Tokyo Olympiad

So about a month ago, I was prepping my most recent episode of “Fallen Walls Open Curtains” where I covered events from three Olympic Games during the Cold War, and I wondered if my cable service carried the Olympic channel and whether or not there’s anything worth watching on it. I discovered …

  • Yes, we do get the Olympic channel
  • It shows mostly “in season” competition of Olympic events and Olympic trials
  • It also shows documentaries about the Olympics
  • Not on the channel but on HBO Max is the five-hour version of Bud Greenspan’s 16 Days of Glory.

I’ll get to 16 Days of Glory at some point, but what I wanted to cover here was an earlier and incredibly noteworthy 1965 documentary directed by Kon Ichikawa, Tokyo Olympiad. This was produced as the official film record of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics as part of the IOC’s continuous efforts to provide documentary records (as well as some publicity materials) of all of their games. Prior to this, most of the Olympics documentaries had been pretty straightforward PR pieces and archives, and the most famous one was Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were famous for Jesse Owens’ record-breaking performances and infamous for taking place in Nazi Germany.

The Tokyo games have a World War II connection in that the government of Japan considered them very important to the country’s image. Having rebuilt itself after the devastation of the Second World War, Japan was starting to become more and more influential on the economic world stage, and these games–the first to take place in Asia–were a great showcase. Akira Kurosawa was originally hired to direct the film but proved difficult to work with and therefore Ichikawa, a well-known filmmaker in his own right, was hired. And yet even that was not without controversy because while Ichikawa gave us a look at the humanity of the athletes and the games with a presentation that is artistic, the Japanese government had wanted something more straightforward and more of a journalistic record that focused on the winners.

And yet that artistic approach is the entire reason to watch this movie. It is absolutely gorgeous. Clocking in at a little over two hours (2:30 counting commercials because I’d taped it), Ichikawa gives us a chronological recap of the games beginning with the opening ceremonies and then going through several events that are “classic” Olympic sports: track and field (including walking, which I think still remains an Olympic sport), swimming, judo, wrestling, boxing, and fencing. The images are crisp and transfer really well to the digital streaming format while also keeping that 1960s-era “Kodachrome” look about everything. There’s even a sequence in the Olympic Village that shows the athletes relaxing and having fun with one another, which was unique for its time.

Honestly, watching this film is like watching a clinic on how to make a sports documentary that goes above and beyond. While it didn’t really have the “follow the narrative” structure of NBC’s endless Olympics puff pieces, so we don’t get to know an individual athlete on a deeply personal level, Ichikawa’s use of close-ups, different angles, and the way he has the camera stay on the competitors after the competition is over to show their emotions in victory and defeat are remarkable. Even if you’ve seen a hundred shows and films that are like this, it still stands out.

Watch or Skip?


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