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Tokyo Olympiad

Tokyo Olympiad
Criterion 155
1965 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 170 min. / Tokyo orimpikku / Street Date July 30, 2002 / $39.95
Cinematography Shigeo Hayashida, Kazuo Miyagawa, Shigeichi Nagano, Kenichi Nakamura, Tadashi Tanaka
Art Direction Yusaku Kamekura
Original Music Toshiro Mayuzumi
Written by Kon Ichikawa, Yoshio Shirasaka, Shuntaro Tanikawa and Natto Wada
Produced by Suketaru Taguchi
Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Sports is not Savant's strong suit. Although I was as dazzled as much as the next fan by our 1984 Los Angeles opening and closing ceremonies, watching Olympics on television has become a painful experience. Sitting through an entire evening of commercialized rot for a few good minutes of (almost exclusively USA) competition is a drag. And the maudlin mini-movies about athletes' inspiring backstories make me want to retch.

Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad knocked me out. The film is three solid hours of concentration on the athletes themselves, mostly in competition, and not only the winners. The point of the show is not to document the games and catalog the winners and the losers, but to celebrate the spirit of the competition as embodied by the athletes themselves.

The movie is about bodies - the physical limits of the human body being tested by men and women operating at the edge of human capability and endurance. We don't get a primer on how events are judged and scored, or even much talk about what the rules are. We do get humans under pressure - feet, torsos, and faces struggling, sometimes in pain. Seen in extreme telephoto, we watch them before and after competing as well. Everything is detail, from the bleeding feet of the marathon runners, to the pain of those with cramps, who crumple up on the side of the marathon course.

The emphasis on expressionist detail apparently got Ichikawa and his film into hot water, when the Japanese Olympic sponsors were shocked to see such 'artfulness' indulged at the expense of simply recording who won and who lost. And the government, for whom the '64 Olympics were meant to signify the rebirth of Japan as a world player, weren't amused by the film's inattention to the dramatic new Tokyo that was being rebuilt. They must have forked over a prodigious outlay of cash to keep 145 cameramen grinding through filmstock for 15 days. Tokyo Olympiad didn't even document the expensive special facilities that had been built for the games.

The opening sequence's only nod to the construction is to show a wrecking ball tearing down a building to make way for the Olympic stadium. From then on the soundtrack clicks off a litany of all the Olympic games previous, while we see the torch travelling from Greece across Asia to Japan. It's the most conventional part of the show, and even it concentrates more on the faces of people than on recognizable landmarks --- until we enter Hiroshima, through a bank of clouds. Ichikawa here gets in the first of several sly messages. The passage through the clouds brings to mind Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, specifically, Hitler's descent from 'heaven' through a similar cloudbank. When the familiar Hiroshima landmark is revealed, it links the Nazis and the Americans in a way that must have tickled the radicals of the Japanese New Wave.

The only other Anti-American slur is in the opening ceremony, when a marching American woman turns to another and angrily shouts, 'Shut up!'. If the sync dialogue was actually recorded live, it's the best sound miking job in history - like most of the rest of Tokyo Olympiad, the camera is filming from hundreds of yards away, with a lo-ong telephoto lens. It's a tiny moment in a film that otherwise has no chip on its shoulder, but it still stands out.

The first half of the show is track & field and gymnastics, much of it covered in slow-motion angles that accentuate the physical extremes of the competitors in their performances, as opposed to simply showing winners. For instance, the montage of gymnasts on the parallel bars shows no dismounts. Japanese winners do get singled out, and the narration comments on Japanese losers who 'tried their best', but the bias is nothing like we're now used to in our intolerable television coverage. There's a lot of time spent telling the emotional story of competing, which naturally creates far more losers than it does winners. The camera dotes on long distance runners who've been halted by some problem or another. The last runner to gallantly cross the finish line is given tumultuous applause by the crowd, in a display of sportsmanship and communal respect now unheard of. Winners certainly get their limelight, but displays of exultant joy are not singled out to exclusion of their context.

This humanistic angle is what makes Tokyo Olympiad a 180o twist from Riefenstahl's Olympia (as emphasized by several of the essayists in the disc's voluminous production notes): the German film idealized the perfect human body and presented its Aryan victors as if God had ordained they conquer on the playing fields. Riefenstahl's picture adored the invincible bodies of its athletes, as if they were some alien race destined to inherit the Earth.

Ichikawa's sentiments are quite the opposite. Great attention is placed on the variety of bodies and races competing. We follow one fellow from Chad who seems uncomfortable (if not downright ill) most of the time. He goes for a walk in public, like an astronaut on another planet - there's one terrific shot of a little Japanese boy hounding him, possibly asking him if he's an Olympic athlete - or if he's really Black all over! Instead of promoting an ideal, Tokyo Olympiad presents a unstated atmosphere of international compatibility and brotherhood.

The Japanese bureaucrats were stupid not to endorse and promote the film - it was apparently released overseas only after being cut by half. If we Americans had been shown a propaganda commercial for Japan in 1965, chances are we'd have been resentful - I remember seeing my first Japanese import car around that time, a Dihatsu or Subaru or something, in a crowd of shoppers who audibly voiced their contempt. Frankly, all we'd seen of Japan previously in docu footage were invading armies and mindless hordes chanting Banzai. Tokyo Olympiad as finished would have been a fantastic PR piece, as it constantly makes us aware of the courtesy, kindliness, and fair-minded spirit of the Japanese people. What we remember from Ichikawa's film are hundreds of faces of charming Japanese laughing, smiling, and helping the athletes.  1

Criterion's DVD of Tokyo Olympiad is an amazing entertainment in such a small package. The very expensive laser version can't hold a candle to the ease of popping in this one disc. The image is beautiful, and the encoding holds up perfectly even when the original photography is grainy or soft. The film begins with the spangled Toho logo and 'just happens', leaping from one arresting visual to another with a minimum of talk or text. Making good use of the 16:9 enhancement, the feeling of intimate contact with the drama is a great 'sports experience'; the discussion around my room after the screening was about how modern multi-channel cable TV should be able to present ALL of the Olympics in great detail, instead of the packaged, ideologically-enhanced bits that we get on the exclusive, commercial-ridden network coverage.

The Criterion disc has a pleasant, full-length audio commentary by Peter Cowie, that (for the 25 minutes I listened to) discusses Olympic history in general in addition to the movie itself and is very interesting. A very fat interior booklet is included. Mine broke the plastic clips meant to hold it in, so it must be near the size limit of what a keep case can hold. There are some illuminating liner notes by George Plimpton, and an interview symposium section on the film from a book on Kon Ichikawa, where a number of writers go into great detail about the political controversy during the film's release. There's also a complete list of medalists in all the events of the '64 Tokyo games.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Tokyo Olympiad rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, large text booklet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 28, 2002


1. Case in point - There's a now-forgotten film called 1 April 2000, made in 1953 by an Austrian government trying to end the Allied occupation (the one immortalized in The Third Man.) Basically a propaganda piece showing how wonderful and peace-loving the charming Austrians were, it was an expensive production that never found the foreign audience it sought - the only publicity it gained was the fact that its director and star were a husband and wife team previously glorified by the Nazis (Variety review, February 18, 1953). The Olympics provided Japan with the perfect PR opportunity the Austrians didn't have ... and the stuffy politicians really blew it by not exporting the picture with a big fanfare.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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