Tokyo Olympiad

Film Review


Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)

(Summer 2008 JETAA NY Newsletter)

In 1964, Tokyo became the first Asian city to host the Olympic games.  Much like the imminent Beijing games, the tournament was meant to spotlight the rapidly rising economy of the host nation and officially welcome the country into the pantheon of the modern global economy.

Traditionally, every Olympics to that point had been filmed and recorded for posterity.  The Tokyo Olympic Committee hired Japan’s most eminent direct, Akira Kurosawa, to direct what was to be his first and only documentary.  During pre-production, however, the dictatorial director demanded complete control of the opening ceremonies and an acrimonious clash with the committee resulted in his dismissal.

Kon Ichikawa was hired as a replacement and, while his working relationship with his crew and the authorities was relatively stable, the finished product disappointed the commissioning officials.  From over seventy hours of footage, Ichikawa created a formally innovative and idiosyncratic film modeled on Leni Riefenstahl’s classic Olympia (filmed during the 1936 Berlin Olympics) rather than the conventional genre of more mainstream Olympic films and sports documentaries.  Forcing Ichikawa to re-edit the film (in a two-hour version), the Olympic Committee and Toho Pictures released Tokyo Olympiad in 1965 and, despite attacks from both sides of the political spectrum, it became the highest grossing film in Japanese history.  It was only recently, however, that Ichikawa’s original cut was restored to its original three-hour length, and that version has finally been released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.

When viewed today, it’s hard to imagine what upset so many critics in 1965.  Tokyo Olympiad is a truly impressive spectacle, utilizing the work of 164 cameramen and 57 sound recordists to capture the events in stereo and in Cinemascope (both rare for a documentary).  While Riefenstahl’s film is more famous, Ichikawa’s film definitely rivals hers in ambition and scope.  By shooting in Cinemascope with telephoto lenses, Ichikawa paradoxically focuses on the individual athlete’s intimate moments within the wide frame. The use of slow-motion and freeze-frames further aesthecizes the Olympic experience and makes for a much more profound visual experience than that of the typical sports television broadcasts.  Rarely has the pain of intense athletic competition been so palpably captured on film–the audience really grasps the extreme limits to which these Olympians push themselves. One of the most stirring sequences involves a runner who finishes a race long after the winners have been announced–his personal pride and accomplishment bring the spectators to their feet.  Another focuses on two African runners from the newly independent nations of Ethiopia and Chad who finish in first and second, respectively.  What is even more remarkable is that these stylized sequences were filmed live at the games and required an extraordinary amount of logistical planning to capture them so clearly.  Ichikawa once quipped that he had to plan each and every camera set-up down to the most minute detail for he knew that his “actors” would not be available for second takes and re-shoots.

Apparently, Ichikawa’s visual stylization is what most irked the Tokyo Olympic committee, which would have preferred a straightforward account of the games.  Another caveat was the lack of Japanese patriotism in the film (although the Left criticized the final shot of the Olympic torch dissolving into a red setting sun as “ultranationalist”).  Tokyo Olympiad’s eschewing of politics and nationalism is, in many ways, “anti-Olympian” (especially in light of today’s politicization). The camera rarely leaves the confines of the athletic competition and the entire gymnastic sequence is filmed within the confines of a pitch black background.  It’s as if the gymnasts are competing in some sort of abstract space devoid of Earthly politics.  Even the city of Tokyo is unrepresented, except for a few opening shots of a wrecking ball clearing land for the Olympic stadium.  Overall, Ichikawa’s vision is a refreshing antidote to the grandiose quality that defines most of today’s Olympics and sports coverage.

As expected, Criterion has released Tokyo Olympiad in a pristine print, preserving its vivid colors, multi-layered soundtrack and wide aspect ratio.  There are a number of notable extra features, including voice-over narration by Peter Cowie, who serves not only as a film historian but an Olympic one as well; an interview with Ichikawa (who passed away last February) about the making of and controversy surrounding the film; and an article by noted sports columnist George Plimpton.

It is interesting to note that China has hired its most famous director, Zhang Yimou, to direct a film about the upcoming Beijing Olympics.  Unlike Kurosawa, Zhang has been granted permission to stage the opening ceremonies as well.  Working under the auspices of the Chinese communist party, it is doubtful that he will be able to avoid any political influence and achieve the singularity of Ichikawa’s bold vision.  Tokyo Olympiad is a must-see for those sports enthusiasts who truly value the elite competition that the Olympics are meant to celebrate irrespective of politics.

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