Tokyo Olympiad
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Those of us who know the Olympics principally through network television coverage will likely find Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa's documentary of the 1964 Summer Games, to be a rather Zen experience, kind of like a drinking a cup of plain tea after so many years of sugary American soft drinks. Ichikawa, known primarily for his fictional films, was originally commissioned by the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) to create a straightforward, no-fuss visual record of the Games. Slyly subverting that commission, Tokyo Olympiad avoids the play-by-play breathlessness of modern-day sports coverage and celebrates the human body in all of its sweaty, muscular glory. Alternately admired, mocked, and fetishized, the human form is elevated to the status of public art that everyone can enjoy, or revile. At the same time, Ichikawa acknowledges the de-humanizing side of the Games, particularly the oncoming tsunami of global village oneness. Emphasizing crowds, structures, and flags of all nations, he clearly revels in the gargantuan anonymity of it all. The brilliance of Tokyo Olympiad ultimately lies in the reconciliation of its opposing obsessions. Using over 100 cameras and 250 kinds of lenses, Ichikawa and his crew have managed to find humanity in repetition, intimacy in the masses, and personal expression in the largest of settings.

The Tokyo Olympics was the first international event to be held in Japan's capital city since its decimation in World War II, and government officials were keen to use the Games as a demonstration of the country's resilience. What they wanted from Ichikawa, it seems, was a propagandistic film to bolster national pride. What Ichikawa gave them was an abstract meditation on athleticism that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes unflattering, much like Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 documentary of the Berlin Games, Olympia. Tokyo Olympiad (now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection) opens with an extended shot of a rising sun followed inharmoniously by a wrecking ball crashing into buildings to make way for the new Olympic stadium. The bringing together of the ancient and the modern, the natural and the artificial, the beautiful and the gaudy in this opening sequence signals the movie's overall ambivalence towards the Games. Are they something to celebrate or to eulogize?

Though structured chronologically around the more than 100 events, including opening and closing ceremonies, Tokyo Olympiad loses all sense of time and priority when immersed in the thick of the moment. Aesthetics consistently trump content. The men's 100-meter dash is photographed not so much as a competition but as a spasm of flying limbs. The race is played twice, the first in real time, where we can't make out who is who or even what the event is; and the second in slow motion, where every detail is magnified from the sinew of the runners' legs to the expressions on their faces. Both times we see the American Bob Hayes break away from the pack and cross the finish line first. Hayes, who died recently at the age of 59, won the first gold medal of the '64 Games, but his victory feels almost out-of-body: as he crosses the finish line, the camera goes blurry and Toshiro Mayuzumi's creepy musical score plays out. This is not Victory as we know it, but a detached and possibly alienated view of it. By playing the race twice, Ichikawa separates competition from athleticism, and it is clear that he is more interested in the latter.

In between the two replays, the runners are seen hammering their starting blocks into place, lowering themselves into position, and arching their backsides into ready stance. This too unfolds in slow motion and the trance-like attention to "the preparation" was a breakthrough technique at the time, one that would be endlessly repeated in films such as Chariots of Fire and a recent TV spot by Nike. The conspicuous absence of both human drama and corporate influence in Tokyo Olympiad makes it feel shockingly pure, almost irreverent, by today's standards.

In events such as the shot put, the human body is reduced to a lumpy, comical thing. A Soviet woman, bestial and hairy, grunts as she launches the metal ball; a woman from New Zealand performs a mini-dance after her turn; a Hungarian athlete delays his turn in order to enact a ritual of licking his hand and rubbing his belly ten times. As with most of the athletes featured in the movie, each shot-putter is identified by a subtitle, yet what we remember are not their names or nationalities, but their physicality. Ichikawa focuses so relentlessly on their bodies -- arms, shoulders, crotches -- that their faces are all but left out of the picture. In a way, they've left their formal identities behind to become Athletes, distinguishable only by their quirks and super-human achievements.

Sometimes, Ichikawa and crew take this idea to its extreme by presenting the human body as little more than a well-oiled machine. In its second half, Tokyo Olympiad races breakneck through swimming, gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling, boxing, fencing, judo, and six other events. Seldom pausing for a breath, the movie creates the sense of a single human body in perpetual motion, unhindered by the flesh. Faces become dramatic masks. In wrestling, Ichikawa's camera stays in close-up so that the athletes' mandibular contortions are fully visible. In fencing, the face is a mask beneath a mask: each time an athlete removes his or her protective face covering, it reveals a host of expressions ranging from elation to confusion to frustration.

From the micro to the macro: Ichikawa embraces the mass of humanity as he frequently pans across the Olympic stadium bulging with representatives of every nationality. These shots give the movie its epic sweep, and as presented in wide-screen format, with faces filling the screen from end to end, they restore a sense of communal viewership absent in today's Games. To become a face in the crowd, Ichikawa suggests, is to participate in a greater good, which is to say, a fuzzy international harmony. Still, stolen moments abound. An old man's jowls flap in the wind; an enthusiastic American plays a flugelhorn; a group of drunken Brits crashes the playing field.

Though formally narrated, Tokyo Olympiad is essentially a silent movie for long stretches. In its more conventional moments, as in its profile of an African sprinter or the climactic marathon, the movie falls back on this silence as if to give its subject room to breathe. The sprinter, who is from the then-fledgling country Chad, is photographed eating by himself in the athlete's cafeteria. Presumably he doesn't know anyone (he is the only representative of his country), but the filmmakers don't ask, preferring to keep a strange distance from their subject. The most memorable scene in the marathon sequence is similarly detached: the sight of bloody, twisted feet as the runners kick off their shoes and collapse in exhaustion.

Not surprisingly, the JOC was displeased with Ichikawa's final cut, which runs close to three hours (with intermission) and is the version featured on the Criterion Collection's DVD release. The committee decided that the movie had insufficiently glorified the Japanese nation and that is was too idiosyncratic to serve as an "official record" of the event. Though they threatened to re-edit it, a horror story of sorts recounted in the DVD liner notes, Ichikawa ultimately prevailed after the movie screened to great acclaim at Cannes. As Criterion windbag and self-annointed Olympics expert Peter Cowie says in his thorough but monotonous audio commentary, Ichikawa is above all a humanist filmmaker capable of finding compelling drama even in the documentary form. True or not, Tokyo Olympiad effortlessly and gracefully gives life to that most overused of Latin mantras, e pluribus unum ("one out of many").

Tokyo Olympiad is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new high-definition digital transfer. The disc includes audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, liner notes by legendary sports writer Bill Plimpton, a complete list of winners in all events, and a symposium on Tokyo Olympiad (excerpted from the Cinematheque Ontario Book Kon Ichikawa. Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out the The Criterion Collection Web site.



(Photos: © 2002 The Criterion Collection. All rights reserved.)