In 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Emperor Hirohito to announce surrender and end the Second World War. In the wake of nationwide death and destruction, Japan was a wasteland of apocalyptic proportions. Major cities were reduced to rubble, food shortages and violence spread across the country and national morale dipped to despairing lows. Allied forces quickly moved in and began delivering a series of strict political and economic reforms before the occupation of Japan ended in 1952.
The Allies began to entrust more power to Japanese leadership and encouraged the gradual revitalization of the military. Pre-War Japan was a relic of the past, and there was hope in the air. The Japanese people now looked toward a brighter future. Just over a decade after the Occupation ended, the country opened its arms to the world as the host of the 1964 Summer Olympics. Tokyo beat out Vienna, Brussels and Detroit for the honor and, in the tradition of all Olympic host cities, began immense preparations to show off its revitalized face.
The opening moments of Tokyo Olympiad (1965), director Kon Ichikawa’s sprawling yet intimate documentary of those Games, present a montage of urban movement and transformation: wrecking balls reduce concrete blocks to rubble; a mass of commuters cross a crowded street; and finally, like a mirage, the Olympus-like points and curves of Tokyo’s National Stadium stand stark and strong against a bright blue sky. The city is ready. “We have never seen so many foreigners come to Japan,” the narrator excitedly announces as athletes arrive, stepping off planes with smiles and met with camera flashes and reporters bearing pen and pads. “Welcome to Japan!”
Ichikawa’s film is a tapestry of unforgettable moments. One can imagine the director instructing his camera team (among them the great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa) to make the big small and the small big. From hours upon hours of footage shot by an enormous camera team, he produced a nearly 180-minute record that is at once wildly inventive, unapologetically alive, humorous and transcendent. Using an incredible mix of multimedia formats, including black and white, slow-motion, telephoto (extremely effective for shooting across the vast expanse of the stadium), long takes, freeze frames and innovative sound design, Ichikawa’s team created a film which encapsulates the spirit of the Olympic Games and the feeling of being human.
Famously, the Japanese government requested Akira Kurosawa to shoot the documentary but were put off by the director’s asking price. The job passed over to Kon Ichikawa, a reliable filmmaker whose The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959) painted unromantic and troubling pictures of Japan in wartime. Assembling an enormous camera team along with his wife and talented screenwriter Natto Wada, Ichikawa got to work. His final product wasn’t a cut and dry document of the 1964 Games, but a deeper portrait of aspiration, hope, struggle, victory, loss, unity and despair. It takes the minute details (as mundane yet beautiful as the fat drops of water rolling down the sides of a black umbrellas) to the gargantuan ones (the lighting of the Olympic torch) and sets them on the same scale. The moments (few and far between) when Ichikawa veers towards the patriotic feel forced and in place solely to appease the commissioners.
Naturally, it was beguiling for the government, which was put-off by the unexpected strangeness of the director’s final product and released a stripped, “highlights-only” version, thereby watering down Ichikawa’s vision. Stubborn pigeons on the track, long takes of clothes-pinned bibs getting stuck on clothing, bewildered children in the audience: these moments live in tandem with the competition, which includes 15 days of marathon, sprints, hurdles, pole-vaulting, shot-put, javelin, volleyball, swimming, gymnastics and wrestling. Yet, in a way, the microscopic moments are more incredible than the athleticism.
Tokyo Olympiad features some record-breaking feats, including Tamara Press breaking her own shot-put record to win the gold for the USSR, and “Bullet” Bob Hayes running the United States to victory in the 100-meter dash. But at a certain point, the nationalities and names become somewhat secondary. In Ichikawa’s hands, the document becomes “a work of bewildering artistry,” as quoted from James Quandt’s stirring essay “The Wind Passing Through the Flagpoles” for the Criterion re-release in 2020, Flags flutter in the velvety Tokyo night. The stadium sits in silence as a shot putter rolls the ball in his palms, waiting for the right moment, and then—an animalistic cry as he hurls it from the crook of his neck. A runner’s lips twitch uncontrollably in the nerve-melting seconds before the pistol start. There’s as much celebration of loss and disappointment as there is of the record-breaking victory. For every roar of triumph, a handful of hearts break. They exist, once again, side by side. Maybe that’s where our love of sports lies: within the delicate balance of triumph and failure.
Ichikawa stayed busy. He shot a segment of the 1972 Munich Games documentary Visions of Eight (1973) and continued to direct into the early 2000s before his death in 2008. As a work of art, the film remains a milestone and masterpiece of sports documentary, and cinema in general. This is one for the underground capsule, for future generations and visitors centuries from now, as a testament to what our species was capable of achieving when we weren’t destroying one another. Here is proof that we as humans could set aside differences and borders, push the physical and mental boundaries of our biology, and strive for greatness as a united race. To watch Tokyo Olympiad in its almost three-hour entirety is to approach a feeling of catharsis and near transcendence, especially in the wake of a pandemic which drove home the importance of the Olympics to the world as a whole.