With the 2020 Tokyo summer games now another casualty of COVID-19, there is an unintended irony in the timing of Criterion’s release of the new remastered Blu-ray and DVD. But even if viewers choose to watch Tokyo Olympiad in lieu of the now-cancelled games, they are getting an experience vastly different from what decades of network coverage, usually skewed to each country’s team and dependent on dozens of prearranged narratives, have given them. Tokyo Olympiad is an epic mosaic on an intimate scale.
Ichikawa and his immense production team, which included five directors of photography and 100 camera operators, render the games via close-ups of competitors’ expectant faces or by filling the Tohoscope screen with a shot that isolates straining and rippling muscles. At times a race is presented to us so that all we see are the athletes’ legs arrayed across the widescreen, or a swim meet by the arms that butterfly in and out of the water. Tokyo Olympiad is presented as a series of mini-essays that are more an experience to be lived through than an objectively recorded set of events.
Ichikawa often informs us of the winner via a throwaway shot of a flag being hoisted or the sound of a national anthem being played. This approach may be crazymaking to viewers conditioned to the overhyped and manufactured drama of television, or for those looking for a visual transcription of information they can find in a record book. It certainly drove the Organizing Committee for the Tokyo games crazy. They were dismayed that Ichikawa neither emphasized the Japanese winners nor used the film as an opportunity to promote Japan’s recovery from the wreckage of World War II, epitomized by the vast structures it built for the games. Emperor Hirohito reportedly liked the movie no better. The film appeared in a number of mutilated versions (including an English-dubbed 84-minute one advertised with the tagline “The man’s picture … every woman will love!”). What saved Tokyo Olympiad was that a 154-minute version was a smash at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and, released in Japan a few months later, went on to become the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. To my knowledge, the present 170-minute version was not seen widely until the late 1980s (its way paved by the international acclaim for Ichikawa’s 1983 The Makioka Sisters).
From the first shot, it is clear that we won’t be seeing any kind of official narrative. In that shot, which is also the closing one, the screen is filled by a close-up of a white-hot sun blazing in a red sky — literally an inversion of the Japanese flag. What follows, a shot of a wrecking ball decimating structures half-destroyed in the war, is ambiguous enough to raise another question. Is Ichikawa telling us we’re seeing his country’s miraculous recovery, or is he rejecting that boosterism by suggesting the hubris that brought about that destruction in the first place? In either event, this link to the past may have been unwelcome. Japan’s postwar miracle is, in some crucial way, predicated on forgetting. Ian Buruma explored this in his 1994 book The Wages of Guilt, laying out how the myth of a glorious patriotic war had been instituted in place of a reckoning of the country’s part in bringing about its destruction. A triumphant and shining present was what backers wanted to present in a film memorializing an event they planned to stand for Japan’s emergence and acceptance into the company of its fellow nations.
The Japanese narrator, whose banal soundtrack utterances are mercifully brief, often goes on about the games as an occasion to lay differences aside and suggests the possibility of world peace. But we know the Olympics can easily become a platform for nationalism, sometimes on the part of the host country and often in the way the press covers them in each country. The most obvious example of that nationalism is perhaps the most praised film ever made about the Olympics, Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Olympic games, Olympia. Like the myth of Riefenstahl’s talent, Olympia itself is a crock, a reduction of the particularities of each athlete who comes before her camera to a celebration of the Nazi aesthetic. It is often claimed that Riefenstahl’s admiring presentation of Jesse Owens proved she wasn’t beholden to Nazi ideology. But Owens is presented as just one more statue in Riefenstahl’s Pantheon of the Übermensch (the complete opposite of how we see Owens in the shot Ichikawa includes of him reacting in amazed pleasure to American runner Billy Mills’s win). On a much deeper level than the moribund geometric patterns of that sieg-heiling snoozer Triumph of the Will, Olympia is Riefenstahl’s truest manifesto of Nazi propaganda.
In The Naked Civil Servant (1968), Quentin Crisp described Michelangelo’s method as follows:
Michelangelo worked from within. He described not the delights of touching or seeing a man but the excitement of being Man. Every stroke he made spoke of the pleasure of exerting, restraining and putting to the utmost use the divine gravity-resisting machine.
