The 2019 Rugby World Cup kicked off in spectacular style on Friday night with an opening ceremony that paid homage to traditional Japanese culture and featured All Blacks legend Richie McCaw emerging from a giant model of Mount Fuji with the trophy.

The ceremony at Tokyo Stadium marked the start of the first-ever Rugby World Cup to be held in Asia, and involved hundreds of performers representing aspects of Japanese culture from ancient folklore to kabuki.

Crown Prince Akishino joined World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont in giving opening speeches, after former New Zealand captain McCaw, who led the All Blacks to Rugby World Cup victory in both 2011 and 2015, had appeared from the replica mountain in the center of the field in a blaze of fireworks and shooting flames.

“The message of our opening ceremony is that connections made through sport, through both its simplicity and universal appeal, can help build better understanding and friendship by inspiring people of all nations with the promise of a bright, positive future,” said 2019 Rugby World Cup Organizing Committee CEO Akira Shimazu.

“Rugby has the power to unite through its ethos of respect, inclusion and integrity, and our sincerest hope is that the tournament has this effect. From rugby enthusiasts to fans of Japanese culture, the opening ceremony has something for everybody, setting the scene for an unforgettable tournament.”

The ceremony, which took place before Japan played Russia in the tournament’s opening game, began with 15 “gods” assembling on a 70-square-meter projection mat laid over the pitch. They gave way to a performance by 40 taiko drummers, before 220 dancers wearing red and black costumes appeared for a segment inspired by Tokushima Prefecture’s Awa Odori festival.

Two kabuki actors, Udanji Ichikawa III and his son, Ukon Ichikawa, perform at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Two kabuki actors, Udanji Ichikawa III and his son, Ukon Ichikawa, perform at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. | DAN ORLOWITZ

covered in a projection screen, was assembled in the center of the pitch and the story of Japanese rugby’s history beamed onto its sides.

Around 350 children then appeared carrying flags to introduce each of the 20 competing nations, before McCaw emerged with the Webb Ellis Cup, and Beaumont and the crown prince declared the tournament open.

“It’s steeped in tradition,” producer Jennie-Lee Van Gelder, of sports presentation firm Great Big Events, told The Japan Times. “I think everything about the Japanese culture relies on that tradition, so it’s imperative that it’s showcased on the field.”

Friday’s opening ceremony gave Japan another chance to present itself to the world through a global sporting event, having stolen the show at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emerged from a green pipe dressed as the video game character Mario.

Notable names from the worlds of stage, film and advertising have been appointed to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, but Van Gelder said she felt under no pressure to try to compete.

“It was about what it could be, not trying to be bigger than what it could be,” she said. “There are many limitations to working on the field. We’re here for rugby, so there are no big props or things being carried on that could do damage to the field. It was all about ensuring that we paid respect and homage to the requirement for a ceremony, and also the fact that it was to be followed through with a game of rugby.”

Fans started arriving at Tokyo Stadium early in the day and were treated to a series of pre-events throughout the afternoon, including a flyover from the Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse team.

“When you actually come to the stadium and see so many people, not just Japanese, but people who have come from overseas, it gives you a real feeling that it’s about to start,” said Japan fan Yoko Yamada, who was attending the match with her husband, Shota. “I hope Japan can win.”

The Rugby World Cup is being held over six weeks at 12 host cities around the country, with around half a million overseas visitors expected to arrive during the tournament.

Organizers said Friday that 96 percent of the 1.8 million match-day tickets have already been sold, and are confident that the rest will be snapped up over the coming weeks.

The action continues on Saturday as two-time champion Australia takes on Fiji in Sapporo, France plays 2015 semifinalist Argentina in Tokyo, and three-time winner New Zealand faces two-time champion South Africa in the pick of the first-round matches in Yokohama.

The final will be held in Yokohama on Nov. 2.

Follow the liveblog for the Japan vs Russia match.

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