Tokyo Olympiad: the greatest Olympic documentary in color and arguably the greatest of sports documentaries

 

tokyo_olympiad

The official documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, “Tokyo orimpikku,” is more readily available here than are most other Ichikawa film. I don’t know why I had not seen it before, having twice seen the mediocre “Walk, don’t run,” Cary Grant’s last movie that had the Tokyo Olympics as a background and explanation for lack of housing. There are many Olympic events that don’t interest me, and it seems to me that I’ve seen on tv enough flag-raising, national anthem-playing awards ceremonies more than enough for one lifetime. And for aestheticization (a broader term than “body fascism”), it is difficult to imagine anyone competing with Leni Riefenstahl’s great documentary of the very dramatic 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Olympia.”

Tokyo Olympiad” does include portrayal of some events in which I have no interest, but the angles and edits of some of these overcomes my uninterest in the particular sport. It’s surprising that in nearly three hours (170 minutes including an intermission) there is no diving, seemingly the most cinematic of events (and one portrayed memorably by Riefenstahl). There’s only a glimpse of boxing (including Joe Frazier) and basketball. There’s not much gymnastics either, though the gymnastic shots that are included are superbly shot.

Those who commissioned the documentary felt that there was too little coverage of Japanese athletes (who won more medals at home than before or since away from home), though it seems to me that Japanese also-rans are more likely to be included than also-rans from anywhere else except Chad (the lone contestant from the then-new nation intrigued Ichikawa). The protracted end of the Japan:USSR women’s volleyball final contest (finally won by Japan) commands a substantial amount of running time (whereas, one does not know from the movie which teams competed in the men’s final).

tokyo-olympiad-movie-poster-1965-1020196938.jpg

Insofar as there is a star of the show, it is the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila winning his second gold medal (at the age of 35 and only a month after an appendectomy). If there is a theme I could induct from the five Ichikawa movies I’ve seen, it would be perseverance. I thought that it was characteristic that in the 2001 interview of Ichikawa included as a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD, he remembered everyone who started finishing, though the film shows an Irish runner who was among the first three to reach the first cooling station dropping out, and another being carried away, and the narration notes that ten of the 86 who started did not finish. The focus is on the strain of those who did finish (which, along with predisposition, explains Ichikawa’s misremembering). Abebe Bikila’s pace at the end is the same as at the beginning of the marathon and he appears less drained than some who took longer to return to the Olympic Stadium.

I deride NBC coverage of Olympics for the inordinate focus on American competitors, penchant for sob stories, and medal counting. Although there is some contemplation of the lone athlete from the Chad eating alone, there are no sob stories, no talking heads (interviews), and no running or final tallies of medals per country. From Ichikawa’s documentary, the viewer does not learn what country amassed the most medals in Tokyo (all the winners are listed in the booklet accompanying the Criterion DVD).

Ichikawa focused on individuals, especially Japanese and African ones, and in those two categories on those who did not win nearly as much as on those who did win medals. Winning was everything in the ancient Olympics (with no second or third-place finishes gaining recognition or adulation), and most of the athletes were trying to win, not just glory on having made it to the Olympics. And despite his interest in pain and suffering, Ichikawa does not slight triumphs.

I’ve already mentioned that the women’s volleyball match is followed to the end. The men’s 10,000 meter (an upset victory by the American runner Billy Mills) and the marathon are followed beyond the end (showing the last finishers). Some of the other high drama competitions are also included: the high-jump won by the Soviet athlete Valery Brumel, the pole-vaulting duel running far into the night (won by an American, Fred Hansen, after more than nine hours) and the two electrifying gold medal-winning races by Bob Hayes. At the time, Hayes was billed “the fastest man alive,” and may well be the fastest runner of modern times (considering the low-tech shoes, slow track, and scuffed-up inside lane on which he ran there and then). He was the first Olympic runner to turn in 10-second 100-meter dash and also overcame a three-stride disadvantage when he took the baton and somehow reached the finish line of the 400-meter relay first. (Alas, part of that final dash is eclipsed by someone’s red cap in the movie.) My interest in these events of triumphs by Americans perhaps suggest sthat I am not immune to the US focus of the televised Olympics I’ve watched since 1960?

Ultimately, I am more interested in “Tokyo Olympics” as film than as documentation of sporting event(s). Slow-motion (used sparingly here) is not a cliché of sports coverage, but some of the slow-motion closeups here remain fresh. The closeups in general were chosen with great discernment. There are also some great long-shots, most memorably the long take of the torch carrier passing in front of Mount Fujiyama at dusk (see below), overhead shots of the bicycle race, the marathon, and the always comical walking event. The women’s hurdles and the winning gymnasts are also filmed and edited particularly memorably.

TO6.jpgLike Kurosawa, Ichikawa loved telephoto lenses, and his cameramen scored many great images. However, a downside of using telephoto lenses is that it obscures the relative depth of objects, including racing human beings who look closer together than they were.

The Criterion DVD

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, superbly transferred (with very few signs of age).

As I noted, there are no interviews and practically no dialog in “Tokyo Olympiad.” The Criterion DVD provides the Japanese voice-over narration with subtitles that are not burned in (that is, may be switched off). It also includes English-language narration by Peter Cowie, whose voice and attitude both annoy me. For those interested in one relatively cynical commentator placing the 1964 Olympics in the context of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the commentary track includes a great deal of information and opinion. It includes very little about the cinematic choices (here, my standard of comparison is the superb commentary track to Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” in the Criterion edition). Whereas the original movie has sparing narration, Cowie talks incessantly. He also sounds affected to me (and would to most Americans, I think). In short, what he was saying and how he was saying it so annoyed me that I only listened to about a third of the commentary track. When I watch it again, I’ll switch off the subtitltes, too.

The booklet is very substantial, including information on the film nearly being recut by the unhappy official sponsors (Ichikawa’s version was saved by international acclaim, starting at Cannes and became a box-office success in Japan) and the views of multiple experts (plus the listing of medal winners at the Tokyo games).

The interview with Ichikawa in the stadium in 2001 has some interesting statements, but the interview is long, involves some torturously long questions, and is visually dead. Considering that he was still alive and mentally sharp when the DVD was made, a commentary track from Ichikawa would have been more valuable (and I’d like to have had the option of a dubbed version of the original narration, too, but, I realize the picture is the thing, and the picture Criterion delivers is first-rate.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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