Tokyo Olympiad (The Criterion Collection)
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A spectacle of magnificent proportions, Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad ranks among the greatest documents of sport ever committed to film. Utilizing glorious widescreen cinematography, Ichikawa examines the beauty and rich drama on display at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, creating a catalogue of extraordinary observations that range from the expansive to the intimate. The glory, despair, passion, and suffering of Olympic competition are rendered with lyricism and technical mastery, culminating in an inspiring testament to the beauty of the human body and the strength of the human spirit.
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My own favorite moment: the slow-mo 800 meter women's. Ichikawa had two cameras on the scene, and it is the mesmerizing second view of the legs of the runners that gripped me. The fluidity of motion, the definition of their muscles, clearly evident. The front-runner, legs pistoning in a seemingly perfect rythym, seems in control. And then, from the left side of the screen, (keep in mind, in this shot we're seeing mostly just waist down shots of the legs of the runners) Ann Packer's legs come into the shot, moving faster than all the others on the screen. She blows by them all, to win the race. It's a masterful moment for Packer, and a gorgeous scene in the movie.
Second best: Ichikawa takes full advantage of the 2.35:1 widescreen format and there is a huge pull-back showing the entirety of Mt. Fuji. One of the torch runners passes in the foreground. As Crowie mentions in the commentary the runner is reduced to bug-size by this. It is a breath-takingly beautiful sight.
All these things, and countless other human details, are elements that make up director Kon Ichikawa's loving portrait of human aspiration: "Tokyo Olympiad".
At least as important as what it does, is what "Tokyo Olympiad" does not do. Unlike television coverage of the last few Olympic games, it does not plead for our sympathy by drowning us in "human interest" stories of hardship, cancer and family tragedy. Unlike in newspaper and television coverage of the games, the politics and ambition of individual nations' teams is far in the background. Unlike Leni Reifenstahl's "Olympia", it does not hold the athletes up as demigods, asking us to fawn over the glorious perfection of their shining bodies and heroic achievement. And, most importantly, it does it seek present a complete account of the final results of the events. Doing so in a 2 1/2 hour film would be impossible anyway.
More important to Ichikawa is the experience of the event itself- from both the spectators', and participants'- both winners and losers- point of view. Each event that that falls under the directors gaze, is presented in its own idiosyncratic way- with much attention given to the composition and visual texture of events as well as the human elements of each sport.
In one of my favorite segments- the women's 80m hurdles- Ichikawa begins by showing us an almost abstract close-up of the race we are about to see. In this way, the director seems to be saying that it's not the official result, but the intense feeling of being in such a race, which is important. Cutting back to before the race, the camera follows the athletes as they pace the field and go through their often quirky preparations. The Japanese runner, psyching herself up, jerks her head from side to side, does a childlike summersault, jerks a few more times, then does a cartwheel. In the next shot, with no explanation, we see that she places a lemon on the staring block, which Ichikawa allows us to consider for a second. With the runners lined up, the camera goes into extreme slow motion. We witness the sinew, focus and tension at the starting block. The din of the crowd is faded out, and all that remains is the sound of ropes rhythmically clanging against the stadium's flagpoles in the wind. Then even that fades out, the gun fires, and, as the runners powerfully push out of the starting blocks, silence. We are shown a front view of the brief race in extreme slow motion. The mood is pierced once by the bang of a single runner hitting her hurdle. Then, as the final hurdle is cleared, the roar of the crowd swells and the lead hurdlers break the tape.
Compared to this, who ended up winning the race is mere trivia.
Each event is treated in own careful manner- revealing not the sporting drama of scores, distances and times, but the feeling of human aspiration embodied in motto "citius, altius, fortius". The dramatic marathon, the last event to be shown, is a masterwork, into which is impossible to not be drawn in.
