After years of anticipation — and months of controversy — the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics offered a spectacle that was perfectly suited to one of the most unusual Games in history.

While the lack of spectators made headlines, the major takeaway was the prominent roles given to biracial Japanese athletes Naomi Osaka and Rui Hachimura, which might serve as a sign that Japan is moving into a new era.

The nearly four-hour-long program included somber stretches in tune with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as moments of joy, awe and optimism. The parade of nations featured familiar faces (and shiny pecs, courtesy of Tonga), but noticeably fewer athletes due to health concerns.

And it all happened before rows and rows of empty seats.

This was a “no-win” ceremony for what may end up being the “no-win” Games. Whatever direction the organizers took was destined to be criticized — and many online were eager to find faults. Despite the odds being stacked against it, however, the opening ceremony still managed to feature some impressive scenes, culminating in Osaka lighting the flower-shaped Olympic cauldron and serving up the event’s defining moment.

Set in the middle of a pandemic, it was always going to be difficult to strike the right balance at this opening ceremony. Too celebratory and it would be seen to ignore the pandemic. Too dour, and it might raise more questions about why the Olympics were being held at all. The Japanese Olympic Committee can’t blame the pandemic for all of its choices, though, and a large part of this opening ceremony seemed born out of scandal.

After impressing the world with a dazzling pop-culture-heavy handover ceremony at the 2016 Rio Olympics, those in charge slowly pushed out most of the creatives behind the segment and a popular plan for the opening ceremony. That story became a scandal this spring, and soured many people’s excitement for what was predicted to be the marquee event for 2020.

Fireworks above the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. | JAMES HILL / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Fireworks above the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. | JAMES HILL / THE NEW YORK TIMES

From there, the dominoes fell. Public sentiment toward holding the Olympics became increasingly negative as numbers of COVID-19 infections rose, with many wondering if the Games would lead to new clusters. A week before opening night, “extreme bullying” committed by musical contributor Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius) toward people with disabilities in his past came to light, leading to outcry and his resignation. Then days before the ceremony, creative director Kentaro Kobayashi came under scrutiny for a comedy bit he performed in 1998 in which he made a joke about the Holocaust. The JOC dismissed him from his duties on the eve of the opening ceremony.

All of these scandals and misfortunes were still in people’s minds as the show got under way at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. If they were celebrating, they were likely doing so at home due to a current coronavirus-mandated state of emergency.

The first half of the festivities took on a reserved tone as it addressed the pandemic that derailed the gathering. Shots of athletes training solo led to interpretive dances about how we were “alone together.” The only relief from this heaviness came in a segment that used the rhythmic sounds of traditional carpentry as musical accompaniment to what felt like an Edo Period “Stomp.”

The opening ceremony organizers had made the choice to face the unusual reality of the times rather than dive into escapism, with next to none of the neon-tinted pop culture references that the world has come to love about Japan. This was a missed opportunity, one that fast food joint Taco Bell was able to capitalize on in an anime-filled commercial for nacho fries that aired during the American broadcast.

References to Japan’s video game culture came as the parade of nations began. As the athletes marched into the stadium, they did so to a soundtrack of tunes from the likes of Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts and Sonic the Hedgehog. The placards introducing each nation had a noticeable manga-inspired design, and this was about as close as the opening ceremony got to what was promised in Rio: an acknowledgement of anime, manga and video game culture, Japan’s true soft power.

Ears perked up on Twitter, where both Japanese and non-Japanese users went into a frenzy upon hearing the background music from Dragon Quest delivered in orchestral swoops. For all the praise, however, came a stream of critiques: Users advised people to keep in mind a composer’s retrograde politics, or reminded netizens that, while the world listened to RPG tunes, people were still dying.

Olympic organizers utilized 1,824 drones to put on a dazzling aerial display that was visible even to those outside the stadium. | CHANG W. LEE / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Olympic organizers utilized 1,824 drones to put on a dazzling aerial display that was visible even to those outside the stadium. | CHANG W. LEE / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The truth of the matter is that no version of this opening ceremony would have completely worked, even the initial much-loved pop culture pitch. Modern digital discourse doesn’t help — Fox Sports dubbed it “the worst opening ceremony ever” at the halfway mark, an argument based on less than 10 tweets. Sure, the JOC, and the Tokyo and Japanese governments all brought plenty of this on themselves — but the reception also came down to incredibly bad luck and a particularly sour global attitude toward the Olympics, which is now being questioned as an institution altogether. We hadn’t even made it to the opening ceremony of 2020 and already the 2032 Brisbane Games had seen its first scandal.

After accepting this state of affairs, though, the second half of the opening ceremony was pretty great — I even felt a little guilty for enjoying it.

Sure, there was a lot of self-congratulation and a rather cringeworthy rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (was this a nod to Gal Godot’s embarrassing viral singalong from the start of the pandemic?), but the organizers utilized 1,824 drones to put on a dazzling aerial display, forming a giant globe that was visible even to those outside the stadium.

A trio of pantomime performers then replicated 50 Olympic pictograms — blue-and-white icons that were introduced at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and represent each of the competitions. It was one of the highlights of the evening, adding comedy and absurdity worthy of a variety show.

While never going huge on pop culture, this latter stretch saw the opening ceremony loosen up, weaving in humor and a mish-mash of culture as kabuki star Ichikawa Ebizo performed alongside kinetic jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, who energetically pounded the keys of her instrument. Part of the charm came from the feeling that this portion was either inspired by or borrowed from the original plan, boasting the energy of choreographer Mikiko Mizuno and musician Sheena Ringo.

The organizers could have lopped off about an hour of the presentation, though, especially without the enthusiasm of a crowd in attendance to help things move along. Even hearing a limited-capacity audience erupt in excitement to these reveals and gimmicks would have made everything a little better (and for all the hand-wringing, most early reviews point to the lack of spectators as the biggest drawback of the whole thing).

Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara gave a energetic performance at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara gave a energetic performance at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The roar of the crowd would have also made one moment in particular all the more powerful. It’s risky to give the Olympics too much symbolic weight, but the way the opening ceremony ended delivered a genuinely moving narrative of modern Japan. As the Olympic torch entered the stadium, three older men — baseball legends Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima and Hideki Matsui — took the flame, representing the past.

At some other Olympics, they would be the ones lighting the cauldron, yet they passed it on — first to a doctor and nurse who had dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks, who then gave it to Paralympian and three-time gold medalist Wakako Tsuchida, who followed by giving it to a group of children from Tohoku, the region leveled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Then came Osaka to light the cauldron and deliver the signature moment of the night. Biracial basketball player Hachimura had already been given a place of prominence as Japan’s flag bearer in the parade of nations. And now we had Osaka, a champion tennis star of Japanese and Haitian American descent, to light the Olympic flame and, if you’re an optimist like me, illuminate the path to a more multicultural and open Japan.

Imagine how symbolic it would have been to have a Japanese crowd cheering her on at a packed stadium. Still, even with limited spectators, this moment cut through all the scandal, controversy and peculiarities of the 2020 Games being held in 2021 and added a positive sheen to the opening ceremony.

Hopefully, this will be the moment that lives on in the annals of history.

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