Unfortunately, the messaging was muddled — the ideas crowding one another out — by a ceremony most notable for how small and muted the staging felt, an effect amplified by the empty stadium. If that subduedness is a result of the organizers’ commitment to social distancing among the performers, that’s certainly understandable. But the program, which incorporated traditional Japanese theater, a drone show and a surprise appearance by Naomi Osaka (who lit the Olympic cauldron), didn’t really convey the “moving forward” theme that had been previously announced as the ceremony’s guiding ethos. Nor did the repeated references to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics — the first to be held in Asia — pull particularly hard at the heartstrings. (Japan has hosted the Olympics two other times, in 1972 and 1998.)
Some of the most celebrated Opening Ceremonies in recent years have been directed by filmmakers, such as Danny Boyle for the 2012 London Games, Zhang Yimou for the 2008 Beijing Games and Fernando Meirelles, Daniela Thomas and Andrucha Waddington for the 2016 Rio Games. A film director might have made for an apt choice to open this year’s Olympics, especially since prerecorded segments could’ve provided visual extravaganza while reducing the number of performers onstage. And an auteur more versed in cinematic wizardry than creative director Kentaro Kobayashi, a comedian and theater director who was fired the day before the ceremonies for his jokes two decades ago about the Holocaust, might also have nixed the biggest groaner of the night: a rendition of the haplessly overplayed “Imagine” by singers from various parts of the world, including John Legend and Keith Urban, as they looked unsettlingly into the camera while ensconced in a stark white void.
In a different iteration, the ceremony’s nods to theatrical traditions, such as the early dance performances heralding solidarity and renewal, could’ve been intimate and inviting. But they ultimately felt as distant as the drone display — an impressive but ultimately cold exhibition of more than 1,800 mini-aircraft forming a glittering silver Earth high above the stadium. The most memorable segment might well be the initially kinda freaky but eventually endearingly goofy pictogram presentation, in which three dancers in featureless, mostly monochromatic costumes acted out the Japanese-created icons of the four dozen summer Olympic contests in a marathon rush.
In yet another contrast to previous years, there was a conspicuous lack of globally known Japanese stars in most of the program, especially in the music segments. Perhaps that’s why the last few minutes of the Opening Ceremonies finally managed some inspirational rousing, with tennis icon Osaka, in ruby braids and the red and white Japanese Olympics uniform, walking up the stylized Mount Fuji onstage to light the cauldron — a beacon to be seen by the rest of the world.
It was a triumphant return to the public eye for press-shy Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open less than two months ago and from Wimbledon last month to prioritize her well-being. The first Japanese-born winner of a Grand Slam and the first Asian player to be ranked No. 1, Osaka will also compete in this year’s Games for Japan. Her youthful but assured presence, at least, sent a clear message: The odds are stacked against these athletes, but they will give it their all.
The Tokyo Olympics (through Aug. 8) air on NBC and cable networks. See wapo.st/olympicstv for a complete schedule.