[Fresh on Criterion] ‘TOKYO OLYMPIAD’ a landmark, CinemaScope depiction of Asia’s first Olympics


Travis Leamons // Film Critic


Not rated, 168 minutes.
Director: Kon Ichikawa

Friends think I have a high film IQ. That’s a mistake. My knowledge of film genres and bits of movie trivia is not unlike my years of schooling: proficient in most subjects, but not an expert. Foreign cinema is even worse.

It seems the older I get, the further I get from exploring works from around the world. So when the Criterion Collection’s TOKYO OLYMPIAD crossed my desk, it allowed an interesting respite from the global plague, allowing me to notice an important filmmaker whose body of work I was unacquainted.

Since COVID-19 has shuttered movie theaters – suspending new theatrical releases – impeded the start of professional baseball and put the NBA on hiatus until late July, it also postponed this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo until next year.

No Olympics, no problem thanks to Criterion offering Kon Ichikawa’s landmark documentary about the XVIII Olympiad Games. Previously released individually on DVD (in 2002) and as part of 100 YEARS OF OLYMPIC FILMS: 1912-2012 (in 2017), TOKYO OLYMPIAD is cinematic and artistic, and not at all what the Japanese government wanted. Ichikawa’s vision was about the atmosphere, humanizing the athletes, and demonstrating how, over two weeks, the Olympics build a peaceful and better world through sport. Winners, to Ichikawa, was inconsequential.

The government and financiers wanted a documentary that was a jingoistic tableau with highlights of Japanese athletes at the 1964 Summer Olympics and have it act as a promotional tool for the country’s modernity since the end of the Second World War. Clearly, the government and Ichikawa were not on the same page, which is funny, because the filmmaker ended up replacing a difficult Akira Kurosawa, who wanted twice the money, more autonomy, and to oversee the ceremonies that open and close the Olympics.

Instead, Ichikawa boarding the project late – seemingly daring and challenging himself to do the impossible – shows his versatility as a filmmaker. He’s been compared to Michael Curtiz (CASABLANCA), himself a remarkable director though never anointed an auteur like Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, or even Kurosawa. Because when you’re making as many as seven pictures a year under contract like Curtiz was, you don’t have that much time to be a visionary.

Already working for less than what Kurosawa wanted, Ichikawa and the camera operators under his command (sometimes enumerated at 68, though some counted as many as 164) incorporated 250 different camera lenses on more than 100 cameras. Together with editor Yoshiro Ehara, they condensed 70 hours of footage into what was to become TOKYO OLYMPIAD.

Courtesy photo.

Just the title makes it feel like epic. With a run time that would make David Lean fans smile with delight, what we are presented is a magnum opus that arrives at the intersection of sports and human achievement and the indomitable spirit that lives in both realms. Athletics is rife with artistry, and Ichikawa captures the beauty in performance. From using high-speed cameras as Bullet Bob Hayes sets a world record in the 100-meter dash to the absence of audio of the women’s 80-meter hurdles – (save for one loud crash as a hurdler fails a jump), OLYMPIAD offers the A/V playbook that future sports documentaries would continue to emulate for the next 55 years.

The use of telephoto lenses and CinemaScope affords us immeasurable vantage points and close-ups in seeing every little muscle twitch, drip of perspiration, and resolute eyes. Oh, and shorts so short they’d make NBA great John Stockton sweat tears of joy. The use of black and white photography as we follow boxing great Joe Frazier down a Korakuen Ice Palace hallway. We don’t even see him win gold. The audio from the gold-medal women’s volleyball contest between Japan and the Soviet Union sounds like it could be dubbed into a Golden Harvest kung-fu movie.

Though Ichikawa does offer a token of goodwill in extolling certain Japanese athletic achievements, he also tempers nationalistic pride like showing the only Judo contest (a sport that debuted at this Olympics) where a Japanese athlete did not win a gold medal. By capitulating some to government expectations, Ichikawa grants himself some measure of leniency in other areas. The prime examples are spending greater time with two athletes from developing nations: Ahamed Isa (from the newly formed country of Chad) and Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia). The progressive “New Japan” is playing host to 93 nations (16 of which were making their first appearances), yet these two athletes captivate the filmmaker. Isa soaks in as much of the experience as he can, knowing that he’ll never get back to Japan. Bikila’s otherworldly performance in the marathon gives us a sequence that, when extracted, best illustrates what the top marathoners and ultra-runners feel. The world becomes a blur. This is poetry in motion.

Unlike its inclusion in the 100 YEARS OF OLYMPIC FILMS boxed set, TOKYO OLYMPIAD’s individual Blu-ray release is loaded with extras. However, this lowers the video bitrate average, affecting the 4K digital transfer created for the 2017 set. Videophiles should consider that. The rest will enjoy a supplemental package that is worthy of an Olympic medal ceremony.

Olympic Games expert Peter Cowie is our guide. His new introduction to the documentary provides an excellent summary of OLYMPIAD and Kon Ichikawa. Going further into the development is Cowie’s audio commentary, which is ported over from the original 2002 DVD.

Courtesy photo.

As if an exhaustive three-hour-long documentary weren’t enough, we get over eighty minutes of sporting events from the Tokyo Games that were originally produced for the film. Track and Field (11:41), Aquatics (40:30), Team Ball Sports (15:49), Wrestling, Weightlifting, and Cycling (16:19).

There are three archival interviews featuring Ichikawa, two of which are shot by NTV during the documentary’s Pre-production (8:18) and Editing (3:14), and one more from 1992 (32:18), where the filmmaker reflects on the project 28 years later.

The mini-doc A Singular Vision: Kon Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad” overviews the director’s meticulousness despite having limited sports knowledge. From storyboarding images for camera operators to use as a guide in capturing the action, to hearing accounts from camera operator Masuo Yamaguchi in shooting the marathon race, this 30-minute documentary is an informative watch on communicating a story through many techniques.

A short interview about the 4K restoration and two theatrical trailers wrap up the supplemental package.

TOKYO OLYMPIAD is as close to an expressionistic sports documentary as we’re likely to see. It sidesteps pomp and circumstance and jingoism to give us the valiant and the broken. Quirks and close-up inflections. Slow-motion and high speeds. This is a story about humanity told through snippets of competition. It is voyeuristic and utterly captivating. A single viewing, and you’ll understand why it is a masterwork of documentary filmmaking. Highly recommended.

Movie Grade: B+
Extras Grade: A

TOKYO OLYMPIAD is now available on disc. Purchase here, or visit your local Barnes & Nobles to take advantage of their 50 percent off sale.

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