In 1964, Kon Ichikawa took the assignment of producing the official documentary of that year's Summer Olympics, held for the first time ever on the Asian continent in Japan's capital city and preeminent metropolis, Tokyo. To a viewer like me, who knows him only through his previous Criterion titles The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, the choice seems a bit inexplicable due to his ardent pursuit of morally provocative themes and his apparent eagerness to upend conventional wisdom through the narratives he constructed. Not exactly the kind of director that a suitably cautious and organized bureaucracy would be drawn to when looking for someone to give the usual exalted portrayal of the host nation's virtues and ideals that we've come to expect in such projects. But apparently Ichikawa's versatility of range, his command of genre and a recognized ability to create technically solid films in demanding conditions earned him some credit. That high esteem, and Ichikawa's subsequent refusal to deliver the standard paint-by-numbers journalistic account of the events resulted in Tokyo Olympiad, one of the most highly respected, if unorthodox, sports documentaries ever made. I'm glad he was chosen, because it seems rather unlikely that we would have had the benefit of this perspective on what the games meant and who participated in them back in the mid 1960s if Ichikawa hadn't been at the helm of this truly massive production.
Commandeering a small battalion of over 150 cameramen spread throughout the various competitive sites, Ichikawa's primary directorial task consisted of instructing the technicians just where to point their lenses, and then sifting through countless hours of footage to determine just how to convey an impression of what took place over those two weeks in October 1964. (Kind of late for a Summer Games, don't you think?) His focus, after capturing somewhat compulsory bits of the global scale and monumental grandeur on display during the preparations and opening ceremony, was primarily settled on the different forms of exertion that took place in order to express the diverse aspirations of those humans who decided to make their own personal contributions to the Olympic movement. First and foremost of course were the athletes, the rightful centers of his and our attention who put their bodies on the line after years of training and other hardships and deprivations, so that they might compete and carry on the hallowed tradition first established in ancient Greece. But interspersed throughout all the coverage of the competitions, Ichikawa continually reminds us that the games are unfolding on a very large stage, with the organizers, the officials and the audience in the stands all playing just as significant a part in creating this historical moment and embodying all those noble values - national pride, the celebration of cultural diversity, focused concentration, supreme commitment, courageous perseverance in the face of adversity, honorable sportsmanship and the like - that the Olympics strive to represent. And he generally succeeds at avoiding the false notes of mawkish pomposity that sometimes become so overbearing in media coverage of the games by injecting mild jabs of humor (in image and sound effects) and showing the more prosaic aspects of what it takes to manage the events, keep the crowds amused and stick to the schedule.
For the most part, track and field competitions provide the consistent, overarching narrative framework, opening with the 100 meter dash and finishing with the pentathlon and marathon, with plenty of up close and emotively intense examination of the disciplined, unnatural movements required to successfully execute maneuvers such as the pole vault, the shotput, the long and high jumps, the hammer throw and a wide range of foot races. The middle section of the film offers sometimes extended but more often very brief samplings of other athletic events - gymnastics, volleyball, swimming, wrestling, judo - and a few sports in which more mechanical skills are required - shooting, sailing, cycling. It's hardly a balanced approach - some of the sports that today's viewers might be most interested in, especially basketball and other team-oriented games, are barely acknowledged, and with only a few exceptions, Ichikawa doesn't seem all that interested in profiling the personal stories or any other significant details of the athletes themselves. And even when he does dwell on an individual's personal circumstances, it's in the abstract - his focus on Ahmed Isa, one of two representatives from the then (and still) young African nation of Chad, emphasizes his relative isolation and estrangement from the athletes of larger nations who are comfortably ensconced within their sizable contingents, without really trying to tell us much about how he got to be in that situation to begin with.
