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True tradition would be preferable to an ‘Idolympics’ in 2020

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Ten-thousand Kumamons doing an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style dance routine to Kyu Sakamoto’s international 1963 hit “Sukiyaki”? A 100-meter Hatsune Miku towering over the stadium while 80,000 spectators crane their necks for a glimpse up her skirt? Newly elected Prime Minister Pamyu Pamyu speeding up a ramp and jumping into the stadium on Kaneda’s bike from “Akira” to deliver the “Idolympic” Torch?

The announcement that Tokyo had been chosen as the host for the 2020 Olympics set off a frenzy of speculation as to what the opening ceremony could look like, with ideas ranging from the fearful (any involvement of Johnny & Associates artists) to the wishful (fully functional Gundam Mobile Suits). One thing that’s for certain is that Japanese culture will be thrust into the full glare of the world’s spotlight, and the resulting event will say a lot about how the country wishes to be seen.

Both Beijing (2008) and London (2012) placed their opening ceremonies in the hands of internationally acclaimed, award-winning filmmakers with strong groundings in theatre, but Zhang Yimou and Danny Boyle took different approaches to the music. China focused on classical music and elaborate, tightly drilled performances. London wisely avoided mimicking that spectacle and instead emphasized a sense of looseness and diversity, with a soundtrack that winked at the classics but accentuated pop.

There are plenty of examples of traditional Japanese culture that suggest it’s worthy of a show. In particular, the Awa-odori dance festival brings thousands of dancers and more than a million spectators onto the streets of Tokushima and the festival’s similarly scaled echo in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood. It combines the sort of mass spectacle that characterized Beijing with the festive, carnival atmosphere of London while remaining something Japan can proudly claim as its own.

When it comes to pop, we can’t know what will be popular in seven years’ time. That said, with a music industry that eagerly seeks ways to prolong the lifespans of currently bankable artists at the expense of developing new talent, the pop scene of 2020 could look surprisingly familiar to any impatient time travelers from today.

The likes of Mr. Children, B’z, SMAP and Arashi seem through some sort of alchemical process to have been rendered death-proof, so don’t rule out any of them making an appearance. In fact, a 47 year-old Takuya Kimura singing “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” is an alarmingly plausible scenario. Similarly, we should be alert to the danger of a PR agency gaining creative access and using the opening ceremony to push the latest talentless knockoffs they have on their books.

One name that comes up in a lot of discussions about 2020 is Kyu Sakamoto, whose song “Ue o Muite Aruku”, known as “Sukiyaki” in English, was an overseas hit in 1963, just as Tokyo was gearing up to host its last Olympics in 1964. Both the song and the games were symbols of Japan’s postwar re-emergence in the international community, and it seems likely that the 2020 organizers will want to play up links between now and then.

Another name being bandied around a lot is Sakamoto’s namesake Ryuichi. Finding fame as a member of ’70s/’80s technopop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, he has also been lauded internationally for his film soundtrack work, and now occupies a position as a sort of elder statesman of Japanese music that makes him in many ways an ideal figure for some sort of musical director role.

In the end, the opening ceremony is an event that everyone will watch, so it doesn’t need to answer to commercial concerns in the same way that a similarly sized but privately funded event would. Let’s hope organizers have a free hand to craft an event that showcases both tradition and talent.

  • Helen Bedd

    Co-Musical directors Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yasutaka Nakata….hey! why not dream big?

    • Ian Martin

      Or split the difference and go with Cornelius.

  • Alan Douglas

    As the world’s first and only massively crowd-sourced celebrity, Hatsune Miku is an icon of international cooperation, understanding, and friendship. I can’t think of a more fitting Olympic representative.

    • Ian Martin

      It would definitely be interesting if there was some way to make it work. The problem I see with it is that Vocaloid is still fundamentally a subculture product, and it’s in subcultural circles that most of this international cooperation goes on, so how that would transfer over and communicate to a vast, global event like this is a question organisers would have to answer. It depends what kind of status stuff like Vocaloid (or whatever its successor product is) has in 2020. Plus, Vocaloid is really nothing more than a tool, so a lot will depend on the hands wielding the tool. Personally, I think letting Takashi Murakami loose on it would be hilarious.

  • dan grunebaum

    From the traditional end something along the lines of what Tamasaburo Bando did with the Kodo drummers would be fantastic, contrasted with cutting-edge visuals from Naohiro Ukawa and Nobuyuki Hanabusa. You definitely need that ancient/hyper-modern contrast that is used to characterize Japan. But one fears it will end up some sort of Johnnies/Burning/Dentsu/Kohaku nightmare.