Essays Olympic Cities Tokyo 2020

‘Let Space Speak’ | Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony

This Olympic Opening Ceremony offers poignant images of what is ‘not’ there

One of the things that struck me the most during Japan’s 2016 Forum of Sport & Culture was a talk by a Japanese living national treasure on the importance of empty space – and nothingness – in Japanese culture.

The opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 has had to be reconceived beyond anyone’s imagination, with organisers working on myriad alternative narrative threads from the outset. By the 23rd August 2021, we ended up with a ceremony memorable for its restraint and careful waiving of difficult subjects from the go.

It was good to see the inclusion of some humour – a few vignettes, such as the lighting of Tokyo’s iconic sights or the clever representation of all pictograms – were reminiscent of London 2012, the first ceremony to openly include unabashed humour, with the figure of Mr Bean bored while playing Chariots of Fire or the Queen jumping-off a plane – but the most striking visuals involved outstanding markers of emptiness and void.

Markers of empty space were the row after row of unpeopled seats in the 68,000-capacity stadium, a prominent background to flag raising and formal speeches; other such markers included the generous ‘social distancing’ space between performers, particularly during the scenes representing the isolation of athletes in training throughout 2020.

“markers of empty space were … rows of unpeopled seats…
or the generous social distancing space between performers…

These are all iconic images that will survive the test of time and, like the sight of athletes and dignataries wearing masks, they will take a prominent place in future symbolic representations of the Tokyo Games.

Japanese commentators have referred to Japanese culture’s capacity to ‘let space speak’. Space – empty space – certainly spoke during the opening of the postponed Tokyo Games and this added credibility and reflective beauty to the experience of what may have been one of the most expensive ceremonies ever while also, by far, the most understated and sober opening of a Games in living memory.

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