In my homestretch review for this year’s Miss International pageant, I had high hopes that we would be treated to a fabulous show unlike the staid proceedings of previous Japan editions. I also hoped that the cultural differences between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland (yes, I know Japan is an archipelago so “mainland” here refers to the four main islands of Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido) would be more in a positive vein, while retaining some key commendable aspects we tend to associate with Japanese culture.
I should’ve read the signs when I watched the UStream broadcast of the pageant that the “Okinawan difference” could also be negative. We tend to associate punctuality and timeliness as intrinsic Japanese traits–in fact, back in the 1980s, people raved about kaizen business practices and the efficient just-in-time (JIT) production processes practiced in Japan. Apparently in laid-back Okinawa, they are not really conscious about keeping time, as the pageant actually began 15 minutes after the scheduled 5 PM JST start time.
The opening started promisingly enough with a cultural dance number followed by a lively costume parade. The male host spoke impeccable English, so that seemed to be promising, too.
But then everything went downhill afterwards. Following the initial host introductions, the host then said he’ll introduce the contestants via “video presentation”–which turns out to be a boring, mind-numbing static slideshow presentation of a contestant’s photo as he announces each contestant’s name and country one-by-one. This was followed by a 10-minute video presentation of activities the contestants participated in Japan and then a long break as apparently they need more time for the contestants to change from national costume to swimsuit.
The pace picked up a bit as all 69 contestants paraded in swimsuit. This was followed by a 15-minute intermission number featuring two Japanese opera singers accompanied by a pianist–I presume the singers are professional as I couldn’t really find fault with their performances, though the threadbare piano playing and arrangement gives the vibe of an amateur recital instead of a polished, professional number. Then, further videos of activities, then a lull before a string quartet performed music as the contestants paraded in their evening gowns. (Side note: I think the previous intermission number would’ve sounded better if the string quartet joined them.)
After the gowns, another major lull–10 minutes in, the host had to announce that the judges needed more time deliberating, and promised they would be back after 10 more minutes–but it turned out to almost 20-30 minutes more before the special awards were given out (with a lengthy speech by the head of Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning or JOICFP when it gave its charity award to Miss Haiti) and the Top 15 was announced, followed by introduction of the outgoing queen Maria Fernanda Cornejo of Ecuador (who turned into a brunette from a blonde when she won last year). As in more recent Japan editions the Top 15 would then present “cultural speeches” basically about what they would do if they win the title. A dance intermission followed, and this was followed again by, yes, you guessed it, another lull as the judges supposedly deliberated on the results–it took another 30 minutes–until the final results were announced. The entire pageant was scheduled to last 3 1/2 hours, but with all the lulls, it eventually lasted 5 1/4 hours.
I was always under the impression that in most major international beauty pageants these days, the judges submit their scores or votes individually and an auditing firm or the organizer (like I presume in the case of Miss World) tally the results, and the judges do not confer with each other regarding their choices. I don’t know if this year was an exception but I wonder if panel deliberations had always been the norm in this pageant. I also wonder then if the live running time of the Japan editions of this pageant has always been actually five hours since for most of us we have never seen a live broadcast of the finals and only witnessed edited recordings or TV specials.
I have to hand it to the judges that the 15 semifinalists they selected are a worthy and reasonably diverse bunch (I suppose to avoid protests from African franchise holders like in previous Chinese editions, there is an African in the mix). Sure, the absence of pre-pageant favorite Poland (Rozalia Mankiewicz) was a bit of a surprise, but then again, it is justified with her underwhelming long-sleeved pink gown and just-adequate (though improved from Miss Universe) stage presence. I got 12 out of 15 from my “fearful” forecast, which for me is a very good batting record. But the ladies I didn’t get–Finland, Mexico, and Namibia–were in my bubbling under list anyway.
It turns out, based on the cultural speeches delivered, the 15 semifinalists were more evenly matched than I thought. Apparently to make a better impression with the judges, they felt the need to deliver their speeches in English. Two contestants from South America who I initially regarded as front-runners for the crown fell by the wayside, one (Colombia’s Melissa Varon) by sounding slow and halting while delivering her speech in English, and the other (Venezuela’s Blanca Aljibes) speaking primarily in Spanish and not exactly delivering a substantial message in either her native language or in the couple of English sentences she delivered. Also lacking much in substance in her speech was Brazil’s Rafaela Buttarelli. The rest of the speeches could be divided as either expressing sincere sentiments or presenting eloquently lofty (almost to the point of undeliverable) campaigns. In the “sincere” category we have Finland’s Viivi Suominen and Paraguay’s Nicole Huber (hers also has eloquence and a bit of drama as she sounded as if she’s on the verge of tears). Within the spectrum in between “sincere” and “lofty” were Sri Lanka’s Madusha Mayadunne, Dominican Republic’s Melody Mir, the United Kingdom’s Alize Lily Mounter (added bonus: she knows her pageant history as she correctly referenced how long since her country last won this pageant), and U S A’s Amanda Renee Delgado. Delivering impressively lofty and eloquent speeches were Japan’s Ikumi Yoshimatsu, Namibia’s Paulina Malulu, Philippines’ Nicole Schmitz, India’s Rochelle Maria Rao, Mexico’s Jessica Garcia Formenti, and Haiti’s Anedie Azael.
Based on the final outcome, the judges tend to favor the sincere speeches instead of the lofty ones, with the glaring exception of one. I can say that the runners-up are a mix of the expected and refreshing–I’m so glad Sri Lanka got its best placement in a major international pageant since Maureen Hingert’s 2nd runner-up finish at Miss Universe 57 years ago (when the nation was still known as Ceylon). In the case of Finland’s 1st runner-up finish, there are several pageant fans and pundits who would regard it as also refreshing, but to my eyes she simply lacks star charisma and would rather replace her with, say, Alize Lily Mounter. Why is it that the Japanese would hype up an otherwise adequately pretty and adequately polished Finnish rep, even if there are more stellar options out there?
Okay, so the Japanese panel would be impressed with the English skills of the winner. And let’s face it she has a trim figure. Plus, indeed in the pageant’s 52-year history Japan never won and its best placement prior to this was a 2nd runner-up finish 10 years ago with Hana Urushima. But is she gorgeous? Or charismatic at the very least? To my eyes the answer to both questions is no. There are so many more gorgeous and charismatic ladies from Japan than this lady, in my eyes. But, just like what seems to be the reaction of all the contestants, we should respect the judges’ patriotic verdict, even if it uncomfortably brings back images of Japan’s imperialism back in World War II. And anyway, I don’t always get Japanese notions of beauty (though I thought based on the female celebrities that are popular, I thought I have a good inkling–but Ikumi does not match the mold of any of the idols), especially males (I simply found those male idols under the Johnny and Associates banner rather unattractive).
All images above courtesy of Miss International 2012 unless otherwise indicated.
Now, for final parting thoughts: I do not mind homeland victories if there are convincing supporting qualities that would support the case, just like in Miss World 2007. But most of the time, these sort of victories simply leave a bad taste in the mouth and I hope there wouldn’t be anymore of this sort this year. I don’t want to add another installment to this essay, please!