Local authorities in the central Japanese city of Gifu were on maximum alert Sunday as 460,000 people, more than the city's population, flocked to a festival to catch a glimpse of a superstar dressed as a warlord astride a horse.
The Gifu Nobunaga Festival went off mostly without a hitch, although three women had to be taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Strict crowd control measures were in place, with a deadly Halloween crush in Seoul, South Korea, still a fresh memory.
The two-day festival, which began Saturday, culminated Sunday with a parade of people dressed as samurais, led by actor Takuya Kimura on horseback and dressed as the 16th-century warlord Oda Nobunaga, who unified half of Japan's provinces under his rule.
Kimura, 49, and Hideaki Ito, 47, an actor from Gifu, as well as other performers, started the warrior parade along the main street in the city center around 1:30 p.m., with Kimura raising a fan high in the air and shouting a battle cry, "All hands, go forth," followed by those dressed as soldiers letting out a roar.
Roadside spectators cheered and took pictures and videos with their smartphones from behind fences as the city authorities divided the viewing area into 16 sections and restricted the movement of spectators to prevent accidents.
Katsuko Shibata, 88, of Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture, was temporarily discharged from the hospital to see the festival. Speaking from a wheelchair and all smiles, she said, "Seeing Kimu Taku made my heart feel better," using the star's moniker.
Since the participation of the two actors was announced, the festival has attracted national attention, with more than 960,000 people -- more than twice the city's population of 400,000 -- applying for admission, 64 times the viewing area's capacity of 15,000.
An extra viewing space for the unsuccessful applicants was set up as many were expected to show up. The city and Gifu prefectural police also introduced large-scale traffic regulations and temporarily blocked the stairs around JR Gifu Station to avoid a "crowd avalanche."
The turnout of 460,000 this year was much higher than the previous event in 2019, which drew about 250,000 visitors. The festival was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Kimura, a member of the Japanese pop idol group SMAP, active between 1988 and 2016, attended a talk event in Gifu after the festival and said, "I am very happy that we were able to stage the parade safely under controlled circumstances. I am grateful."
Ito said, "Seeing the joy on the faces of the people along the route made me feel happy that we were able to hold this event," in a voice that seemed to be choked by emotion.
The festival started in Gifu in 1957 to honor Nobunaga, who is said to have contributed to the city's development. The original model was a warrior parade held in 1953 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Nobunaga's entry into the castle of Inabayama, later known as Gifu Castle.
Kimura was cast as Nobunaga in this year's festival as the actor will play the role of the warlord in the movie "The LEGEND & BUTTERFLY" to be released in Japan in January.