In 1964 - only 20 years after World War Two - Japan was host to the Olympic Games and director Kon Ichikawa was hired to make a documentary on the prestigious event.
Ichikawa was known mainly for his insightful fictional films such as The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain but he more than lived up to the task of switching subjects and styles by presenting to the world one of the best documentaries ever made on the Games.
Only Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia made in 1936 with Fascist money has as good a reputation. The reason is that both filmmakers set out to do more than just document the games. As a consequence (and due to their talent) both films are beautiful spectacles that present the games from a thematic and humanitarian point of view that concentrates on the nature of the spirit of the Olympic Games rather than on just the winners.
But they are both different too. Ichikawa admits in an interview included on the Criterion DVD that he watched Riefenstahl's film numerous times and wanted to make a film that was the antithesis of hers. And in some ways he did just that. Riefenstahl focused a lot on the beauty of the human body and everything was presented in a majestic, mythological way while Ichikawa focused more on the preparation – which included concentration on the faces of the athletes – and the idiosyncratic ceremonial procedures that athlete use. He also chose to spend a lot of time on the athletes and on the 'scenes' before and after the sporting events. In this way he created many moods from expectation to jubilation to the almost banality in between events.
Ichikawa uses a variety of styles to show the dramatics of the Olympics such as analytical editing, close-up shots with telephoto lenses, slow and fast editing speeds and odd angles. One of the most beautiful sequences on the film is the journey of the Olympic flame through the various cities of the world, through Hiroshima, by Mt Fuji and eventually into the stadium carried by a runner who – according to the splendid audio commentary track by Peter Cowie – was born the day of the Hiroshima bombing.
Ichikawa makes some interesting and possibly controversial choices in what he chooses to show and what he chooses to leave out. For instance, he spends more time on the women's shot put than on women's gymnastics. To someone who thinks the gymnastics events are over-hyped this may be welcome but, still, women's shot put doesn't come across as particularly compelling. He also spends time with an 800 meter runner from Chad when he could have spent time with numerous other Africans who were in contention for a medal. But, then again, it seems Ichikawa's point is to give equal time to not only those who win but to those who compete.
Ichikawa only give passing mention to such sports as basketball, soccer and equestrian events. And even though he does spend some time on swimming he, curiously, entirely leaves out diving (perhaps aware that he could not improve on Riefenstahl's brilliant handling of it).
But for track & field enthusiasts and long distance runners out there he does spend a good amount of time on the 10,000 meter run won in amazing fashion by Sioux Indian Billy Mills. Some scenes are unintentionally humorous such as the high jump and the pole vault events in which athletes seem to be landing in rubber slag heaps. Others may strike us as primitive such as the shots of officials wiping the water soaked track with small sponges. It's also worth noting that not one athlete is shown wearing Nike, since the shoe of choice hadn't been invented yet. Although we do see one wearing Adidas.
Often the form and the content of the games are brilliantly blended together. For example, in the free rifle shooting sequences there is very little sound, the editing is very precise and the shots are held a long time. It is as if Ichikawa is showing how much concentration and precision goes into the firing of the rifle. On the other hand the section on cycling is all about speed. The editing is more fluid and much quicker and the music used is cool jazz.
Ichikawa's aesthetic choices are often stylish but at times it seems he has no consistent rhythm. It's as if he is showing as many different kinds of aesthetic cinematic tricks as he can think up. But upon a second and third viewing it's clear that Ichikawa's stylistic choices are predicated on the way he feels an event should be presented. Some examples of this are include the sprinting events where he uses slow motion and silence, the wrestling and Judo events where he uses close-ups to give us a sense of claustrophobia, and boxing where he uses b/w with freeze frames (15 years before Raging Bull). For rowing and sailing he chooses abstract shots of water and wind blown vessels.
Many have noted that Ichikawa spends too much time on the Marathon at the end of the film. And while it's true he does spend a good chunk of time covering the long run it's also true that he feels the event is the crowning event of the games: One in which athletes must let it all hang out and push themselves to the limit. He follows the winner of the event, Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia, for such a long time that it becomes mesmerizing. Ichikawa admits in an interview, included on the DVD, that he was fascinated by the quite determination and domination that Bikila brought to the event.
The DVD is presented as it should be in widescreen anamorphic - 2.35:1 and it looks better than ever. Criterion used a 35mm low contrast print meaning they had as close to the original negative as they could get. The film's color and look really has a 1960's feel to it. This makes sense (since it was) but it looks a lot like cleaned-up news footage at times. Which is okay since every scene was shot one-to-one with no retakes.
The audio sounds very good and is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. Ichikawa uses a lot of different sounds from music, to voice-over narration from radio broadcasts to live noise in the event arenas. Often it's hard to get the sound just right at sporting events due to echoes and the inability to be close enough to the event but everything comes across just fine in his audio mix. Plus Criterion uses an MTI digital restoration system to clean up the pops and hisses.
There are three great extras and all of them really help 'explain' the film to the viewer. First is an Audio commentary by Peter Cowie. Anyone who has ever heard Cowie on other Criterion discs (such as Grand Illusion or Wild Strawberries) will be aware of how good he is and will not want to miss this one. Cowie shows that he knows as much about the history of the Olympic Games as he does about the history of cinema and he has a lot to say. Other than the fact that he annoyingly mentions the Sydney Games over 50 times this is a commentary to be relished and one that can easily be enjoyed from start to finish. The second great extra is a 42 page booklet that features interviews and exchanges by scholars about the significant and controversy of the film. The best part being a Symposium section that is excerpted from a book by James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario. The third extra is a 33 minute Interview with Kon Ichikawa. Sitting in the stands at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo in 1992 he has a lot of good memories of the event.
With the release of Tokyo Olympiad Criterion Collection continues their dominance in the market of quality important DVD's. More than just a record of the events or a highlight reel from ESPN this documentary tries to get at the heart of what the Olympic games are all about. At 154 minutes it is long but considering the Games go for two weeks it's amazing that it could be condensed into three hours and still feel epic. This DVD is a must for anyone interested in the Olympic Games or in masterfully made documentaries.