' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Though Kon Ichikawa’s documentary chronicling the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics begins with an image of a bright sun in the morning sky, evoking his nation’s flag, ultimately it steers away from overt nationalism. This angered the Japanese Government and Olympic Committee so much they forced a a re-edited 93-minute version that, by all accounts, pales mightily compared to the film’s true 169-minute run time. That is not to suggest “Tokyo Olympiad” masquerades as if the Olympic Games are host-less; we see plenty of Japanese athletes in action. But it does not linger much on Tokyo itself and in the documentary’s opening minutes the narrator literally cites every single host city prior to the Japanese capital, as if they are all one and the same. And though the image of a wrecking ball bashing a building to bits in a muted grey seems to convey the Games’ propensity for ardent displacement as it does Japan’s post-WWII rebirth, in transitioning to the Opening Ceremonies and athletic points beyond, Ichikawa nevertheless ultimately goes all-in on the ostensible Olympic spirit.

Granted, Olympic Spirit is a term too evocative of the similarly jejune Magic of the Movies; accepting something nebulous at face value rather than seeking to explain or understand it. And though “Tokyo Olympiad” narrator occasionally comes across a little NBC-y in citing an athletes success as a demonstration of the Olympic Spirit, Ichikawa is determined not simply to cite that Spirit but to show it. He utilized over 100 cameras and 250 lenses, including breathless widescreen Techniscope, an image of the torch relay set against the backdrop of Mount Fuji transforming Japan’s highest peak into a Pacific Rim Mount Olympus. But the sheer number of cameras also provides a window into the kind of Olympics a normal telecast does not. If the aid stations are typically blurs during the Marathon, a place where we see the leaders quickly grab a drink or a sponge and then hurry on, Ichikawa evinces a day in the life of an aid station by planting a camera there. Runners do not just come and go; they stop and take a breather; it’s like an aid station as a cafe. And when “Tokyo Olympiad” checks out the shooting range, Ichikawa is as interested in how the competitors pack a lunch given the length of events as he is in the guns and the targets. I’m still thinking about the shot of an Olympian at the Olympics during his Olympic event just sitting there eating a freaking sandwich.

That sort of unexpected humanity is everywhere in “Tokyo Olympiad.” It is the sort of humanity, as many critics have noted over the years, not present in Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”, generally considered the model of Olympic documentaries in emphasizing poetic impressions of individuals over an expository narrative of events. Whether Riefenstahl's film was intended as Nazi propaganda can be debated but it’s clear why Nazi propaganda is what it became. In playing up individuals, Riefenstahl also played up their beauty, their strength, downplaying their humanity, turning them into unspeaking cogs in a churning athletic machine, evoking the idea of future Eastern Bloc gymnasts as robots within a system. Ichikawa, though, might linger over these athletes in slow motion and even manage to transform a stultifying-sounding event like sailing into pure thrill simply in how he recounts it with close-ups, but he sees so much deeper than that.

For races at the track, he likes his cameras not just up closed but often positions them in the infield, right in the middle of the race, rendering the races as spontaneous bursts of emotion rather than predetermined. When Ann Packer wins the 800m, it feels like a genuine surprise and in cutting next to her medal ceremony, it feels less about the flag being raised than Packer’s elated, overwhelmed reaction. For the shot put, the result is less crucial than the art of the actual throw as we several competitors in succession and their various unorthodox methods for getting ready to and then throwing, like the same scene in different light, a la Monet’s stacks of wheat, rendering each shot-putter as his/her own person. A thrillingly filmed judo final, meanwhile, lingers as much on the men’s faces in various forms of concentration and agony. And in the concluding marathon race, for several minutes Ichikawa’s camera tracks alongside eventual winner Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, not from a distance but up close and personal, a pure evocation of the loneliness of the long distance runner, laying bare exultation, exhaustion and concentration at once.

As he runs, the camera briefly switches to a shot behind Bikila, seeing the Olympic flame burning inside the stadium’s cauldron up ahead. It is fuzzy and abstract, however, not brilliant and illuminating, as if such symbols hardly compare to this running human. Indeed, if Riefenstahl rendered Olympians in the image of Greek Gods then Ichikawa renders them as mortal. When a Japanese swimmer loses her race, Ichikawa does not cut away to the winner but keeps his camera fixed on the loser as she pushes away from the wall and floats toward one of the lane lines, leaning on it and looking off into the void, a human being living out her Olympic experience in real time.

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