Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu qualified for the Grand Prix Final by the slimmest of margins with a fourth-place finish in the NHK Trophy on Saturday night.
Hanyu struggled through his free skate to "Phantom of the Opera," doubling his opening quadruple salchow, then falling on his quad toe loop and ended up with a total score of 229.80 points at Namihaya Dome.
To his credit, Hanyu got off the deck and battled his way through the rest of his program. It's a good thing he did, as he advanced to next month's GP Final in Barcelona, Spain, by a narrow 0.15 of a point over fifth-place finisher Jeremy Abbott (229.65) of the United States.
"I feel I made the right decision to compete," Hanyu stated. "I wasn't in the best shape physically or mentally, but am proud that I was able to take part in the two events after the accident (at the Cup of China in early November) happened."
Hanyu was tough on himself when evaluating his performance.
"What I learned from this competition is that I have a lot of weaknesses that I need to overcome," Hanyu said. "I could do the quad salchow in practice, but have trouble doing it in a competition. I'm not used to it."
Daisuke Murakami was the surprise winner with 246.07 to earn the first GP title and podium finish of his career.
The 23-year-old Murakami has been around for years, but always overshadowed by the likes of Hanyu and Daisuke Takahashi. But that changed for at least one night, as he was nearly flawless to Rachmaninov's "Piano Concerto No. 2."
The Kanagawa native opened with a booming quad salchow, followed by a quad salchow/double toe loop combo, then proceeded to hit six triple jumps on the way to victory.
"I never thought about winning," Murakami admitted. "I just wanted to come in and do my best. To be on top of the podium here is something I never expected."
Russia's Sergei Voronov punched his ticket to the GP Final by taking second place on 236.65.
Takahito Mura, the leader after the short program, endured a tough outing and fell to third at 234.44. Mura also qualified for the GP Final with the result. He will join Hanyu and Tatsuki Machida in the six-man field in which half of the competitors will be Japanese.
Mura was in position to win, but could not get the job done. He also competed to "Phantom of the Opera" and under-rotated his opening quad toe loop. He then doubled the back end of a planned quad toe loop/triple toe loop combo.
It was downhill from there, as Mura singled a triple axel and had a triple flip downgraded.
Mura said the pressure of taking the lead into the free skate got to him.
"There was tension in skating last," Mura acknowledged. "I could not execute because of my nerves. I sensed what I need to improve on after this."
Abbott fell from second in the short program with an uneven free skate. He tripled his planned opening quad and received low scores on his spins.
American Gracie Gold won the women's title with a total score of 191.16. The victory was her first in a senior GP event and puts her into the GP Final for the first time.
Gold, the defending U.S. champion, skated to "Phantasia" and prevailed despite botching the back end of her planned opening triple lutz/triple toe loop combo and falling on a triple salchow later in the program.
Gold, who finished fourth in Sochi, came out on top despite successfully landing just four triple jumps. Her level-four spins and level-four step sequence proved crucial in her victory.
"I feel happy to win my first Grand Prix and senior international, but I know I can do better and improve on this performance," said Gold. "I'm excited to go to the Grand Prix Final. It will be a difficult competition with the four Russians and Ashley (Wagner)."
Russia's Alena Leonova (186.40) held on to second place despite an error-filled free skate.
Satoko Miyahara (179.02) jumped ahead of compatriot Kanako Murakami to make her second podium of the season. Miyahara was fourth after the short program, but moved up by placing second in the free skate.
Miyahara, who was third at Skate Canada, skated to "Miss Saigon" and touched down on her opening triple lutz/triple toe loop combo. She landed six triple jumps, but two-footed the landing on her triple loop, yet was able to take second in the free skate on the strength of her spins.
"I wanted to skate clean and flawless, but for both of the GP events I finished on the podium and for that I am very happy," said Miyahara. "I feel 50-50 about today. I'm glad to come in third, but I have missed out on the Grand Prix Final."
Murakami (173.09) finished a disappointing fourth, after coming seventh in the free skate.
Murakami started strongly to "Phantom of the Opera" with a triple toe loop/triple toe loop combo, followed by a double axel, but then was unable to execute both of her planned combo jumps and paid the price for it.
"I have been having trouble with my loop in practice and that made me nervous," noted Murakami. "My performance today was very poor."
The results leave Japan shut out of the GP Final on the women's side. Rika Hongo and Miyahara both finished with 22 points, while Murakami ended up with 20.
Gold (26 points) and compatriot Wagner (24 points) secured the final two tickets based on the placements here.
Hongo, Miyahara and Murakami will be the three alternates for the GP Final.
Riona Kato put on an impressive performance to Rachmaninov's "Piano Concerto. No. 3" and took fifth.
The Osaka native improved from eighth place after the short program with an inspired effort that saw her receive a standing ovation from the audience.
The 16-year-old Kato competed to Rachmaninov's "Pianto Concerto No. 3" and began with a nice triple flip/triple toe loop combo. She hit a total of seven triple jumps in her routine, with the lone blemish coming when she landed on the wrong edge late in her program on a triple lutz.
"I'm really happy to show all the people what I could do after practicing so much," commented Kato. "The cheering from the home crowd was truly wonderful."
Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford won the pairs with a tally of 199.78. The victory qualified them for the GP Final.
Russia's Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov took second with 183.60 and will join the Canadians in Spain.
China's Yu Xiaoyu and Jin Yang (182.00) finished third, but also narrowly made the GP Final in the last spot available.
Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje lead the ice dance following the short dance with 67.51. The duo is seven points ahead of Britain's Penny Coomes and Nicholas Buckland, who are second at 60.49.
Russia's Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavin (59.70) stand third, while Japan's Cathy and Chris Reed (50.55) are seventh.
The competition concludes with the free dance on Sunday.