“Tokyo Olympiad” – A.J. Hakari

No genre has been as disputed or as controversial as the documentary. Fiction has it easy; just tell a story and get out of there. But with documentaries, where the truth ends and a subjective narrative begins remains a point of contention. Is it a filmmaker’s responsibility to show things as they are, or is culling a deeper meaning justified? The question arises often throughout Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, in theory a chronicle of the 1964 Olympic Games. But don’t write it off as a mere regurgitation of stats and talking heads from the darkest depths of ESPN Classic. It’s as pure an example of art as I’ve ever seen, a bombastic celebration of power and emotion that made this writer, a bona fide athletophobe, a true believer in the heart of the game.

In the spirit of Leni Riefenstahl, Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp) and a small nation’s worth of cameramen set out to capture the glory and the spectacle of the 18th Olympic summer games. The air already thick with anticipation, the occasion goes double for Japan, who, still picking up the pieces after World War II, felt extending a token of good will was in order. It’s with this sense of unity in mind that Ichikawa takes on the events of October 10-24, starting with the opening ceremonies and jumping right into the games. The man’s approach is anything but static, as he employs everything from slow-motion to extreme close-ups to capture the competitors in action. Every heaving breath and tensed muscle is put on display, each athlete determined to go for gold, making this the sort of drama Hollywood wishes it could concoct.

Whatever majesty athletics once stood for has since gone the way of the dodo. It’s a victim of what I call the Wheaties Effect, symptoms of which include rampant commercialization and fans being force fed their heroes. It’s hard to root for the likes of Michael Phelps when a Mickey D’s ad is on the horizon. But like one of Ivan Drago’s left hooks, Tokyo Olympiad shatters one’s cynicism to tell the most stirring tale of sports ever committed to film. Like his spiritual brother Seijun Suzuki, Ichikawa was assigned to do one film and came back with something completely different. Expected to recount highlights from the events, Ichikawa instead used the technology and manpower at his disposal to pay artistic tribute not just to the Olympics but the competitors as well. For such a cultural mainstay that’s varied little through the years, the way Ichikawa’s film captures the games is refreshingly unconventional and makes for more arresting drama than all the television coverage in the world can muster.

I know “art” can be the excuse many a director hides behind to weasel out of the need to make sense, but Ichikawa goes above and beyond to earn the distinction. Every, and I mean every, image in Tokyo Olympiad defines its theme of illustrating the human spirit under great endurance. The faces of athletes outlined in sweat, a decisive volleyball move freeze-framed, a hammer throw competition painted in black-and-white — events one would normally zone out while on TV feel like life-and-death struggles here. The real marvel is that Ichikawa earns your attention through relatively simple means. A little comedic music gives a speed-walking race a jovial twist. The whoops and hollers of some American spectators are contrasted with a reticent Japanese crowd. The tiniest tweaks are made to what’s essentially a series of sporting events with no narrative to speak of, yet the entire experience is undeniably cinematic in scope. In addition, Ichikawa never once resorts to interviews, the athletes telling their stories through their actions alone. From the runner from Chad (who’s older than his country is) to that guy who always seems to be in last place, each subject is given just the right depth and respect deserved.

Tokyo Olympiad’s release by the Criterion Collection comes as a double-edged sword. With the Criterion crew behind it, you know this stirring slice of poetry in motion has been given the care it deserves. But being out of print, copies are scarce and run upwards of $100 used. Still, by hook or by crook, Tokyo Olympiad is a gem worth seeking out, if only to see proof that the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat used to mean something.

Rating: ★★★★

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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