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Imagine this: The National Stadium goes dark and a crimson blur cuts through the night, prompting a roar of applause from the audience. It doesn’t take long to figure out what is streaking across the grounds — it’s the high-tech bike piloted by Shotaro Kaneda, the antihero of the cyberpunk manga and classic animated film, “Akira.” As the crowd in Tokyo grows louder with excitement, millions of viewers watching from home churn out reactions and memes via their social media accounts, the red hot moment topping the global trending charts almost instantly.

In some other timeline, this is how the opening ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would have kicked off. Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, however, the event will take place on July 23, 2021 — a year after its original date — with limited spectators in attendance and most of the fanfare accompanying the official start to the Summer Games scaled down.

What audiences will see on Friday evening may still make for a memorable event that gets things off to a positive start, but the performance itself will almost certainly not resemble the original plan that was presented by some of Japan’s most creative minds to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

According to the proposal submitted to the IOC and obtained by tabloid Shukan Bunshun this past spring, the “Akira” bike was just one element of what was set to be a celebration of Japanese pop culture for all the world to see. While only a few pages were made public, those glimpses hinted at one of the most impressive efforts to date at highlighting everything that’s cool about Japan.

Other segments would have included a sequence featuring a wireframe car, dancers outfitted in uniforms that would represent different train stations, and an appearance by comedian Naomi Watanabe. At least one stretch of the opening ceremony would have featured the world’s most beloved 8-bit plumber, Mario. Riffing on the idea of “Neo Tokyo” seen in “Akira,” the event would have switched up the apocalyptic version of the metropolis presented in the anime and reimagined it as a new beginning for the city.

The opening ceremony is a golden moment for countries to showcase their pop culture prowess, best highlighted by the dizzying blur of references at the 2012 London Games and the K-pop touches adorning the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. After Tokyo won the bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2013, expectations for a blockbuster opening ceremony emerged, with folks around the world planning their dream version of the event and recoiling at rumors that AKB48, a J-pop mega-group, would be part of the festivities.

That’s the kind of opportunity this event presented — people with zero stakes in soft power or large-scale sporting competitions were determined to see Japan represented by the best it had to offer. The original team put together for the task seemed up for the challenge. The Tokyo handover segment of the Rio 2016 closing ceremony balanced cool imagery (glowing cubes rolling around), references galore (Captain Tsubasa! Pac-man! Hello Kitty!) and meme-worthy moments (the masterstroke of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dressed as Mario).

That team included musician Sheena Ringo and choreographer Mikiko Mizuno, who had already garnered international attention thanks to her work with music groups such as Babymetal and Perfume. Based on the leaked plan, the team — with Mizuno playing a prominent role — was on the path to landing a spectacular opening ceremony. Putting pop culture at the forefront was a smart move since it’s a vital gateway to Japan for many. Here was a chance to remind everyone of what they already like about Japan while pointing toward a new era on the world stage. It was supposed to be a declaration that stated, “This is what we do well and we aren’t stopping in the 2020s.”

Shukan Bunshun reported that the IOC loved Mizuno’s ideas, but then things began to fall apart. Thanks to the Games being postponed a year by COVID-19, a new Tokyo 2020 creative director, Hiroshi Sasaki, was brought on board in December 2020. He resigned this past spring after his idea to dress Watanabe as an “Olympig” turned into a scandal.

There was also the suggestion that Sasaki iced out Mizuno, as she became less involved in prepping the opening ceremony after he arrived. Mizuno left the team in late 2020, following Ringo and other members. All of the people who had shown skill at connecting with an international audience were out, and their visions of the opening ceremony were scrapped.

Once one of the most anticipated hallmarks of the Olympics, the opening ceremony now feels cursed. This week, musician Keigo Oyamada (also known by his stage name, Cornelius) resigned from his position as composer for the opening ceremony after a 1994 interview in which he boasted about abusing classmates with disabilities resurfaced, leaving organizers scrambling to find a replacement.

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee’s new theme of “moving forward” now seems more fitting than ever since that’s what it desperately wants to do at this point: Forget about re-establishing Japan’s place in the world, let’s just survive the next two weeks.

Could Mizuno’s original plan for an opening ceremony have been delivered amid a pandemic? Ironically, it might have worked even better — there’s been renewed interest in Japanese pop culture recently, particularly in the past 18 months as people sought out video games, anime and music for solace and entertainment.

A lot is riding on Friday night, particularly because the idea of what could have been looms so large in the background.

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