Blu-ray Review: Tokyo Olympiad | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, August 9th, 2020  

Tokyo Olympiad

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jul 07, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


We watch the world from a distance this spring and summer, separated from family, friends, and strangers by the invisible virus. The summer Olympics, always a testament to peace and the outer limits of the human body, would have provided a sound diversion from the pessimism and tedium of quarantine. But eventually, like all outings and live entertainments, this year’s games were rightfully postponed.

In place we have the good fortune of the Criterion Collection’s new reissue of the acclaimed 1965 documentary Tokyo Olympiad, timed to coincide with the ill-fated return to Tokyo this summer.

In many ways it’s better than watching the games themselves.

The legion of cameras and top-shelf telephoto lenses deployed by director Kon Ichikawa to capture the 1964 Olympics largely avoid the scoreboard and focus instead on the natural beauty of the human body in motion, fresh and well-worn faces in the crowd, Tokyo city streets and the peak of Mount Fuji.

It’s a film about what the Olympics represent more than exactly what happened at the games—athletic grace and strength as metaphor for the highest goals of human nature and spirit. Ichikawa’s lyrical compositions deftly cut from extreme close up to widescreen panorama, from the frenetic cacophony of waves crashing against a careening racing boat, to the slow-motion poetry of a gymnast’s legs fanning above the balance beam. Cycling is depicted as a sea of colorful shirts moving en masse like a pointillist’s quilt. High drama finds each exhausted marathoner reaching for a wet sponge or water cup carefully arranged on folding tables by well-dressed Japanese workers.

Narration is used sparingly to introduce athletes in outline, deliberately attuned to the everyman quality central to the amateur events: A Rice University dental school athlete overcomes enormous pressure to win the men’s pole vault competition for the U.S., a car mechanic from Warsaw wins Gold for Poland in the men’s triple jump, a 22-year-old high school gym teacher from Great Britain wins the women’s 800 meter race. The victories are for all of us, for anyone who dreams of glory, if only for a day—for anyone who dreams of harmony among mankind. Their triumphs are joined by the superhuman abilities of Bob Hayes, who won the 100 meter race before singlehandedly carrying the U.S. relay team to gold by running the fastest leg in history. In the democratic spirit of the film, Hayes’ feats are placed alongside his fellow Olympians without extra fanfare.

Sports are simple, Ichikawa says in an archival interview included with this new Blu-ray reissue, implying that counting winners and losers on the track doesn’t interest him nearly as much as beauty and peace, which are decidedly not simple. Sitting with the 2 hour and 40 minute documentary rather than a live broadcast relieves the viewer of the televised sponsorships and advertisements, yammering commentators or nationalistic cheering. Here we see the crowds roar as loud for the Ethiopian marathoner leaving the other runners far behind as they do for their fellow Japanese competitor who finishes in far-distant second place.

We see midcentury optimism for a post-war and post-colonial world. It was the first Olympics hosted in Asia; East and West Germany even competed as a united team in 1964, 27 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Japan had been selected to host the ’40 games, which were cancelled due to World War II; and the country was excluded from the ’48 games along with Germany).

Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Congo and Côte d'Ivoire made their first appearances in the ’64 games, and the narrator gives special tribute to Chad and Cameroon, noting the countries’ recent independence.

The reality of the moment, of course, was more fraught. Taiwan participated; China boycotted. South Africa was banned for the abuses of Apartheid. American athletes competed against those from Vietnam while the Johnson administration slowly filtered troops into Southeast Asia.

Even if the film is well-made propaganda for the games, co-signed by the Olympic committee, its reputation as both artistic masterpiece and technical achievement is well earned. The viewer is left with the sense of all that is possible, and all that is temporary. As a striking red Japanese sun sets on the final day of the games, Ichikawa leaves the audience with this postscript:

“When night falls, the sacred fire returns to the sun. Humans dream only once every four years. The peace that we have created—are we going to let it go just like a dream that fades away?”


Follow Ed McMenamin on Twitter at @edmcmenamin



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