Some years ago I saw Visions of Eight, David Wolper’s documentary about the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. Wolper had an interesting concept. He would persuade eight prominent film directors of the day (not including Leni Riefenstahl, whose great film Olympia, about the Berlin Olympics, had too many associations with Hitler and Nazism) to film an Olympic event of their own choosing. John Schlesinger picked the marathon, Milos Forman the decathlon. Claude Lelouch focused on losers, Arthur Penn on pole-vaulters, Mai Zetterling on weightlifters, and so on. Kon Ichikawa picked the l00-meter dash. I can remember as if yesterday the ultra-slowed-down shots of runners’ faces as they came toward the camera: the cheeks sucking in and out as if the skin itself was in danger of disengaging from the skull, a bobble of loose flesh quite unapparent to the naked eye at normal speed. The physical ravaging of the human form under stress was far more interesting to Ichikawa than the outcome of the race.
Viewing Tokyo Olympiad, Ichikawa’s film of the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, it is apparent that even then his main idea (despite the more than 150 cameras available to him) was to present a fragmented picture of the Games, rather than a news documentary. Only on occasion did Ichikawa bother to tell the audience the statistical information that is the usual stuffing of an Olympic reportage. At the time, in fact, the Olympic Organizing Board complained that the artistic guidelines of the film had overshadowed the recording of events, and asked that it be re-edited. What is presented here is the original 170-minute version.
Always Ichikawa pays great attention to matters of small moment: Many close-ups. An exhausted face. A fluttering flag. Remarkable consideration is paid to the feet, to track shoes (It’s almost a shock to note there are no Nike swooshes!). Exalting that part of the body that symbolizes the physical nature of the Games, a camera can linger for a full minute on a sneaker settling into a starting block.
Often the cameras are hand-held, which is not necessarily to the film’s disadvantage: it is, after all, the way a spectator’s eye moves from one point of interest to another. (The water-level camera that documents the yacht racing in rough seas threatens to disappear completely underwater; I have to look away for fear of mal de mer.)
The background commentary in Japanese disappears for long stretches of time, rather like Wimbledon tennis commentators who seem to be taking the occasional nap. The music is unique for a sports event. Often the music takes on a moody sound, the kind that usually accompanies someone opening a door in a haunted house. Occasionally, a sentence in English scrolls across the bottom of the screen, to identify what the commentator is saying. In reference to a failed Japanese athlete, we read: “The rising sun flag will not fly. But she ran and jumped her best.”
The footage shows its years. I keep reminding myself that this documentary was put together nineteen years after the war, not long after the city was obliterated in the firebombing. Indeed, the first shots (after the obligatory, slow rise of a red-hued symbolic sun) are the skeletons of buildings being razed to make way for the building of the vast National Stadium.
Part of the pleasure of watching the documentary is to note how things have changed. The opening and closing ceremonies back in l964 were remarkably simple affairs. There is a gun salute (close-up shot of children holding their ears), then a huge number of pigeons are let loose, so many that the spectators hold purses, umbrellas, to protect themselves from the fallout. Above, a single skywriting plane outlines the perfect linked rings of the Olympic logo against a blue sky. That’s about it. At the close, very little. The athletes rush pell-mell out of the portals onto the field to celebrate, a few fireworks, and the crowds begin to wave handkerchiefs in farewell.
I’ve a number of favorite moments: Broad jumpers endure a downpour (splat! as sneakers kick up mud). A long-distance runner from Ceylon thinks he’s finished but isn’t, and must run a final lap: his sprint in the last stretch brings the crowd to its feet. Covering the athletes in the 50km walk, the camera zeroes in on their rear ends, which jauntily swish from side to side as the runners try to keep from breaking into a trot. The twenty-two year old runner from Chad (the subtitle tells us that his country is younger than he is) wanders about alone, a lost soul dodging traffic in downtown Tokyo, meandering by the stadium under a colorful Japanese parasol in a rainstorm. He loses out in the semi-final and then we see him in the mess hall, eating noodles, and the background music shifts from its Prokofiev mood to a sorrowful jazz saxophone. During the marathon, the camera shifts back and forth between what’s going on at the front (invariably the solitary figure of Ethiopia’s unflappable Abebe Bikila, far in the lead) and at the back of things, usually someone slumped to the sidewalk, or in one case carted off on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
There is, of course, a close-up of a bare foot, blistered and raw.
I remember Ernest Hemingway telling me once that the unnoticed things in the hands of a good writer had an effect, and a powerful one, of making readers conscious of what they had been aware of only subconsciously. A parallel adage suggests that a great photographer can take a picture of a familiar street and tell you something about it you never knew before. After watching the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, one can surely say that Ichikawa is of that tradition.
George Plimpton, the co-founder of the Paris Review, a literary quarterly, is the author of a number of books, Paper Lion and Shadow Box among them, many with a sports background.