Ichikawa’s method is similar. By the time the editing of Tokyo Olympiad began, he had accumulated 70 hours of footage, and the odd details on which he chooses to focus are usually the most telling. Riefenstahl isn’t interested in imperfect bodies, in human frailty or doubt, but Ichikawa makes room for the hair under the arms of the Soviet female shot-putters, or a montage showing how each of these women, immediately after throwing, each bounce on a single foot as their eyes nervously follow the progress of the shot. (The women athletes here have just about equal screen time with the men.) Ichikawa takes in the different builds of the athletes, the striking elongated thinness of many of the runners, the weightlifters looking like massive fireplugs. This individuality is the key to the underlying reality of Tokyo Olympiad. By focusing on the human, the quirky, Ichikawa manages to make an epic film that exists on a human scale. Much of the film is strikingly silent. The most common sound we hear is that of footsteps, the rapidly accelerating ones of a pole-vaulter or jumper, the steady ones of runners. It’s the sound of the most basic element of human propulsion, and also a metaphor for persistence, for continuing to move, for progressing, even when weariness of injury tempts the athlete to quit.
And yet, for all the stirring moments we see here of camaraderie and communal feeling — the playing of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in place of a national anthem to honor a win by the unified German teams; the audience at the 1,000 meters staying to applaud and cheer the last lap of the Ceylonese runner who came in dead last — Tokyo Olympiad is, in some essential way, an extended essay on solitude. With the obvious exceptions — volleyball, water polo, soccer, the running relays — these are not team sports. The athlete’s fiercest competitor here is him or herself. It’s no wonder that Robert Towne was to pick up on this aspect of Ichikawa’s film, as well as much of the director’s technique, for his 1982 Personal Best, certainly the best fictional film ever made about the experience of athletes, and one fiercely devoted to the notion of individuality as a bulwark against the corrosiveness of competition for competition’s sake. Filming the men’s shot put, Ichikawa focuses on the Hungarian competitor Zsigmond Nagy, who didn’t even place in the top three. Nagy is introduced to us by an image of an open hand jutting up from the bottom of the screen, gently bouncing the shot in his hand. The camera stays with Nagy as he carries out his obsessive routine before throwing the shot. The shot-putter’s concentration, his almost fetishistic ritual, tells us more about the pressure of competition than any straightforward recording of the event ever could. Even when he focuses on a winner, like the Welsh long jumper Lynn Davies, who set a world record that year in Tokyo, Ichikawa doesn’t go about it in the expected way. The long, uninterrupted view he gives us of Davies’s creased and worried face only deepens the triumph of the record-setting jump that follows. Ichikawa devotes a section to Ahmed Issa, the 21-year-old runner who is the only competitor in track from the then-four-year-old nation of Chad. We see him training alone, competing alone, eating alone in the Olympic village. No one, it seems, speaks the Arabic dialect he does. His experience of the games is a stark contrast to the official bromides we hear of fellowship between nations.
The film’s sense of quiet, meditative solitude finds its greatest expression in the extended coverage of the Games’ final event, the marathon. The privilege we are afforded here is that of seeing the great Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila, who won the event in Tokyo in 1964, as he did in the 1960 summer games in Rome. Bikila is lean and serious, and moves along at an unvarying pace, his eyes apparently focused on his feet rather than the road before him, as if to make sure they are doing their work. As he nears victory and his steadiness never falters, we understand his accomplishment is not a sudden dramatic burst of skill but a solitary one of epic endurance.
It is also to Ichikawa’s credit that the story of the marathon as he tells it is not just the story of Bikila’s victory — it is also the story of the Irish runner Jim Hogan, who’s with Bikila for most of the way, but who hits a wall and is simply unable to continue. And it is the story of the others who fall to pieces during the race or make their way into the stadium long after the front runners. The melancholy that always settles in at the close of any game is present in Tokyo Olympiad long before the end of the film. It is present in the evanescence of these achievements, preserved only because a camera was there to record them.
If you have been lucky enough to see Tokyo Olympiad on the big screen, you know how Ichikawa’s ease and mastery in the widescreen format makes the intimacy of the film overwhelming. I don’t mean to say that the Criterion release is an unworthy souvenir of the theatrical experience. I do, though, want to suggest that there is something poignant about seeing a great record of a global event — and this is one of the four or five greatest documentaries ever made — in this format, when this is the only way we can experience nearly any event.
This melancholy is even stronger because of the sense that the games we are watching belong to the past, not because of any deterioration of athletes and their abilities, but because it seems impossible now to be able to see any games presented as these are: not encrusted in hype and ornamentation, but instead willing to wait and discover what the stories might be rather than force the events into preplanned narratives. Tokyo Olympiad feels finally as singular an accomplishment as that of the athletes it observes, and, like them, one that exists in its own state of vibrating solitude.
Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s. He lives in New York.