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Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2006

Air guitar champ fans out the hits

Staff writer

On Sept. 8, Yosuke Ochi walked out to the spotlight in front of approximately 3,000 screaming fans to perform at the 11th Annual Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland.

News photo
Yosuke Ochi plays air guitar and partner Nobuhiko Otani lip-syncs as the comic duo Dainoji are interviewed at Yoshimoto Kogyo's Tokyo office this month. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The 100-kg comedian pointed to his imaginary band mate with a confident nod as a bass kicked in, turned around as speakers began playing guitar chords from "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" by Aussie rock-band Jet, and demonstrated his mesmerizing air guitar skills with rock-god aspect.

With his amusing presentation and what organizers exalted as "extremely classy air guitarring," he became the first Japanese to be crowned world champion of the competition.

"To be honest, I have zero knowledge of the instrument," the mock ax-master confessed in a recent interview. "I don't know a single guitar chord."

While many Japanese entertainers from Pink Lady to Hikaru Utada have failed to captivate the hearts of international audiences in the past, Ochi, whose trip to Finland was his first visit ever overseas, triumphed under pressure.

The 34-year-old cited his "samurai spirit" as bringing him success.

"He won the tournament because he didn't suit his performance to his audience," said Nobuhiko Otani, Ochi's partner in the comedy duo Dainoji. The two are professional comedians managed by entertainment giant Yoshimoto Kogyo Co.

Otani, who produced Ochi's air guitar act, noted that most Japanese entertainers and athletes have tended to adjust their routine to meet foreign competition overseas. Ochi was no exception, as he planned to switch his signature costume for either judoka garb or a "fundoshi" traditional Japanese loincloth.

But Otani advised his partner to stick with what he knew best and "believe the power of the tiger," referring to his funky sweater.

"I was confident that Japanese comedians have a better sense of humor than those overseas. It made no logic to change our style to entertain the international crowd," Otani said.

The advice paid off, as Ochi acted without restraint and outperformed his 16 rivals -- Europeans, Americans and two other Japanese. At one point, he recaptured the legendary style of Jimi Hendrix and slammed more than 60 air guitars to the ground, prompting the audience to respond with earsplitting chants and devil horn signs.

One of the judges later claimed to have witnessed the illusion of a guitar shattering in half when Ochi crashed his imaginary instrument with his knees, according to Otani.

The duo are confident they revolutionized the championship by incorporating the essence of comedy into air guitar competitions, because whipping up the audience has now become as important as showing off guitar techniques.

"Everyone just wanted to have fun, and the whole atmosphere was wild. Air guitar is such a beautiful thing," Ochi said of his ground-breaking performance.

His feat was reported on national news programs in Japan. Offers from live television shows eager to have him perform on air came soon after.

"I was told to expect paparazzi to be waiting for me at the airport," Ochi said. Amid his sudden celebrity, the champ even auctioned an empty guitar case on the Internet with a certificate of proof claiming it contained one of his broken air guitars used during the world championships.

It sold for 154,000 yen.

"I guess there are people who don't mind throwing money away," Otani shook his head with a smile.

As a child, Ochi dreamed of becoming a chef, in hopes of spending his life "surrounded by food." Instead he has attained what many young comedians crave: fame.

But the duo also realize the unexpected public attention heaped upon them can be as fleeting as the air guitars.

Ochi noted that comments on his blog, which topped 500 after he won the competition, quickly tapered off. "By the third day, I only received two," he revealed.

Limiting his air guitar routine and focusing on his stage shtick may be one way to avoid being a one-hit wonder -- but the maestro is so eager to defend his title in next summer's championships that he has been practicing constantly.

"Resting the mind and keeping an appropriate body weight" are two basic preparations the chubby comedian has continued to follow in pursuit of a superior air guitar presentation.

"I'd tell (newly signed Boston Red Sox pitcher) Daisuke Matsuzaka to do the same if he wanted to succeed against international competitors. Weight management and spiritual serenity are the key," Ochi joked.

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