, Shimoyama hasn't had a full-blown seizure for over a year. But the effects of the seizures are still with Shimoyama. In the middle of our conversation at the coffee shop, Shimoyama suddenly stops talking and just stares. His entire body begins to tremble. These are the aftershocks of his former seizures and in a few seconds the shaking passes. "I used to foam at the mouth," he says.

Some of the greatest legends of the sport have been killed in the ring and Shimo-yama accepts his fate without blame.

His one regret is that he was allowed to advance into the major leagues too fast.

"Everyone was saying I was going to be a star. I was blind. John [Fulton] was blind. I didn't have the necessary experience, but no one said anything. It was wrong."

Shimoyama is now a permanent resident of Spain and receives a government pension to help him pay his medical bills. He married a JTB tour guide operator who was his constant companion and supporter after the accident. Fulton also remained by his side until he passed away last year.

Despite all that has happened, Shimoyama remains optimistic and even says matter of factly, "If my body recovers, I want to bullfight again."

He says he wants to follow in the footsteps of Jose Luis Bote, a fellow bullfighter and comrade who has been gored multiple times on separate occasions, leaving one of his feet half paralyzed.

"Everyone said Bote was crazy when he last returned to the ring. He has a will of iron."

So, too, does the Son of the Rising Sun.



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