The most striking characteristic overall of Tokyo Olympiad is just how fresh, uncluttered and lo-tech everything associated with the Olympics appears in comparison to the games as we experience them today. The athletes' uniforms are almost embarrassingly plain, flappy and ill-fitting by 21st century standards. Pole vaulters and high jumpers land in jumbled piles of what looks like scraps from a foam-packing plant. Autumn rains wreak mild havoc on the racing surfaces, with mid-level Olympic officials themselves reduced to sponging up the puddles in order to restore the playing field to somewhat acceptable conditions. Cyclists brave the fates en masse on rickety old bikes, generally without helmets or the ultra-sleek aerodynamic gear that helps them slice through the air unimpeded nowadays. The opening and closing ceremonies are refreshingly simple and direct, noticeably lacking in the overblown theatrical spectacles and massive pyrotechnics that we've come to expect over the past decade or two. Even the crowds seem more genuinely awestruck and delighted to witness the gathering of the world's athletes back then than what we now see whenever the HD cameras swivel over the contemporary audience of jaded media consumers and affluent world travelers who pack the Olympic venues of more recent times.
Of course, it's difficult to watch a film like Tokyo Olympiad now without drawing immediate references to the most recent festivities that took place in Sochi, Russia this past winter. Truth be told, I quickly lost interest in those games - even setting aside Vladimir Putin's loathsome persona for the moment, the onslaught of commercialism and relentless exploitation foisted upon us by NBC just drains the joy out of it all for me. I'd much rather watch a digested, artistically filtered summary of events long past than have to be interrupted every fifteen minutes by moronic, obnoxious ads for junk food, financial services or corporate PR feel-goodism of various sorts. Unfortunately, I doubt that we will ever again be treated to the opportunity for a filmmaker of Ichikawa's caliber to exercise the creative freedom that he did - against considerable odds and in the face of heavy pressures and systemic resistance to censor and reformulate what he crafted.
Despite all that obstruction, what we have in this impressive (and now quite expensive, due to it being fairly rare and out-of-print) DVD is a document of human nobility that somehow manages to emerge from the potentially massive confusion that erupts when young people at the peak of their physical powers are brought together, partly driven by their own ambition, but also corralled by the jowly, arthritic powers-that-be in their respective countries, enlisted to uphold the mantles of nationalistic honor, perhaps even a degree of ethnocentric superiority, often before they're of an age where they can realistically begin to grapple with the implications of their involvement in such events. But Ichikawa manages to downplay those jingoistic elements, to such an extent that he had to deal with some backlash from Japanese officials who criticized the film for insufficiently attending to triumphalist priorities. Instead, his approach emphasizes the simple humanity of the participants, allowing viewers of all backgrounds to empathize with the athletes through our common experience of fatigue, isolation and the stubborn determination it often takes to achieve whatever goals we set before ourselves.
Ichikawa and his crew manage to capture as many of those ecstatic, ephemeral moments as they can over the course of the proceedings, and there are enough of these pure epiphanies, captured in freeze-frame, slow motion, multiple exposure, extreme close-up and even from a far wide-angle distance to keep the viewer engaged, if one wants to lock in and give close attention to each turn of the image. Or, like the "live" Olympics themselves, Tokyo Olympiad works great as background viewing around the house; just pop in the DVD (assuming you have one) and go about whatever it is you feel like doing, glancing occasionally at the screen to see whatever marvelous application of the human anatomy may happen to be unfolding before your eyes at that particular moment. And to make up for the lack of detailed coverage of winners in the 1964 Olympic competitions, Criterion provides a hefty booklet listing all of the medalists in each event, along with a lengthy and substantial symposium of experts on the film's history. The controversies that Ichikawa triggered in pursuing his unique line of inquiry on the meaning and purpose of the games caused him some grief, but we are all better off for it.
For those who can't obtain or afford the DVD, here's a long alternate cut (linked, since embedding has been disabled) of the film, one of the abridged versions that trimmed down some of Ichikawa's "excesses" and supposedly made the film more accessible to Western viewers. The English narration presumably helps.
PS to all of the above: Here's a link to the review I wrote about Tokyo Olympiad back in 2008, right after I started this blog but before I had embarked on its current chronological scheme. I totally forgot that I had written this when I was gathering my thoughts to write this current essay. In fact, I didn't even discover it until I went back to include a link to this article in my Index of reviews arranged according to spine number. I enjoyed reading the old stuff, seeing that I make some of the same points but also bringing other observations to the forefront that I didn't mention here. In some ways I like the earlier entry better than what I just posted! Sometimes first impressions are livelier and more trustworthy than unduly considered opinions...
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