Sunday, 5 February 2012

Movie review: Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

A few days ago I decided to watch Kon Ichikawa's 170-minute long Tokyo Olympiad, chronicling the two weeks of competition of the 18th summer games. The games were originally intended to be filmed by Akira Kurosawa, but things fell though after he demanded total control of the opening ceremonies. Japan's officials preferred to hire someone who'd play up the post-war reconstruction and economic growth of the city. Obligingly there are early shots of old buildings demolished to make way for the new 71,000-seat National stadium. It's fair to say the movie was unavoidably inspired by Riefenstahl's 226-minute-long Olympia (1938), an artistically-managed depiction of Berlin's summer Olympic games.

When comparing Tokyo Olympiad to Olympia, many think of that director's earlier Triumph of the Will (1935), where an explicit pro-Nazi message is made. One would think Japan ought to have distanced itself from any such reminders of pre-war propaganda, but in fact nationalism was not an overt theme to Riefenstahl's filming of the Berlin games. Rather, that film focused on success and perfection of athletes of all origins (the movie's subtitle was "Festival of Beauty"), and included the storied dominance of Jesse Owens in track and field and an incredible unbroken shot of John Lovelock's final lap victory in the men's 1500m final (which reminded me of the climactic lap finish in Breaking Away). Quite likely the influence of that first film was so strong by that time it had reached a default comparison. 

Early shots in the movie show the opening parade of athletes. They are dressed to the nines; the men are wearing suits and ties, the women in skits and formal hats. Everyone marches in formation. East and West Germany are temporarily united. The film is chronological, and the remaining 150 minutes are devoted to showing events ranging from precision shooting to field hockey. I can't say there was any clear bias in which sports he chose to film, only that track and field were the principal component to the first half of the film. I enjoyed watching the high jump, the last Olympics before the modern Fosbury flop was used. There was no attempt to over-depict Japanese athletes nor indicate any form of racial or intellectual superiority. Some shots are stylized, as in the floor gymnastics, but deliberate manipulations are kept to a minimum. 

Both this film and Olympia were intended to show the 'spectacle' of the games. They were expected to depict competition as a whole in long-to-medium shots, avoiding any lingering of close-ups that would highlight individual achievement. As commissioned works they largely held to this philosophy, but the films also differ in style to a remarkable degree. Whereas Riefenstahl was keen to show us the idealized image of an athlete, Ichikawa's subversively filmed much of what he wasn't supposed to; he shoots several close-ups during competition that show remarkably human expressions in these 'superhuman' specimens. These include signs of fatigue, fear, and pain among athletes, things rarely seen in the earlier film. Many of the medalists are shown to be in a state of exhaustion. The american Fred Hansen after his the 9-hour pole-vault victory over Wolfgang Reinhardt quietly walks off the darkened field draped in a thick blanket. Or the women's 800m winner Ann Pacer falling into the arms of her husband. Wins are shown to be close, and the winner merely grateful; I cannot recall any scenes of jubilant celebrations. Not even after Bikila's dominant marathon victory and new world record do we see a smile, as we follow him past the finish line where he earnestly performs a series of dynamic stretches.
Peter Snell wins the 1500m
Also depicted are scenes of the non-victors doggedly pushing on, not intended to be viewed as vain persistence. In the men's 194-kilometer cycling race a crash ensues; a lone rider struggles to his bike and hobbles forward while cheered by a sympathetic crowd. In the marathon some of the early leaders drop off, resting on the sidelines. Reluctantly some rise to carry on. There is a short interlude storying the 800m runner from Chad, the lone representative of his newly-founded country. He makes his way to the semi-finals but finishes near in the back of the pack. His games are over. Later we watch him back in the athletic village eating dinner alone. We want to cheer him on for future endeavors. There are scenes showing us uncooperative weather where athletes look more determined than ever. 

The birthplace of Olympic games was in Europe and an early kinship was passed on to North America. By 1964 the games had been well travelled between the two continents. In contrast, the games had never before been hosted in Asia. The IOC had granted the games to Tokyo in 1940, but then history ran its course. Something I didn't know was both Germany and Japan were excluded from the 1948 Olympics in London. Though not surprising, retributions are not typically part of the Olympic spirit. This film was rather meant as a way for Japan to look forward and to show progress of a peaceful nature. To that end it was a success. But without Ichikawa's sense of humanity as well, it might have insinuated unwanted undertones touched on by the former film. 

The end of the documentary shows the closing ceremony as they unfold. Countries enter the stadium in an unrehearsed blend of nationalities, inspiring a tradition lasting to this day. The crowd is seen cheering politely, the flame extinguished. Athletes will reconvene back in London for 1968, this time with an open invitation to Japan. 

The Marathon (running geeks: notice that Bikila lands slightly differently on his left foot than his right?):

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