Javelins soar through the clear Japanese air, hordes of marathon runners stream across the Tokyo pavement, and a thrilling sailing sequence plunges us into a maelstrom of powerful waves, with only the sounds of the howling wind, as competitors perilously balance their bodies over the angry seas. Meanwhile, at an inside venue, a short native-born judomaster nervously faces the opponent fate has dealt him, a six-foot-six and 260-pound Dutchman. All these episodes and many more live again in the best of all Olympic movies, Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad.
Whatever it takes to strike a fresh perspective, the Japanese maestro is ready with his army of technicians - including Japan's greatest cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, the mastermind behind the images in classics like Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Yojimbo - to set up breathtakingly precise zooms or jittery handheld shots or rack-focus switches. With a record 59 cameras in one sequence, they capture the runners pounding through the marathon from every conceivable viewpoint, with helicopter shots swooping down in dramatic diagonal trajectories, stretched across the extreme widescreen. The tension builds in an ultra-long traveling close-up of champion Abebe Bikila, who runs in iron concentration until the crowd roars as he enters the stadium.
Although American TV has adopted some of Ichikawa's camera strategies, none of the sports shows can match his warmth, humor, or passion. The stunning editing alone shames TV's efforts, not to mention the array of textures, contrasts and details. Simply in terms of acoustics, Ichikawa sets the bar high, stirring in location sounds - flags snapping or firecrackers exploding or cleats striking cinders or simply the intense silence of concentration-then mixing these with sometimes eccentric but often dramatically - charged music (definitely shaming the gluey triumphal themes produced for TV), and assembling it all into a rhythmic and dynamic whole.
Not stinting one bit on pageantry or drama, Ichikawa keeps all the events moving briskly, yet he constantly throws in refreshingly astringent humor (like a quickie survey of double-chins in the spectator stands), but keeps an eye alert for any and all quirks, especially in that agonizing moment of tension just before the release of movement. We see the bizarre psyching-up rituals that many athletes model, the compulsive repetition of gestures, or the determination to stay loose, as with a woman runner who uses a broom to tidily sweep her lane, then whistles and cracks her neck left and right, and finally turns an impulsive cartwheel.
Ichikawa shows as much interest in the last guy to finish the race, or the competitors lying bleeding on the ground and carried off in stretchers, as he does in the winner. This is the least we'd expect from the director who created classics about loners (such as the shell-shocked soldier who wanders the jungles burying the dead in The Burmese Harp, or the psychopathic monk who burns down his own temple in Enjo/Conflagration, or the zany young guy who decides to cross the ocean by himself in Alone In the Pacific). The ultimate lonely guy here is a runner from Chad (he's older than his own country, as Ichikawa points out). He's no medalist or even finalist, but his solitary experience in the Asian capital celebrates the community of participants. It shows a principle that NBC and ABC only mouth: that they are all winners.
Even with its three hours running time (and a brief intermission), the film has to play hit-and-run with many events, allotting no more than two minutes to an event like fencing or boxing, while soccer, water polo, basketball, and the equestrian competitions get even less. A 1992 interview with the director (included as a 32-minute extra here) discusses some of the fearful logistical difficulties, especially the restrictions which forced him to compromise coverage of certain events, such as swimming. Though never promising to be comprehensive, the film still sketches the disciplines of gymnasts and pole-vaulters in colorful and economical strokes.
Why should anyone care about this record of athletic feats that have receded into history and records that were broken long ago? (Names like Dawn Fraser, Don Schollander, Valery Brumel, Bob Hayes, Billy Mills, and Fred Hansen are among the stars in 1964). This Olympiad, of course, dates to a time well before doping scandals and payoff scandals kicked mud on the reputation of the Games, and even before corporate sponsorship. Compared to some glitzy get-ups in recent times, the athletes' costumes here look sober, if not downright demure, and we see an old-time press box with grizzled sportswriters chomping their cigars as they pound on Olivetti typewriters.
The reason these competitions still matter is that, despite its superficial markers of 1964, this film comes close to catching the essence of athletic dynamism, whatever the year. A case in point is the finale of the women's volleyball competition - Japan vs. Soviet Union - which is all tough, furious action (they have to mop the sweat off the floor). Understandably paying loving attention to the Japanese team, Ichikawa shows why you would definitely want these women on your side in any argument. Unlike Leni Riefenstahl's arty Olympia (with its gravity-defying athletes and partially faked restagings), these images are grounded in gravity, uniting the grit and emotion of the competitors to their muscle and grace.