Ichikawa views the Olympics idealistically. Through stunning images, and the color-commentary-like narration (in subtitled Japanese) we come to experience the Olympics as an event about human beings (instead of nationalistic athletic juggernauts) coming together to compete in an atmosphere of peace. After seeing athletes and spectators from all over the world cheerlly mingle, cheer, and celebrate, one sees the Olympics as a reminder what world peace can look like. It's just the sort of thing that the planet needs from time to time. It gives us something to work towards.
The DVD is mastered beautifully, and the colors are subtle and rich as a documentary film from 1964 can be. The sound is excellent. The enclosed liner notes by sports-writer legend George Plimpton are vivid and enlightening. (Can you tell I like this DVD?) The commentary by Peter Crowie provides the fascinating back story of the film through stories of the athletes of the Olympics themselves- though I would recommend watching the film without it the first few times. He also makes comparisons between today's Olympics (Sydney) and these games- relatively (though not entirely) untainted by the politics of performance enhancing drugs (though it is quite likely that they were used extensively) and the excessive commercialism of the modern sporting world. The finely sculpted, corporate sponsored, bodyguard protected, superstars of today seem, somehow, less human than these athletes- allowed to walk freely around the field before their heat, who were not ensconced in some distant, private training camp away from the lesser mortals from lesser countries, and who were allowed to experience the Olympics in much the same way that Ichikawa wishes to portray them- as a big celebration of what it feels like to have something in common with new friends from all over the planet.
In the included 1992 interview in Tokyo Stadium- where the track events had taken place 28 years earlier, Kon Ichikawa was asked how he would film today's Olympic games, if commissioned to do so. "Pretty much the same way", was his reply. I would love for this to happen.
I had the extreme thrill of seeing this film several times on the huge movie screen of a theatre Toho operated in Los Angeles when the film was released. About five years ago, I saw it in a smaller theater and it holds up wonderfully.
This is one of the most majestic films I've ever seen, but it is also dramatically compelling with sequences that will always be memorable. Perhaps most memorable is the real sense of caring and comradre among ALL the athletes AND spectators. Since these Olympics, the games have degenerated into political doo-dah of the worst sort. These games and this film have a dignity, humaneness and spirit that has all but been lost.
This is worth owning just for the Ethiopian's winning of his second Olympic marathon in a row. I seldom care about sporting contests, but the marathon literally had me grasping the theatre seat and verbally pulling for this incredible man--who along with Ali--is the greatest athlete I've ever witnessed.
The American version praised by another reviewer here, was IMO one of the worst desecrations of a masterpiece I can imagine. It was cut from the almost three-hour original version to about 90-minutes and accompanied by the most inane sports announcing ever. If you saw this atrocity, you haven't seen "Tokyo Olympiad."
If you are an Olympic fan or love breathtaking, intelligent and humane filmmaking, Ichikawa gives you the royal treatment in this film.
Thank you, Criterion, for re-issuing this. My only regret is that it isn't being re-released in big-screen theatres, where it can be properly appreciated.
See this. I think most of you will be cheering this monumental achievement.
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I would venture to call it "the best sports documentary film of all time!"
I would also call it "the sports documentary as art!"
The colour and widescreen cinematography is absolutely stunning, especially the quality of the close-ups.
There are a few nice black and white scenes, too.
In addition to the images, the sound recording is sensational.
For me, the games themselves represent a transition between the altruistic old-world Olympics, signified by East and West Germany competing together, and the modern Olympics, represented by electronic timekeeping boards.
These games represent the best of both worlds.
The film captures some wonderfully quaint moments which are no more.
How about 100 metre runners hammering their own starting blocks into the track, a mixture of clay and cinders.
Or the scissor-kick high jump, four years before Dick Fosbury invented the flop jump.
Or several women swimmers competing without bathing caps, and winning!
Or athletes shaking hands with one other instead of hugging.
For those who don't want to buy such an expensive DVD, there is a condensed, English language version of the film on YouTube which omits some footage from this film but, surprisingly, includes some footage not seen here!