Home Video Hovel: Tokyo Olympiad, by David Bax
1964’s Summer Olympics (or the Games of the XVIII Olympiad, officially) were the first to be held in a non-Western country, finally landing in Japan after the country’s two previously scheduled hosting opportunities were canceled due to World War II. Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, out now on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, makes it clear what a big deal this is, opening with a list of every single host city going back to 1896, culminating in Tokyo. Ichikawa’s directive was to glorify Japan and the Olympics in equal measure. And that’s what he did, though not without controversy and not without occasionally undercutting the pageantry; the ceremonial releasing of pigeons, for instance, is presented as comic horror.
Still, it’s almost funny to think that Ichikawa’s financiers–meaning, the Japanese government–were unhappy with his final product, eventually forcing him to cut it down by half (Criterion’s Blu-ray is the full, three hour version). They found it overly arty, more impressionistic than historical. Ichikawa was eventually proved correct, as evidenced by the fact that his emotion-driven focus on individual athletes clearly laid the foundation for every backstory video package you see in between events when the Olympics air today.
Biographical, human-interest segments may be boilerplate now but Ichikawa mastered the form early by knowing which athletes to feature. Ahmed Issa may not have been a star at the 1964 Olympiad but, as one of the two participants from Chad’s first-ever Olympic team, his story is as inspiring as Japan’s, even though he failed to win a medal (Chad has not medaled to this day). At other times, though, Tokyo Olympiad turns gripping by simply embracing the inherent drama of sport. Try not to lean forward in your seat when the pole vaulting competition extends into the evening hours with athletes eliminated one by one as the bar inches higher and higher.
Other parts of the film may drag depending on your taste in sports. Weightlifting, wrestling, judo… these things are not my cup of tea. But field hockey is, especially when a fight breaks out just like in the icebound version. And Ichikawa finds delights even in the most fringe events; when he gets to the walking race, he can’t help but point the camera as the jiggling dicks and asses of the not-quite-running participants. Even if, like me, you have a hard time forgetting how corrupt and damaging the Olympics are, Tokyo Olympiad will remind you that the games themselves are something special.
Criterion’s Blu-ray comes from a 4K scan of various sources, recompiled to give us the best possible version of Tokyo Olympiad. The effort pays off. The film is three hours of pure beauty, from the helicopter shots of the torchbearers jogging through the countryside to the close-ups of the marksmen’s rifles. It seems to be completely free of dirt, somehow. The mono audio is loud and clear.
Special features include a 2001 audio commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, who also provides both a new introduction to the feature and a new introduction to a selection of additional material from the 1964 games; interviews with Ichikawa; a new documentary about Ichikawa; a new interview with Adrian Wood, who oversaw the restoration; and an essay by film scholar James Quandt.