Olympic ceremonies promised to be full of ‘Japaneseness’ but will carry a worldwide message

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Classical actor and director Mansai Nomura promised Tuesday that the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies will be full of “Japaneseness” and “wit,” one day after the games’ organizing committee named him chief executive creative director for the four events.

“There are many things that could potentially become issues, such as money, but above everything quality is important,” said Nomura, an acclaimed kyōgen (comic theater) and noh actor who has also performed leading roles in various contemporary plays, movies and TV dramas. “We want the ceremonies to be high quality and to express the Japanese spirit.

“I want the ceremonies to be full of wit,” he added. “That’s something I feel strongly about. From tradition to the cutting edge, Japan has many methods and ideas that are full of wit. We want to make full use of those things in the ceremonies.”

Nomura will lead an experienced team and oversee production of all four ceremonies, which are expected to attract hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide.

Takashi Yamazaki, an award-winning movie director known for his use of special effects, was named executive creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games (July 24-Aug. 9, 2020).

Commercial director Hiroshi Sasaki, who produced Tokyo 2020’s flag handover segment at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics featuring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dressed as video game character Mario, will serve in the top role for the Paralympics (Aug. 25-Sept. 6).

“Mr. Nomura and many other wonderful people are working on this, and we can gather the strength of all this talent,” said Yamazaki, 54, whose war drama “Eternal Zero” earned him Director of the Year and Picture of the Year awards at the 2015 Japanese Academy Awards.

“The London Olympics opening ceremony was my favorite. I think it was wonderful, and something that very much came from the city of London. It’s not about copying that but about how we can do it in our own way.”

The 68-year-old Sasaki is responsible for the popular and long-running “Otosan” commercials for mobile communications firm SoftBank, and has also produced major advertising campaigns for companies such as Toyota, Suntory and ANA.

But Sasaki’s work really captured the world’s attention two years ago when he persuaded Abe to emerge from a giant green pipe dressed as Nintendo character Mario at Rio’s Maracana Stadium, and he is aware that he will have to try to top that feat in 2020.

“When I worked on the Rio ceremony, the organizing committee asked me to create a preview for the Tokyo 2020 Games, so that was my idea with Mario,” Sasaki said. “Just simply making Mario reappear out of a pipe will not meet your expectations, so there will be something more to it.

“This time I will work on the Paralympic ceremonies, and there is something that I would like to avoid. After the Olympics, people tend to feel that things have finished. There will be a lot of media attention after the Olympics on what happened and how many medals each country won, but then we will be asking for your support in giving energy to the Paralympics. I am under pressure to give a good preview for the Paralympic Games to increase people’s expectations.”

Each ceremony will be roughly three hours long, and will be held at Tokyo’s rebuilt National Stadium. The basic plan for the ceremonies, which the organizing committee published Monday, proposes to “position the four ceremonies as a single continuum.”

“One of the themes is to connect the four ceremonies,” Nomura said. “Of course, naturally the opening and closing ceremonies are linked, but one of the themes given to us was how we could connect the four.

“Of course the ceremonies will cost money, so in that sense maybe the organizing committee will have the idea that they may be treated separately. But for us, we want to identify common parts to connect the four ceremonies.”

Sasaki joked that the style of sliding across polished wooden floors used by classical Japanese actors has made Nomura adept at copying Michael Jackson’s famed moonwalk dance. But Nomura agreed that a fusion of modern and traditional elements will form an important part of the ceremonies.

“It’s very easy to glide on a wooden floor wearing tabi (traditional Japanese socks),” Nomura said. “If I go forward it’s called suri-ashi, and if I go backward it could be called a moonwalk. These two things appear to be complete opposites but actually they are two sides of the same coin. That’s the idea.

“It should be something that is Japanese but at the same time has a worldwide message.”