Late in Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa’s thrillingly anomalous record of the 1964 Olympic Summer Games, the film documents one of the most taxing contests, the individual modern pentathlon, in a startling montage of still photographs, accompanied by stark sound effects. At first promising a “story of a lone athlete who stayed doggedly throughout the competition”—which transpired over five consecutive days in mid-October and included matches in equestrianism, fencing, shooting, and swimming, and a cross-country footrace—the narrator instead goes on to recount a “hard experience,” of grueling endurance and humiliating defeat. Given the few clues, one must guess that the athlete in question, who remains unidentified, is from South Korea, and the narrator finally confides that this unfortunate young man had to replace the prescribed crawl with the slower breaststroke in the swimming contest because of an impaired shoulder, and finally placed thirty-seventh in the overall competition. The account concludes with the image of a setting sun, which adds a note of plaintiveness.
In its seemingly perverse emphasis on painful struggle and ultimate loss, this odd vignette captures the prevailing tone of Ichikawa’s contentious document of the Olympic Games, which repeatedly punctuates the expected accounts of athletic triumph, including the smashing of several world records, with sequences of agony, failure, and isolation: a bicyclist painfully felled after a collision; a runner eating alone and disconsolate after losing his heat; contestants collapsing from exhaustion during and after the closing marathon. Who else but the humane, exquisitely observant Ichikawa would have his narrator remark that “before they start the race, the runners’ expressions become so tense that they almost look sad”? Little surprise that Tokyo Olympiad was rejected—in many cases, reviled—by the authorities who had commissioned the film or who, as members of the Ministry of Education, were charged with its exhibition throughout Japan. What has long since been consecrated as one of the greatest of all films about sports—or, indeed, anything else—was in its time widely denounced at home as cynical and unpatriotic (not enough Japanese athletes or celebration of postwar Tokyo and the Olympic venues) or, conversely, by leftist critics, as too nationalistic (a surfeit of Japanese flags and sun images that invoke that ensign). The worst crime of all, according to its commissioning committee and government sponsors, was that Ichikawa had created not a document of the Games but a work of bewildering artistry. When officials requested that Ichikawa reshoot the film to produce something more conventional and celebratory, the director later sardonically quipped that he “was able to reply truthfully that circumstances prevented it, as the entire cast had left Japan.”
Akira Kurosawa had originally been appointed to make the film but withdrew when he was denied more than twice the allocated budget and the right to organize the Games’ Opening Ceremony. (Some accounts claim that he also demanded authority over the Closing Ceremony.) The sheer gigantism of the project should have appealed to that most imposing of sensei, with his inclination to the epic mode; his roughly contemporaneous Red Beard runs over three hours. But Kurosawa imperiously demurred, and the officials turned instead to the genial Ichikawa, whose prolific career had revealed a commanding mastery of many genres, forms, and tones—from the animated puppetry of his early film A Girl at Dojo Temple (1946), through the scalding satire of his grievously underrated trilogy about the greed and moral torpor of postwar Japan (Pu-san, 1953; A Billionaire, 1954; A Full-Up Train, 1957); the ferocious war films The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959); and the meta widescreen weirdness of An Actor’s Revenge (1963).
Praised by Yukio Mishima for his literary adaptations, including the blazing Conflagration (Enjo, 1958), based on Mishima’s own best-selling novel Kinkakuji, Ichikawa flaunted an elegant compositional style, venomous wit, and tonal daring but was also a crafty master of populist entertainments, so the Olympic commissioners doubtless felt confident that this most versatile of cineastes could easily add event documentary to his repertoire. That this was to be the first Olympic documentary made in the 2.35 aspect ratio, which was by then synonymous with Ichikawa’s artistry, provided a reassuring bonus. Kurosawa might have produced something more traditionally uplifting and spectacular, focusing more on inspiring struggle and triumph, but his stentorian style would have had little of the amiable sense of irony, the idiosyncratic attention to the banal and the peripheral—the camera fixing on such details as an athlete’s good-luck toy set on the racetrack, a little girl working herself into a delirium of applause, or a lemon mysteriously perched on a starting block—and the startling intimacy that Ichikawa so brilliantly displays.
Various reports of the human power involved in the making of Tokyo Olympiad, the most extravagant of Olympic films to date, differ considerably in their enumeration—some list 68 camera operators, others 164—but it is safe to say that hundreds of technicians were occupied in its making, using more than 100 cameras, some of them outfitted with imported telephoto lenses. In all, 250 different lenses were employed—and mounted on custom-built equipment. (Camera positions were scouted and determined a year in advance, especially for the marathon, but precise preplanning could not predict the noise of the high-speed cameras, which Ichikawa had to muffle with blankets.) Ichikawa and his editor, Yoshio Ehara, reduced seventy hours of footage to less than three, shorter than Leni Riefenstahl’s monumental Olympia—one of Ichikawa’s inspirations (the directors once met in mutual admiration)—but the two films share an adamant aesthetic intent and reliance on abstract figuration.
