Tokyo Olympic opening ceremony: toil and mourning bloom into sparkling extravaganza

Rather than turning its face away from the struggles of the past year to put on an all-smiling, all-dancing show, Tokyo’s delayed opening ceremony led with the theme of loss and mourning in a meditative three-hour production like no other.

It began small and picked its moments of when to bloom into the big, sparkling extravaganza of cultural celebration that an opening ceremony is known to be, but judiciously shrank back to sobriety and controlled showmanship.

At the start, it felt like a theatre of toil and mourning: an athlete ran on a treadmill, a nurse span on an exercise bike and a third performer worked a rowing machine. They seemed like lonely anchors on far ends of the stage in Tokyo’s New National Stadium before dancers joined them in a mood-setting group training session. The message was clear: this Olympics was not messing around with fireworks and frills (though there were some of those later) but focusing its energies on hard graft, failing better and trumping the odds.

The Olympic flag was carried on by essential workers while Mirai Moriyama’s crouching form unfolded into a lament-like dance, full of swirling white cloth and poetic movement. Then, a moment of silence for the world’s Covid victims, which hit home the sad reality of our times.

Can an opening ceremony contain the Olympic spirit of competition without an audience? The success of the past year’s online stage productions suggests it can. Here, there were about 1,000 spectators including Jill Biden and Emmanuel Macron – a paltry number given the stadium’s 68,000 capacity – but there was power in absence and the empty seats contained potent symbolism.

It was a restrained three hours in the best sense of the world. Kentaro Kobayashi, a former comic and the ceremony’s creative director, might have been sacked the night before the ceremony (after the emergence of a video of a comedy routine in the 1990s featuring a Holocaust joke), but his artistic direction contained immense sensitivity and style. There was a minimalist spirit to it all too, with choreography that was relatively small but sleek and full of precision, and an elegant white-and-red colour scheme that mirrored the Japanese flag.

Rumours ahead of the ceremony suggested a show of technological and video game art. That came after the Parade of Nations, with quirky graphics of every one of the sporting events and an ingenious visual skit in which the comedian Hitori Gekidan drew images in an off-stage control room that appeared on a stadium screen.

The only wrong step was a diversion into cheesiness during an orchestral rendition of John Lennon’s song, Imagine, which cut from the stage to pop video style studio shots of renowned singers (John Legend and Keith Urban among them), but thankfully it was short-lived.

When it went big, it was breathtaking. A dance with elastic bands and illuminations, which represented the workings of the inner body, bled an epic river of red light across the stadium. A revolving ball of 1,800 blue and white drones looked like a glittering miniature globe floating overhead. The colour blue stands for “refined elegance and sophistication” in Japan, Clare Balding told us in the BBC commentary. It might have summed up the essence of the whole night. The centrepiece of the stadium, designed by Kengo Kuma, was a model of Mount Fuji which transformed into an erupting Olympic cauldron as Naomi Osaka lit it in another spectacular moment.

So, no Mexican waves, hugging athletes or self-indulgent shows of exhibitionism. Tokyo stayed in keeping with the global mood and showed us that less really can be more.