Friday 15 February 2008

Kon Ichikawa's "Tokyo Olympiad"

Japanese director Kon Ichikawa passed away Wednesday of this week at the age of 92. Though he has a vast set of films behind him (88 credits on IMDB over the last 60 odd years) my only experience with him so far has been with his 1965 documentary about the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games - "Tokyo Olympiad". But what an experience...

The film was commissioned to create a record of the first Olympics to be held on the Asian continent. But it's far more than just that and far greater than any sports documentary I've ever seen.

It opens with an image of a close-up of the rising sun (essentially a reverse image of the flag of Japan) followed immediately by a wrecking ball crashing into a building - presumably tearing down old buildings, possibly damaged ones left from the end of the war, to make way for the new Olympic site and for the World to come to Tokyo.

Most sports documentaries choose one of two areas for focus: 1) the stories of the individual athletes (their backgrounds, accomplishments, rivalries, etc.) or 2) the excitement of competition and the battles for victory. These are indeed important elements which can make for riveting drama and give us some insight into the human desire for sporting contests. Ichikawa doesn't seem to care so much for either of these approaches though - his interest seems to lie in the form of the human body and how it manages to coordinate all its components to accomplish these athletic feats. Close-ups of different appendages and joints abound throughout the film and there are many cases where you may only see the a portion of an athlete for an entire event (there are several shots of only the bottom half of runners' bodies). These shot selections allow you to really focus on what the athlete is doing and not necessarily the outcome.

Ichikawa uses a number of techniques to reinforce this focus - freeze frames, slow motion, black & white film, unusual camera angles and even a few bits of animation (to emphasize muscular movement in the weightlifting competition). It makes for a beautiful series of images:

He also likes to focus on the tools of the trade - things that the athletes may use during their competitions:

But he's not totally insensitive to the athletes...There's a long section of the film that follows a young runner from the newly created (at the time) African nation of Chad. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about the athlete's abilities (he fails to qualify for the semi-finals), but Ichikawa seems interested in the concept of a young man from Africa ending up in Japan to run a foot race. Voice-overs and on-screen titles describe other event outcomes and there is pause to show emotional moments of victory or failure for some of the athletes.

It's vastly different than any typical Olympic documentary or ABC Wide World Of Sports type coverage you may have seen before. That's not to knock that style - you'll probably sometimes even wish for more of that kind of information while watching "Tokyo Olympiad" as there must have been plenty of exciting stories from the '64 Games - but Ichikawa's documentary is a glorious piece of filmmaking.


James McNally said...

This is one of my absolute favourite films. It was my first Criterion purchase and I still watch parts of it over and over (Bikila's marathon is still inspiring). And it looks gorgeous, too. The commentary track has lots of Olympic "facts" if you're looking for that. I'm a huge fan of the Olympic games and although each event has had an "official" film, most are hard to find and pretty straightforward. This one is a work of art.

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi James...I've listened to the commentary on the film as well and it's great. Not many commentaries beg to be listened to several times, but this is one.

I'd love to see the other Olympic docs. The only one I've even heard of being available is Riefenstahl's "Olympia" which I should get around to seeing.