Director of Photography:
Running time: 170 minutes
Original title: 東京オリンピック
Transliterated title: Tōkyō orinpikku
Made in the years before cameras were strapped onto the backs of motorcycles to follow runners or cyclists in ways that make it seem like the viewer is literally taking part, Tokyo Olympiad is a mammoth film that tries to condense the sporting events of the famous 16 days of glory that are the Olympic Games into one viewing experience. Filmmaker Kon Ichikawa approaches his subjects, with its many disparate parts, in an equally incoherent fashion and the result is a work that, while it certainly gives a good idea of the 1964 Olympics, pales in comparison to more recent productions, and is at best a catalogue of events rather than a representation of them by one man with a specific vision.
When it comes to films made about the Olympic Games, Bud Greenspan’s ”16 Days of Glory” television films have set the standard for many years, and while he only focuses on a small part of each four-year celebration of the Olympic spirit, he does so through the eyes and experiences of a number of athletes with very attractive stories of perseverance and beating the odds. Ichikawa tries his hand at one such story, without ever getting close to his subject, before simply dropping him and moving on to the next event.
This lack of a human connection to the games is an important failure. Ichikawa shows many pictures of the spectators’ reactions to the events on the field or on the track, but the only person who ever speaks is the invisible commentator Ichirō Mikuni. It would be unfair to say Mikuni doesn’t bring human emotion to the account of events, but the fact he is the viewer’s only link is unsatisfactory and cannot substitute the real athletes and their stories.
Ichikawa begins his film with the opening ceremony and ends with the closing ceremony, while the first half is set almost entirely inside the athletics stadium and the second half is dedicated to all the other sports. He looks exclusively at the finals of every single sport practised at the games, with the exception of discus throw and judo, but where a sport is subdivided into many separate sections, for example wrestling or weightlifting, he only casts a very brief glance at one or two categories.
That is understandable, since it is impossible to bring together every single event and still make a film that would shine with excitement and rhythm. There are moments in Ichikawa’s film that are quite brilliantly depicted. Besides the details his camera picks up, from the athletes ducking to avoid the doves when they’re released during the opening ceremony to the freeze frame on the tense face of Soviet shot putter Irina Press at the moment before she launches the ball, or the ritual of fellow countryman Adolf Varanauskas who rolls around the ball against his neck in anticipation of the big throw.
Another freeze frame shows us the moment when 10,000 meter American runner Ben Larrieu is lapped and his faces tells a story of shock and disappointment. These are the kinds of characters who merit more attention, but Ichikawa limits the focus of the film to a far-off glance at the events and the participants as they behave on their big day.
The film has a multitude of shots dedicated to the raising of flags and the playing of national anthems, as is to be expected in such a film, but his artistic transformation of certain moments could have made a greater impact if he’d had the courage to pursue this approach more determinedly. During the 10,000 meter race, for example, the camera looks out onto the pack of athletes from far away, then pans away from them and follows an empty track before reaching them again.
Ichikawa sometimes focuses on specific athletes, like the physical and mental preparation of Japanese athlete Ikuko Yoda before her 80 meter hurdles race, or the runners who come in last in the big races – the Ceylonese Ranatunga Karunananda in the 10,000 meters and the Nepalese Bahacur Bhupendra in the marathon. They add a necessary human veneer to the greatness of the Olympics.
But beyond the all-too-rare moments of genius, like the opening of the gymnastics sequences, in which a female gymnast does a vault in a Muybridge-like image, the complete silence in the presentation of the hurdle race, save the crashing thud when the first hurdle is knocked over, and the silence of the open division wrestling final interrupted only by the breathing of the wrestlers, the film displays little artistic sensibility and rather opts for a dry recounting of the events as they occurred, without the human component. By and large, that human component, hinted at in examples above, in short mentions of the marathon runners’ professions, and in a very brief bit about a young Chadian with the interesting face, Ahmed Issa, who competes in the 800m and advances to the semifinals, is missing from the film and makes the production uninteresting from numerous points of view.
In terms of politics, the film also completely avoids the interesting tension, visually and ideologically, of the USSR following the contingent of American athletes into the stadium, or of India and Pakistan’s meeting in the field hockey finals.
The land of the rising sun (the latter a symbol often repeated in the film), the first country in Asia to host the Olympic Games, staged a very competent Olympics that, going by this film, seems completely peaceful and devoid of the politics that would make the future games so rife with tension, but at the same time the peace limits our engagement with the film’s narrative as almost no characters are really examined. As a document of the games, the film is good, but Bud Greenspan’s human-oriented documentaries about the games are infinitely better.