“I want to show the sweat (with emphasis on how the athletes endeavor),” Ichikawa declared of Tokyo Olympiad, “and the pathos (how they lose) and both the capabilities and limitations of human beings.” The director’s emphasis on loss, limitation, and loneness more than on “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“Faster, Higher, Stronger,” the Olympic motto) in this statement substantiated the critique of the film as a flawed commemoration.
Ichikawa nevertheless unabashedly described the film as a “flag-waver,” and strategically placed the sequence featuring the first medal win for a Japanese athlete (a gold for men’s gymnastics) just before the midpoint intermission for emphasis. The narrator exhorts and editorializes about various competitors from the country in the second half—about the freestyle wrestler Yoshikatsu Yoshida, he cries, “He’s full of fighting spirit,” and when Yojiro Uetake wins a gold in that sport, trumpets, “We’ve just witnessed the Japanese competitive spirit!” Still, Ichikawa tempers the nationalism by also including a Japanese swimmer who comes in fourth despite “doing her best,” and who floats away to contemplate her shortfall; the coach of the Japanese women’s volleyball team, who appears to take little pleasure in his squad’s close-call victory over the Soviets, withdrawing to the bench, solitary and pensive; and the runner Kokichi Tsuburaya, who is in second place in the final stretch of the marathon, only to be bested by a Brit at the last minute. The narrator first cheers Tsuburaya on—“The whole of Japan is watching him! He has a huge burden on his shoulders!”—and after the runner places a disappointing third, offers deflating consolation: “Japan’s flag flies in an Olympic stadium for the first time in twenty-eight years.”
“Tokyo Olympiad participates in revisionism when its narrator slides over Japan’s role in the war that canceled two editions of the Olympic Games . . . but the film’s depiction of the renovated city simply refuses to celebrate.”
An ideological project of the 1964 Olympic Games, which the film was expected to serve, involved establishing an image of a postwar, pacifist, and progressive “new Japan” to a skeptical world. The burgeoning economic power of the country, the willingness, even desire, to demolish the old and all it represented to achieve that transformation, were expressed in the momentous rebuilding of Tokyo and the construction of the Olympic venues, a physical transformation that also signaled a historical rewrite. Japan wished to remake itself in the eyes of the world two decades after the end of the Second World War and little more than a decade after the American occupation had ended. Tokyo Olympiad participates in this revisionism when its narrator slides over Japan’s role in the war that canceled two editions of the Olympic Games—noting that the country was not allowed to participate in the 1948 Games while eliding the reasons—but the film’s depiction of the renovated city simply refuses to celebrate. Ichikawa claimed that Tokyo was “the protagonist of the film,” but what little of the city he reveals appears to be still under construction or curiously nondescript. The American comedy Walk Don’t Run, a remake of The More the Merrier (and Cary Grant’s last film), and Chris Marker’s poetic “essay-portrait” The Koumiko Mystery, both set during the 1964 Olympic Games, give us far more of a sense of the “new Tokyo” than does Ichikawa’s film. And as for the sports venues, a member of the Japanese Olympic Organizing Committee complained, “The main defect in the movie lies in the absence of descriptions of the Olympic facilities such as those for yachting, canoeing, and rowing. Spectators of the film could not know where these competitions had been held.” Indeed, when Ichikawa pictures Lake Sagami, the site of the kayak and canoe races, he’s more interested in the visual possibilities of its diamond-bright surface, which he abstracts into a blaze of glittering splinters by blurring the image, and in the choreographed patterns made by the quartet of red-tipped sculling paddles that rise and fall in the water in meticulous unison.
In an amusing 1955 essay, “CinemaScope and Me,” Ichikawa recounts his forced conversion from his beloved squarish Academy ratio—familiar to him since he had seen his first film, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid—to the new widescreen format that became the rage of the Japanese studios in the fifties. The director’s initial resistance quickly gave way to awe at this “sprawling monstrosity. I found myself filled with wonder again, like a child. This is why I love CinemaScope so unequivocally. It is, I think, a physiological response.” There are few directors who exploit the Scope frame with such daring and sophistication; witness the cavalcade of widescreen astonishments in An Actor’s Revenge or the precisely balanced compositions of his greatly underrated Ten Dark Women (1961). So it is in Tokyo Olympiad. A rare documentary made in Scope, it takes every opportunity to emphasize the expansive horizontal frame, from that striking study in volumetric contrast between the immensity of Mount Fuji and the tiny runner bearing the Olympic torch beneath it, to the decorous symmetry that positions two competing judo athletes at the left and right of the frame with an empty stage between them, as carefully aligned a composition as the one in Conflagration in which the master monk explains his failure of vocation to his deputy.
