Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
In reputation, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad is overshadowed by Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, but this is a shame. While the two films share a subject, they could not be more different. Like Riefenstahl’s film, Ichikawa’s 1965 documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is a document not just of an event but also of a time and place and a culture. Unlike Riefenstahl’s film, which makes the athletes appear godlike and the spectators appear like reverent worshippers (when they are glimpsed at all), Ichikawa’s film is primarily a film about people. Spectators are given a great amount of screen time and the nature of the relationship between athlete and spectator is explored. In this sense, Tokyo Olympiad can be called a humanist documentary.
The controversy over Ichikawa’s approach to filming the games as he did has been better documented than I can here, but it will suffice to say that Ichikawa preferred to let the sports and the actions of their athletes in them speak for themselves as opposed to attempting a play-by-play report of the games or attending to star athletes and medal winners at the expense of the rest of the competitors. Ichikawa rarely focuses on a single athlete. Indeed, in many events depicted in the film, the names of the athletes are not even mentioned. Instead, he combines shots of athletes in preparation for their event, performing in the event, checking their scores or distances, and recovering from the event with shots of jubilant and anxious spectators. Ichikawa rarely turns his cameras on the scores of the event unless they have set a record of some sort — instead he is concerned with the possibilities of the human body to soar in the air during a high jump, the power of the human legs to run 100 meters in ten seconds, or the intense concentration and coordination required for sharp shooting. In many shots, the body part most involved in the event is the focus of the bulk of the footage of the event — legs running in a sprint, arms thrusting forth a shot put, and shoulders struggling to stay off the mat in a wrestling match. If you’ve seen the fascinating Jake Scott-directed Nike “Move” commercial that was shown during the 2002 Winter Olympics, you could say that it was a 90-second distillation of everything that Ichikawa attempted to convey in his film. But the Olympics are not only about the sporting events, which is why Ichikawa includes vérité-style (and often quite humorous) segments filmed in the Olympic press room and dining hall and of athletes arriving in Tokyo.
The film techniques and technologies Ichikawa used to create his film were state-of-the-art in 1964. Lightweight Arriflex cameras mounted with fresh-from-the-lab zoom and telephoto lenses and filled with super-fast film stock shot 70 hours of footage from which the filmmakers culled the 170 minutes of the film. Masterfully selected and paced editing, combined with elegant use of the widescreen frame and combinations of extreme close-ups and stately long shots, crisp black and white and grainy color film, and events of strength and endurance alternated with events of swiftness and agility make the film a veritable catalog of virtuoso film technique. One shot in particular of a landscape with Mt. Fuji filling most of the background while the Olympic torchbearer, as tiny as a fly in contrast to the great symbol of Japan, runs slowly across the screen in the foreground is one of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen in any film. Ichikawa’s film also exhibits judicious use of sound. One would expect a documentary on the Olympics to be filled with crowd noise, the grunts and strains of human effort, and the sounds of starter’s pistols. All of that is there, but Ichikawa mixes it with subtle, often ethereal music or minimal, yet informative narration, but often dispenses with sound altogether to show runners in silence and in slow motion to emphasize the extraordinary skill of the athletes.
If you’re a fan of the Olympics or of documentary filmmaking, I see no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy this film. It’s a one-of-a-kind film and, given the prevalence of ratings-driven news departments and overly selective sports coverage these days, the kind of thing you’re not likely to see made again.