Modest and charming - The opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020
After a one-year delay, the Tokyo Olympics 2020 has finally opened, with a rather humble yet charming ceremony, but no live audience. Reflecting the mood of the difficult times we’re living in, it was appropriate to avoid a showy extravaganza. In terms of performing arts, the latest opening ceremony in Tokyo demonstrated a mix of both the traditional and contemporary sides of Japanese culture.
Opening Ceremony: The best bits in two minutes | Tokyo Olympics
Joyful, mournful, hopeful, playful
In contrast to the festive mood of 2013 when Tokyo was nominated as the Olympic host, we suddenly fell into the dark year of 2020 because of the pandemic. There, Arisa Tsubata, a middleweight boxer as well as a nurse, appeared to run on the treadmill, representing a struggling individual. The solitude was eased by contemporary dancers and online images of other athletes training at home, sharing sympathies and emotions.
After the Japanese national anthem beautifully sung by Misia in a rainbow dress, the ceremony took a mournful turn to pay tribute to those who lost their lives during the pandemic and the past Olympic games. It was powerfully expressed by a haunting solo dance piece by the actor and dancer Mirai Moriyama.
The atmosphere lit up with the appearance of a group of carpenters representing the Edo period (1603-1867). Their labour routines transformed into percussive dance moves along with traditional work songs ‘Kiyari Uta’. The group was led by the actress Miki Maya, who made her fame as a male-role star in the all-female musical theatre Takarazuka Revue. While the percussive sounds merged with modern tap dance performed by Kazunori Kumagai, they carved the Olympic rings out of trees that were planted from seeds at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The long-awaited athletes entered in the Japanese alphabetical order, which meant the team GB was unusually called ‘Eikoku’. Their excitement was accompanied by orchestrated versions of Japanese video game music, such as Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Monster Hunter, etc. The names of countries were printed in speech babbles of manga.
The global message and localised humour
Introduced by a comical silent act of TV crew, children gathered to move boxes to collectively form the logo of Tokyo 2020. At the completion, they raised their arms as if throwing the logo up into the sky. With this sign, 1,824 drones floated about in the dark sky, forming the same logo, which gradually transformed into a poignantly glowing globe in the air. Under the globe, ‘Imagine’, famously co-produced by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was sung by singers representing each continent, including the Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz.
Constellation of drones form globe at Tokyo opening ceremony
Maybe some parts were too detailed to be noticed by non-Japanese audiences. For example, when the comedian Gekidan-Hitori played the role of a lighting engineer who was messing about with the equipment, the light switches had labels of random letters from the Roman alphabet. If you read them from right to left, just like how you read Japanese in the traditional style, those labels showed names of various edible fish: TAKO (octopus), SHAKO (mantis shrimp), FUGU (puffer fish), TORO (fatty tuna), SABA (mackerel). As he broke the switch to turn on the final main spotlight, Shizuka Arakawa, the figure skating gold medalist in 2006, helped him by pulling down a lever that had the label saying ‘ABZ’. With this, the spotlight finally captured the kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa. His name Ebizo is pronounced as ‘A-B-Zo’, which contains ‘shrimp’ in Japanese. I’m not sure how many people noticed this fish association...
Anyway, this particular kabuki act was an excerpt from ‘Shibaraku’, about a hero who fights against evil. Instead of traditional kabuki music, the jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara added a contemporary flavour with her fun-loving style.
The flame of hope and pictograms
The final torch runners included three baseball legends, Sadaharu Oh, Hideki Matsui and Shigeo Nagashima who went through hard rehabilitation processes after suffering a stroke in 2004. Though not a big baseball fan myself, I was in tears watching him trying to walk. He showed a smile of relief under the facemask, when the flame successfully passed onto the next runners.
The torch relay continued, introducing six children from the Tohoku region where the big disastrous earthquake hit in 2011. From them, the flame of hope was given to the tennis star, Naomi Osaka, who symbolises diversity of cultures in modern Japan. She lit up the Cauldron designed like a flower blooming on top of Mount Fuji.
Tokyo2020 Olympic Cauldron
Possibly the most popular segment in the whole event, also my personal favourite, was the human kinetic pictograms, charmingly executed by Hiro-Pon from a silent comedy group Gamarjobat, and a pantomime duo Gabez. They playfully embodied 50 pictograms originally invented at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Their non-verbal witty performance grabbed many people’s hearts.
The ceremony could’ve been a completely different presentation by completely different participants, if the pandemic hadn’t hit us in 2020. Despite certain controversies and concerns, I’d like to appreciate and respect all the performers and creative staff who made this modest yet artistic ceremony possible, under tremendous pressure and hardship.
Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony (full)