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).
“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.”
“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.”
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