“The arsenal of visual effects Ichikawa deploys in Tokyo Olympiad both imposes a modernist formalism on the documentary material and raises the issue of whether the film carries a discernible authorial signature.”
The arsenal of visual effects Ichikawa deploys in Tokyo Olympiad, including freeze-frames, smash cuts, montages of still photographs, image masking, temporal intercutting, rack focus, fragmented and disorienting close-ups (which turn wrestlers into an almost illegible tangle of flailing limbs), sudden transitions from color to black and white and back, shadow shots, disruptive zooms, slow motion, and associational edits—the famous rhyming of the blazing sun with the wrecking ball that opens the film, for instance—both imposes a modernist formalism on the documentary material and raises the issue of whether the film carries a discernible authorial signature. Many critics have argued that despite its many aesthetic experiments, Tokyo Olympiad remains, as a commissioned work of actuality involving an army of contributors, outside the classic Ichikawa oeuvre. But the intransigent auteurist finds everywhere in Olympiad the director’s penchant for the lone figure and determined outlier, familiar from such Ichikawa studies in isolation as Conflagration and Alone on the Pacific (1963), and his formalist eye for diagonals, especially in the tightly serried rows of athletes as they march into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony, and for repeated patterns of contour (here, the oblate and the circular).
Tokyo Olympiad also exhibits Ichikawa’s tone of wry detachment and his wicked, voyeuristic savoring of senescence, previously apparent in his comedy of geriatric eroticism, Odd Obsession (Kagi, 1959)—note the montage of older spectators, which fixes on wrinkles, age spots, and rheumy eyes, and, later, two cruel close-ups of men’s rippling chins and sagging gullets. The film’s wealth of odd or irreverent details—from a shot-put contestant’s elaborate, risible ritual of preparation to the bizarre close-up of a marksman’s cheek bulging into a bubble of flesh over the barrel of his rifle—may be partly attributable to Ichikawa’s wife and frequent scenarist, Natto Wada, who wrote some of the film’s narration. Wada’s caustic irony may also explain that moment after the heart-bruising sequence capturing the defeated Chadian runner eating his steak alone, in which the camera then roams the room to describe the food in the athletes’ cafeteria, its depiction of greasy, garishly colored dishes being shoveled into eager male maws anticipating the work of British photographer Martin Parr, that mischievous connoisseur of grim victuals.
The director who once revised the opening sequence of a film (1960’s Her Brother) to include an umbrella, and inserted a superfluous one into Odd Obsession as an auteurist autograph, here bestows loving attention on parasols and parapluies, including that shot of a sea of umbrellas that recalls a similar one at the beginning of his A Full-Up Train. Ichikawa turns the supposedly celebratory release of pigeons during the Olympic Opening Ceremony into a comedy of terrified evasion, a sequence that evokes the flocks of birds in The Burmese Harp, Conflagration, and Fires on the Plain. The brief episode of animation that explains the elements of weight lifting returns Ichikawa to his roots as a manga artist, and the film’s most self-consciously “artistic” sequence, featuring the abstract, slow-motion choreography of men’s and women’s gymnastics, with its sole figures scissoring through space against a black background, recollects Ichikawa’s use of masking to isolate details within the Scope frame in An Actor’s Revenge. Equally, Ichikawa’s use of music to comment on action—for instance, the comically galumphing tune that accompanies the 50-kilometer walking race as the camera clamps on the athletes’ pumping rear ends while they mince and sway their elastic way to the finish line—and sound to heighten drama, most memorably in the women’s hurdles, which transpires in slow motion and total silence, save for the downing of a sole barrier, its metallic collapse registering with palpable force, suggest similar techniques in Ichikawa’s cinema.And when the narrator describes the atmosphere in the stadium while runners prepare for a race as being so tense that “one hears only the sound of the wind passing through the flagpoles,” when a forlorn breeze rattles the metal staffs, one again imagines the commissioning authorities’ baffled wrath at Ichikawa’s aesthetic impudence. A little like the indefatigable, and here briefly glimpsed, runner Ranatunge Karunananda, from Ceylon, determined to finish the 10,000-meter race—continuing his final laps for no reason other than to accomplish what was expected of him, which initially incited jeers from the crowd that gradually changed to cheers as he persevered—Ichikawa remained dedicated to his approach in Tokyo Olympiad, vowing many years later that, given the chance again, he would make the film in exactly the same way as he had in 1964.