Watch a gold medalist Olympic documentary
All of the modern Olympics, even the first, in Athens in 1896, have been filmed. Some of the most famous documentaries inspired by the Games include Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”, his 1936 Berlin Games record (released in 1938) and David Wolper’s “Visions of Eight” (1973), in which eight Filmmakers (one of whom is Kon Ichikawa) chose an event to cover at the 1972 Munich Games. But the gold medal standard for Olympic films is Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad” (1965). Which is not to say that the Japanese director’s documentary on the 1964 Games is by no means a typical sports film.
Ichikawa was born in southeastern Japan in 1915 and died in Tokyo in 2008 at the age of 92. As a child, he loved samurai films and cartoons, especially Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” (animated shorts produced from 1929 to 1939). He once called Disney, along with Charlie Chaplin, “the greatest influence on my films.” He started out as an animator but moved on to directing when the studio he worked for shut down his animation department.
In 1948 he married Natto Wada, a translator for the studio, who would turn to screenwriting and collaborate with him on an incredible series of films, mostly dramas, many literary adaptations. Two of their most notable films were anti-war tales, “The Burmese Harp” (1956; remade 1985) and “Fires on the Plain” (1959), which tells the story of a starving Japanese soldier suffering from tuberculosis stuck behind US lines in the Philippines. I would definitely call “Fires on the Plain” the greatest war – or anti-war – film ever made. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote: “As careful as I am of superlatives, I think the term masterpiece should be applied to Fires on the plain. It has the disturbing power of great art.
Ichikawa was not the Japanese government’s first choice for “Tokyo Olympiad”. It was Akira Kurosawa, her contemporary and compatriot, who resigned because the International Olympic Committee did not allow her to lead the opening ceremonies. Kurosawa, I’m pretty sure, would have focused on the epic and triumphant moments of the Games. Ichikawa, as writer George Plimpton put it, “pays great attention to the little moments.”
Using portable cameras with telephoto lenses, Ichikawa and his team watched the events from strange angles, showing us the chalk-covered hands of a pole vaulter, the tortured gasping face of a marathon runner, the bleeding and swollen feet of a sprinter. Boxing competitions (in which a young Joe Frazier, seven years before his epic showdown with Muhammad Ali, won heavyweight gold) are bursts of action punctuated with freeze frames. They are shot in stark black and white.
In a surprising sequence, Ichikawa features female hurdles wobbling from their starting positions at the sound of a gun, then running their course in complete silence. In the most incredible streak I’ve ever seen in a sports movie, a game but a desperately under-trained long-distance runner, Karunananda from Ceylon, staggers through what he thinks is the finish line, realizes that he has one more lap to go, and finishes the last lap to the screams and cheers of the ecstatic crowd.
And in the saddest moment I’ve ever seen in a sports movie, Ahamed Isa, a runner from Chad – one of only two Olympic athletes in his country – is seen eating alone in a cafeteria after having failed to qualify for the final in his one event. Ichikawa devotes more time to human history than to one of the medalists.
Ichikawa’s great movie isn’t about medals, teams, or world records; it’s just the athletes – their occasional triumphs and how they console and overcome their sorrows in defeat.
The opening scene shows a bright red sun, an obvious symbol for Japan, followed by another symbolic circle: a wrecking ball crashing into doomed buildings to clear the way for the national stadium where the Games would be held. The city of Tokyo looks surprisingly fresh and new, especially when you realize that less than two decades earlier, much of its infrastructure was destroyed during WWII.
If there is an unequivocal winner in “Tokyo Olympiad”, it is the city itself.
Mr. Barra writes about sports and the arts for the Daily Beast and Truthdig.
Copyright © 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8