The next Olympic games in 2020 will be in Tokyo, so it is probably fitting to watch a movie from the last (and first) time Tokyo hosted the Olympics.
“Tokyo Olympiad” (“Tōkyō Orinpikku”) is somewhere between a documentary and an ode to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Through its 170 minutes it covers the games from the lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece, through the opening ceremony, the many sports events to the closing ceremony. Sometimes as a sports report, sometimes telling stories about the people behind the competitions and sometimes as a style study, trying to capture the essence of a sport.
The obvious reference is Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia from the 1936 games and in many ways Kon Ichikawa has borrowed from Riefenstahl’s template. The games as a mystical event, the celebration of the athletic body and the love of the idea of the games themselves is almost copy-paste. However, where Riefenstahl had to humor her Nazi sponsors Ichikawa merely has to humor a Japanese audience who was proud to host the games and liked to see the Japanese athletes do well. I cannot really blame them, it seems a quite natural point of view. An American, Russian or Danish movie on the subject would have the same bias.
It was a big thing for Japan to host the games. They were scheduled to host it in 40, but the war got in the way and after the war they were blacklisted and not even invited to the games in London in 48. To the Japanese to host the games in 64 meant the official return to the good company, the recovery of Japan in the eyes of the world and of themselves. It is this pride I feel watching this movie.
Each of the many sport events is portrayed a bit differently from the others. The athletics gets special coverage, probably because it is the original Olympic sport, and we see a great many disciplines. Some races we see in their entirety with a focus on the winning of a race and I could feel the thrill of a sports audience. Others were summaries as if listing headlines for the late news (with a similar lac of excitement). Some of the throwing disciplines were not so much covered and as used to exhibit the technique and style of the athletes. There are a lot of medals and a lot of national anthems.
Then the film takes a tour of the various other sports, often ignoring who were winning in preference of trying to capture the essence. Cycling for exampling is a lot of bicycles racing fast with up-tempo music. Fencing is the concentration and frustration of making and taking points and wrestling and weightlifting the sheer exertion of strength and will.
We get the story of the runner from Chad who is far away from home and the unnamed penthalon fighter who takes an unremarkable 37th place, but participated.
Finally, the climax is the marathon, which gets special coverage. For this race all the styles and techniques used covering the other sports are here combined in the glorious demonstration of athletes pitting themselves against their own strength and endurance. The camera is excited, and it is difficult not to be caught up in it. Uh, I got tired from watching it, but also filled with an urge to run.
“Tokyo Olympiad” is a far more modern movie than “Olympia” and cater to our more modern sensibilities. This movie does not look 53 years old and the presentation is captivating. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected I would. But it is also very much a remake of “Olympia” and “Tokyo Olympiad” would not exist without the former.
… and yes, I did look in vain for coverage of the two gold medals Danish athletes won in Tokyo…