THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
When the 1964 Olympics started in Tokyo, Japan, the stage was set for drama. It was less than two decades
since the end of World War II and Japan was still trying to re-enter the international stage. Kon Ichikawa's
extraordinary documentary on the games, Tokyo Olympiad, brings out the human element of the event
while still communicating a sense of awe at the Herculean feats on display.
Inspired partially by Leni
Riefenstahl's Olympia, which showed the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a big advertisement for Adolf Hitler, the
nearly 3-hour-long film utilizes many styles, from frantic handheld during sailing events to measured slow
motion during the lightning-fast 100m dash. He spends only a few short shots on some events, like horse
riding and shooting, summarizing entire disciplines in a few surreal images, while creating extended
sequences out of others, like the women's volleyball finals, that pulse with excitement and tension. The
longest segment in the film, the marathon, feels appropriately epic as Ichikawa follows Abebe Bikala, the slender
Ethiopian whose constant pace and unemotional expression lend the event an air of class that's surprising for
such a grueling sport. Ichikawa doesn't just follow the winners, however. His cameras catch other runners
bowing out early, being carried off on stretchers, and simply struggling to keep upright.
Ichikawa's film is delicate in its structure: each segment is built on carefully selected shots to sketch
out telling details of the sport. An overhead shot of floor acrobatics allows the corners of the mat to be
visible, creating a beautiful diamond within the frame. Judo emphasizes the slow, calculated nature of the
art, with the participants breathing heavily and tugging on each others' outfits. The various gymnastics
events blend together in a masterpiece of editing and shot composition, particularly one sideways shot of a
Japanese athlete on the high bar. The boxing competition is shown in a series of intimate black-and-white
shots (one of the few monochromatic sequences) that clearly had a strong influence on Martin Scorsese's
Raging Bull. The 100 meter dash is shown in extreme slow motion, accentuating the incredible power of
the runners. A swimming event, about to start, is shot from a standard angle, but Ichikawa cuts to a breath-taking overhead a split-second before the race beings.
More a testament to human will and achievement than to any specific Olympic games. (In fact, that's part of
what made the film so controversial, as is detailed in the supplemental material on the disc.) Ichikawa gets
behind what makes each event unique, from swimming to pole vault to weight lifting, and, using these
observations, crafted such an outstanding film that the drama, tension, and beauty of the proceedings easily
outclass most fiction films. Tokyo Olympiad, by sheer virtue of the skill of the director, this may be
the first sports documentary that can actually make a viewer cry.
The anamorphic widescreen video is excellent. Nearly flawless, the image has a vibrancy that is stunning
after all these years. A few noticeable instances of damage to the print do nothing to detract from the
overall effect of the film. Ichikawa's cinematography is astonishingly beautiful and Criterion's DVD does a
great job of displaying it.
The Dolby Digital mono is amazingly complete. I didn't realize that what I was hearing was mono for quite a
while; the sound design is dense and detailed and accomplishes a lot with simple elements. There are moments
when the sound drops out completely or when the cacophony of the games create a surreal collage.
An extremely detailed commentary track from film critic / Olympics buff Peter Cowie is one of the best I've
heard in a while. He fills the film's 170 minutes which history and details on the film, on sports, and on
the Olympics. His knowledge seems limitless as he describes specific athletes entire careers and the outcomes
of events not shown.
There is also a lengthy interview with Kon Ichikawa, shot in 1992 in the Olympic stadium. Although the
subtitles are a little hard to read (they appear against a busy background), the interview is interesting.
The other major extra is the booklet. Criterion has been providing some excellent essays lately but this one
takes the cake. A lengthy piece by George Plimpton is accompanied by an interesting multi-participant
symposium on the film and a complete list of medalists from the '64 Olympics. A really nice addition to an
already outstanding disc.
Ichikawa's film is an astonishing achievement and is worth revisiting. The structure of the film is unique, the visuals simply breathtaking, and the drama extremely involving. The treatment Criterion has presented it with is appropriate for such a great film.
Email Gil Jawetz at firstname.lastname@example.org