The photographer looks a little nervous as Shu Takada takes up position in front of his camera and prepares to fire a yo-yo out toward the lens.
He needn’t be worried.
“I know exactly where to stand so that it stops just in front of the camera,” says Takada.
If anyone can be trusted to pose for a cool picture without causing hundreds of thousands of yen’s worth of damage, it’s Takada, a six-time yo-yo world champion whose spectacular acrobatic style has made him a global social media sensation.
Born in Shizuoka Prefecture, Takada first picked up a yo-yo at the age of 6 after watching his father, who had been bitten by the yo-yo bug that swept Japan in the 1990s. Soon enough, the younger Takada’s repertoire of tricks had outstripped his father’s and he was entering competitions, making his debut at the World YoYo Contest at the age of 14 and winning his first world title in 2012.
Now, age 23 and with six world championships under his belt and a video of him performing in a Spider-Man costume making waves around the world, Takada is hoping to take the yo-yo to a wider audience.
— Shu Takada (@TKD_SHU) October 22, 2019
“Most people won’t have heard of yo-yo competitions, but a lot of people are trying it,” he says. “I get the impression it’s on the rise. I think it will become bigger as a sport and as a culture.”
Competitive yo-yo involves participants performing routines in front of a panel of judges, who award points based on technical and artistic merit in a manner similar to figure skating.
The World YoYo Contest is the pinnacle of competitive yo-yo and has been held every year since 1992. It was staged in Orlando, Florida, each year from 2000 to 2013, but since then it has rotated around North America, Europe and Asia, and was held in Tokyo in 2015. It will return to Japan next year at a yet-to-be-decided location.
Takada’s success at the World YoYo Contest — where he performs in the 2A category, which involves doing looping tricks with two yo-yos — owes no small debt to his high-octane physical style. Dance moves, spins and even gymnastic flips all feature regularly in his routines, taking his performances to places that others are reluctant to go.
“I’m the only one who uses acrobatics in their yo-yo routines,” he says. “No one copies me with that. I’d like someone to copy me but I think they’re all too scared to try.”
Takada says his pioneering status means it is up to him to think of new acrobatic moves.
“First, I try to master the acrobatic trick on tatami mats at a judo dojo, then, once I’ve done that, I add the yo-yo,” he says. “Doing it with and without the yo-yo is completely different. I always practice on my own, and every time I try an acrobatic trick with the yo-yo for the first time, I always end up in a heap on the floor. I’ll be lying there in agony for about 10 minutes, but then I’ll get up and try again. The more times you try it, the more you get used to it.”
Takada’s daredevil exploits may win him high artistic points with the competition judges, but he must also have the technical skills to add substance to his style.
The World YoYo Contest takes place every August, and Takada will spend the first three months of the year thinking up new tricks to perform. Around April and May, he will choose music and choreograph his routine. From June, he will start practicing relentlessly. For the month or two before the competition, he will often practice for hours at a time — sometimes even a whole day.
“My style is to practice something until I perfect it, and then I stop,” he says. “Some days, I’ll be practicing for five or six hours and I still can’t do it. Some days, I’ll do it for 10 minutes and then I can do it, so I stop. It just depends. I like doing it, so if I picture myself showing the perfect routine to someone, it motivates me. I love it.”
Takada says a yo-yo performer will need to execute a flawless routine to win a competition, and that there is no worse feeling than making a mistake that deflates a crowd just as the routine is reaching its climax. He says he can’t wait to get off the stage if a routine has gone badly, but he admits he loves to bask in the applause if he has done well.
For Takada, however, appearing in yo-yo competitions is about more than just trying to win titles.
“I didn’t used to be able to speak any English at all, but through entering yo-yo competitions I’ve been able to travel overseas and make friends,” he says. “I’ve also been able to invent my own tricks and use my creativity. I’ve been able to overcome my nervousness at appearing in front of people. I used to hate going on stage. I hated it so much I would cry, but through yo-yo I’ve overcome that fear.”
Takada signed with a professional management agency in 2016 and now, when he is not competing, he spends his time performing at parties, nightclubs, circuses, music festivals, toy fairs and other events. He has also released his own signature yo-yo.
Takada is active on social media, and videos of him performing in various costumes have caused a splash around the world.
“I’d like to give more performances overseas as well as in Japan,” he says. “I have a video on my social media accounts of me performing in a Spider-Man costume, and that’s spread pretty far overseas. Cosplay is a famous part of Japanese culture. I also have a video of me performing dressed as a ninja, and that has been enjoyed by people from all over. I’d love to become a performer who uses a yo-yo to spread Japanese culture to a global audience.”
Takada’s life as a yo-yo performer has not been all plain sailing. While trying to show his parents a trick he had just learned as a second-grade elementary school student, he hit himself in the mouth, breaking some teeth.
He also admits that his self-choreographed yo-yo dance moves sometimes need plenty of polish before they are ready to be unveiled to the public. Just being able to live the life of a professional yo-yo artist, however, is more than enough compensation for any mishaps or embarrassments that may befall him.
“I always wanted to help take yo-yo mainstream,” he says. “I wanted to perform in front of people who didn’t know anything about yo-yo. I had a period where I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it was my dream to make a living out of it and that’s the path I followed.”
For more information about Shu Takada, visit www.shutakada.com.