Tokyo 2020: Bizarre, at times poignant, Opening Ceremony is a fever dream


Solidarity was the Tokyo 2020 theme in a night featuring mimes, Japanese theatre and Keith Urban.


Fireworks shot up into the sky from the National Stadium in Tokyo on Friday night, one year after the original scheduled start of the 32nd Summer Olympiad. What a long journey it's been to get here.

The Games' preparation has been plagued with difficulties, and not just because of COVID-19. The number of high-profile organisers who have unceremoniously left the project would be funny, if it wasn't.

The original organising committee president Yoshiro Mori resigned in February after saying women "talk too much" at meetings. Then in March, creative director Hiroshi Sasaki left after suggesting that a plus-sized entertainer appear as an "Olympig".

Last week, composer Keigo Oyamada resigned after old interviews in which he admitted to bullying disabled classmates at school resurfaced. And just 24 hours before the ceremony began, its director Kentaro Kobayashi was fired for jokes he made in 1998 about the Holocaust.

The section on acting out Olympic pictograms in quick succession must've taken a lot of effort to perfect. I wish I could say it paid off.

So, with all this in mind, how did the night turn out? Well, my first impression was that it was … underwhelming. It lacked the sheer extravagance of Beijing 2008, the charm of London 2012 or the raucous energy of Rio 2016. However, what it lacked in spectacle it attempted to make up for in its humanist message.

Much focus was given to the themes of solidarity and inclusivity. Sentiments in the official hashtags #UnitedByEmotion and #StrongerTogether were exemplified in some poignant moments. Performance artists pieced together Olympic rings made using wood from trees that were planted by athletes 57 years ago at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

There was a solemn moment of silence for the 1972 Munich Massacre victims which was truly touching, and the beautiful image of drones floating over the Shinjuku skyline, forming the Tokyo 2020 emblem before turning into a projection of Earth, felt like a wonderous scene out of a science-fiction film.

I was surprised by the intimacy of these moments, which reflect the Olympic Spirit in quieter ways than usual. Another highlight included Naomi Osaka's surprise entrance as the final torch-bearer to bring the Olympic flame to a Mt. Fuji-shaped cauldron. From a cursory glance at Twitter, it seems Osaka's appearance is also what everyone's buzzing about.

What brings down the overall emotional impact of the night are a string of bizarre creative decisions, most of which came after the Parade of Nations and made the ceremony seem endlessly long.

By the time Emperor Naruhito opens the Games, we have been bombarded by obnoxious mime artists acting as a camera crew, an extended dance sequence of children moving coloured boxes around aimlessly until they form the Tokyo 2020 emblem, and a cringeworthy rendition of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Imagine".

The pre-recorded "Imagine" video featuring John Legend, Angélique Kidjo, Alejandro Sanz and Keith Urban brought to mind the out-of-touch cover that Gal Gadot and her celebrity pals released last year. The uncomfortable cuts between the singers and live footage of unsuspecting athletes didn't help either.

What shocked me was that between the Emperor's official opening of the Games and the lighting of the cauldron, there was more weirdness for us to sit through. The section dedicated to performers acting out Olympic pictograms in quick succession must've taken a lot of effort to perfect. I wish I could say it paid off. It felt like a game show segment that accidentally made its way into the National Stadium.

My mind nearly melted when after the pictograms, there's a video sketch of a bumbling lighting technician, followed by an onstage pairing of pianist Hiromi and a kabuki actor. Kabuki is a form of highly-stylised, experimental Japanese theatre.

None of these individual elements are bad, per se. In fact, having a kabuki performance could be a great way to showcase traditional culture while connecting the art form's emphasis on physical expression with athleticism and Olympic exceptionalism.

However, the way the acts are just thrown together with little regard for cohesion or tone made the latter half of the ceremony feel like an intense fever dream. As it all came to a close, my mind was baffled and my senses rattled.

Every genuinely touching moment of the night was countered by an out-of-place comedy bit or a peculiar tangent. Overall, Tokyo 2020's Opening Ceremony is a mixed bag if ever there was one.

Read more of Newsworthy's Tokyo 2020 series focussing on the challenges – physical, psychological, financial and social – athletes must overcome to compete with the best of the best.


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