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From the 2021 Olympics opening ceremony (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

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The Olympics are never a stranger to controversy, and Tokyo 2020 has been no exception — starting with the fact that it’s being held in 2021 because of the pandemic, against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of Tokyo residents. Additionally, multiple officials have resigned due to controversies over sexist and ableist comments. And that’s before the problems that come with every Olympics, regardless of where they’re held. But each Olympics opening ceremony can usually bring people together, no matter what the discourse. Even people who don’t care about sports can tune in and enjoy the host country’s chance to show off its culture and iconography for the entire world. The opening ceremony is one giant “Welcome!” party.

In contemporary times, the standard for these events was set by the overwhelming spectacle of the opening ceremony at Beijing in 2008. Devised by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, incorporating 15,000 performers, and costing a reported $100 million, it included a traditional Chinese opera number, a tribute to the country’s space exploration, and appearances by superstars like Jackie Chan and Andy Lau. It emphasized China’s history of invention, from the humble kite to the movable type. At London 2012, the opening ceremony (planned by director Danny Boyle) leaned hard on popular culture, featuring Daniel Craig as James Bond, Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, and music from the Beatles, the Kinks, and Queen. Its quaint, whimsical spirit was a handy way to obscure a history of colonialism, conquest, and death around the world.

For Tokyo 2020, not even the opening ceremony could avoid trouble amidst an already-troubled enterprise. The day before the torch was lit, director of ceremonies Kentaro Kobayashi was sacked when jokes he made about the Holocaust in the ’90s resurfaced — something even the Prime Minister had to come out and denounce. Furthermore, Kobayashi was already a replacement for Hiroshi Sasaki, who resigned after coming under fire for crudely making fun of pop star Naomi Watanabe’s weight. And that was after the resignation of original director Mansai Nomura, whose team was disbanded after more than a year’s work planning the ceremony, a mere seven months before the games were to begin. Officials stated that the event needed to be simplified and change focus to acknowledge the delicate state of the world.

So how did the ceremony embody that proclaimed intention? It was mostly a sequence of symbols and metaphors instead of a platform to show off Japanese culture. The first segment began with boxer Arisa Tsubata running on a treadmill, alone in the stadium, with shifting patterns projected onto the floor beneath him, slowly connecting him to others similarly training alone — a figurative depiction of how athletes have had to work during quarantine. It was a quiet, minimalist, beautifully choreographed evocation of the sensation of being “apart together.” Further proceedings included song and dance tributes to Japan’s queer community, the history of Japanese craftsmanship, and victims of both COVID-19 and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. After the Parade of Nations, the back half of the ceremony featured more specific cultural signposts, but with twists to project an image of Japan different from stereotypes. For example, Ichikawa Ebizō XI, a member of a venerated family of kabuki actors, appeared in traditional attire to perform with jazz/prog rock fusion pianist Hiromi Uehara, showcasing a modern mixture of millenarian tradition with the avant-garde.

The most playful use of Japanese culture came during the Parade of Nations. As each team entered the stadium, waving to empty seats, they were accompanied by symphonic renditions of music from popular video games. Viewers recognized songs from series like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, and Kingdom Hearts. Each team was welcomed to its spot in the stadium by masked men and women sporting grayscale-colored costumes patterned with screentones, as if they were manga characters brought to life. Such pop culture signposts were what many expected of the event, especially after then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared dressed as Mario at the closing ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The non-obtrusive nature of the various cultural references reflects how organizers felt the need to be respectful of the gravity of the ongoing pandemic, while at the same time signal that Japan was ready to reopen. There were multiple solemn tributes to COVID-19 victims around the world, as well as the health workers who have been fighting the disease.

Perhaps the most legitimately powerful symbolic statement was the choice of athlete to light the Olympic flame: Haitian-Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka. Many in Japan still see it as racially homogenous, and the country still has no anti-discrimination laws. Large political movements advocate for apartheid in all but name between the Japanese, ethnic minorities, and foreign workers. Having a half-Black, half-Japanese woman who is a vocal Black Lives Matter advocate be the one to symbolically start the games speaks to the hope for a more diverse and tolerant future. After all, the Olympics opening ceremony is a showcase not just of how a country sees itself, but also what it claims it wants to be.

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Jaime Grijalba

Jaime Grijalba is a freelance critic and filmmaker based in Santiago, Chile.

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