Tokyo Olympiad (Criterion) Review

The Olympic Games is far from being just a mere gathering of each nation's top athletes. It can represent world unity, acting as an inspiration to millions. It can transform ordinary people into worldwide heroes quicker and more successfully than any fictional movie. Sometimes however, the art of winning has overtaken the art of taking part, and losers are quickly forgotten amidst the global frenzy of publicity that surrounds the winners.

Tokyo Olympiad destroys this notion commendably. The documentary, directed by Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, disregards any fascination with winners and losers, and celebrates the art of the event itself. Gone is the glorification of the record breakers and the dominant nations, as Tokyo Olympiad distances the audience from the obsession of results and medal tables to instead give an epic visual portrait of the games itself. Although the documentary follows the on-goings of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the setting could have been any major sporting event. The film isn't concerned with establishing itself as the authoritative account of the actual 1964 Olympic games, it's more focused on acting as a metaphysical and psychological study of a sports event in general.

Tokyo Olympiad is to sport what Woodstock is to music. Both render their subjects as icons without aiming to, and both value the spirit of the performance ahead of any best or worst rank system. Tokyo Olympiad almost acts as the perfect sports movie without any plot or characters. The pain and anguish of the competitors faces are recorded in glorious widescreen and in colour, combined with smooth slow motion editing, gives an almost poetic stylising of the events on screen. When Hayes destroys the competition in the men's one hundred metres sprint he isn't pretending or acting out the intensity of his performance but is his performance. When the women jump over the hurdles in the eighty metres sprint the slow-motion synchronisation is so masterfully eloquent that it seems rehearsed and choreographed. In comparison to actuality, cinema seems an inferior and phoney loser.

What is so refreshing about Tokyo Olympiad as a sports document and as a cinematic documentary is the notion that it remains as one of the last accounts of sport before it became a hybridised by-product of the corporate age. Shot in breathtaking colour so that it can still identify with our generation, the athletes may lack hi-tech training equipment and accurate timing systems, but they also thankfully lack any need for product placement, sponsorship or corporate branding. It's as if sport in 1964 still maintained its own purity.

As a study of Japan, Tokyo Olympiad proves interesting, primarily because Ichikawa seems to wish to reflect on the nation's post-war fortunes at a secondary level. There are many shots in the film in which one can sense the heavy inter-linking with World War II, such as a gun shot fired at the opening ceremony juxtaposed with a shot of a baby crying. This seems to play on the subconscious of such events as the Hiroshima bombing, and yet simultaneously presents the country in a positive, reborn light.

Despite being a documentary on the Olympic games, Tokyo Olympiad proved to be one of the most controversial films of Ichikawa's career. The Olympic committee had desired the film to be an in-depth account of their games without any auteuristic indulgences, and demanded re-editing of the film considering the legion of film equipment and high budget the director had at his disposal. Ironically, just as the Japanese Olympic committee and the country's politicians were unhappy with Ichikawa because of their opinion that the film didn't realise its potential in terms of promoting the strengths of Japanese, many outside critics strongly accused the film of being nationalistic. The strong Tokyo sun is heavily utilised by Ichikawa, and many drew comparisons with the red sun of the Japanese flag. Whatever the controversy, the film still serves as a fascinating account of the 1964 Olympic Games on many levels, and is clearly one of the greatest documentaries to ever focus on the beauty of sport.

Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the transfer for Tokyo Olympiad is typical of Criterion's recent standard, with decent sharp imagery mixed with fine colour tones. On occasions, the print contains elements of grain and slight artefacts, but on the whole the transfer complements the film well, and in most sequences gives proceedings a fresh, almost new aura which is corroborated by the epic scope framing.

Presented in mono, the sound mix is reported to have been digitally cleaned of any noise, pops, hiss and other detracting elements, and yet still sounds tinny and unrefined on occasions. Mostly, the sound mix is very acceptable for the film, and the mix deftly balances narration with music and actual sound from the events. However, the musical score occasionally appears off-key, as if the digital noise-reduction has been slightly over-zealous. It's also a pity that the English narration track has been left out of this release.

Menu: An inspired animated menu that features clips from the film in slow motion and staggered so that each clip cell starts at a different time.

Packaging: Criterion's #155 release is featured in an amaray packaging with a detailed forty-four page booklet. The booklet contains chapter listings, an introduction by George Plimpton, various essays on the critical controversy Tokyo Olympiad received as well as a complete list of all the medal winners from the '64 games.


Audio Commentary By Peter Cowie: The commentary by occasional Criterion contributor and 'Olympic Expert' Peter Cowie is unfortunately quite dry. Cowie discusses the film's merits quite successfully, but is unfortunately slightly lacking when it comes to sporting facts and anecdotes. For a film near three hours in length, Cowie doesn't sustain interest throughout, and clearly needs a companion.

Video Interview With Kon Ichikawa: This 1992 interview lasts for thirty-two minutes and is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. It's a fascinating insight into Ichikawa's approach to the documentary, as he reveals all of the difficulties his artistic vision of the games faced, and why he made the creative decisions that earned Tokyo Olympiad the reputation it has.


One of the greatest sports documentaries ever produced is given an excellent package from Criterion that benefits both the film and the distributor's reputation. Tokyo Olympiad will certainly not appeal to a wide audience, but the many people who do appreciate the film will delight at this release.

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