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Tokyo Olympiad: The Criterion Collection

Think of your favorite Summer Olympics memories, and odds are you're also thinking about videotape. After all, the Olympic Games have been televised since the birth of the small screen, with networks around the world providing wall-to-wall coverage every four years. But somewhat less known is that every Olympiad since the first modern games in 1896 has become a film — the International Olympic Committee normally commissions a filmmaker to record the events for posterity. However, as a rule these projects aren't box-office sensations, and only a handful have entered the canons of cinema. Leni Riefenstahl's two-part Olympia (1938), shot during the 1936 Berlin Olympiad, is notable not only for the history behind it (she was Hitler's favorite director and had previously created 1934's Triumph of the Will), but for her skill — Olympia celebrates the pinnacles of athletic achievement with the poetic language of cinema. Also notable is David Wolper's film of the 1972 Munich Olympiad, for which he commissioned eight separate directors to create eight individual accounts. But the most remarkable of all Olympic movies probably is Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad (1965), funded by the Japanese government to herald the 1964 summer games. Ichikawa — who began his career as a cartoonist and animator before helming a series of successful, acclaimed films — may have been an unconventional choice for the job. He also was the second pick. Akira Kurosawa was originally chosen to direct, but artistic differences led to his dismissal (reportedly he wanted not only to direct the film, but the opening ceremony as well). By 1964 Japan had emerged from the shadow of World War II, and while regional tensions remained (particularly with the Soviet Union), the country had gone through a remarkable rebirth. Much of the nation's infrastructure had been destroyed during the war, now replaced with modern roads, buildings and factories. American culture was widely influential, but the traditionally conservative Japanese society soon built its own profitable economy, thanks in large part to modern industry and electronics. Thus, the 1964 Olympiad was meant to re-introduce Japan to the family of nations (the country had joined the U.N. a only few years earlier), much as Germany would get their own Olympics in 1972. Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad acknowledges this, boldly opening with a tightly framed bright orange sun, massive and resplendent in the morning sky. But then a single jump-cut announces that this will not be a standard documentary — the sun is replaced by a wrecking ball, swinging into dilapidated, condemned buildings to make way for Japan's new National Stadium. From there, Ichikawa looks at the journey of the Olympic flame from Greece to Japan, the opening ceremonies, and several events — sprinting, distance-running, the pole vault, gymnastics, the shot put, weight-lifting, shooting, cycling, and the marathon, which forms the film's dramatic finale. It could be a highlight reel from any Olympiad, but it's not — which is why Ichikawa was forced to re-edit the picture by the Japanese Olympic Committee after its completion. Thankfully, the entire 170-minute original survives, now on DVD from Criterion.

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The Japanese Olympic Committee had a negative, and somewhat knee-jerk reaction to Tokyo Olympiad when it was first completed, but it probably should not have been much of a surprise. They had commissioned a film about a series of athletic events. Ichikawa — a visionary filmmaker with a humanist bent — instead made a film about athletes. With a minimum of narration (mostly just a Japanese sportscaster delivering play-by-play accounts at key moments), Ichikawa decided to use all of the tools of cinema at his disposal to record the events in cinematic terms, rather than as a journalist, historian, or documentarian. In other words, Tokyo Olympiad was just too artistic for the JOC. The film doesn't reveal which country won the most medals or which athlete took home the most hardware. For Ichikawa, such would be extraneous information. With a small army of cinematographers, high-speed stock, and powerful telephoto lenses, Tokyo Olympiad captures the competition from unusual angles — examining fast-moving feet, chalk-covered hands, glances, grunts, and grimaces. At other points, Ichikawa sets his camera free, as when he records the entire women's 800m race in a single pivoting shot, and when he captures the men's long-jump in head-to-toe framing. The shot-put is an examination of how the athletes psych themselves up as much as it's about the contest itself. Boxing (featuring a young Joe Frazier) is captured in stark black-and-white with several freeze-frames. The women's hurdles spends several minutes with the runners as they go through their odd warmup rituals, but once the starting gun fires, Ichikawa kills the audio, rendering the event in poetic silence. And after a wild finish in the men's 10,000m, the final runner from Ceylon finishes a distant last, but to roaring applause. Ichikawa includes this moment, which is emblematic of the athlete's struggle. After all, most do not win — they compete and they lose. In fact, the only proper profile given to any athlete in the film is to a runner from Chad, who journeys to Tokyo, is disqualified in a semifinal, and then dines alone in a cafeteria before his return to an impoverished African nation. He had no reason to be famous, but Ichikawa found his story universal, rather than heroic. Several medalists wound up on the cutting-room floor, but this modest runner did not. Criterion's DVD release of Tokyo Olympiad features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of the original CinemaScope image, from a source print that is displaying some color desaturation but is largely free from damage. Audio is in the original Japanese mono, with optional English subtitles. By far, the best supplement is the commentary track by British film critic Peter Cowie, a self-described "Olympics junkie." Criterion has been lauded for their smart commentary tracks from experts, and this may be one of the greatest to date. Armed with an impressive bag full of information, Cowie delivers his commentary from prepared text with the mellifluous tones of a BBC broadcaster. In fact, it's more than a commentary — it's an alternate version of the film. Tokyo Olympiad is best experienced for the first time in Ichikawa's relative silence as the events unfold. But a second spin with Cowie illuminates the stories behind the competitors with an enormous amount of history and trivia, and he never fails to remain engaging for the film's three-hour duration. Also on board is a 1992 interview with Kon Ichikawa (in Japanese with subtitles), and a 44-page booklet with an essay by George Plimpton and a scholars' symposium debating the film. Keep-case.

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