Since 1912, the Olympic Games have always been documented on film in one way or another, although it was only with Leni Reifenstahl’s 1938 Olympia (depicting the 1936 Berlin Games) that newsreel coverage passed to full-length sports documentaries, setting the precedent for years to come. When it was announced that the 1964 Olympics would be held in Tokyo, Akira Kurosawa was originally chosen to film them; his recently released Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood had established him as Japan’s top working director. But when he began demanding to direct the opening and closing ceremonies as well, he was dismissed, and Kon Ichikawa was brought in as his substitute.
The image of the Olympic Games that Ichikawa captured in Tokyo Olympiad was not exactly the monumental, triumphant celebration of Japan’s rebound from WWII that the government was expecting. Instead, he took a humanist, artistic approach, more concerned with the athletes themselves (both the winners and losers) than the competition. Using over 100 cameras fitted with telephoto lenses, Ichikawa focused in on the small details- runner’s feet in the starting blocks, hands dusted in talc, concentrated stares. He edited these mosaic pieces together with very little narration, following the chronology of the day’s events, in pure Eisenstein-inspired montage. As the viewer is pulled deeper into the 170-minute long film, they begin to care less about the scores and more about the moment, transfixed as they are by Ichikawa’s eclectic imagery: the violence of the wrestlers, the Zen-like concentration of the sharpshooters, the elegance of the gymnasts as they leave Muybridge-esque impressions in their wake.
In his minimalism Ichikawa finds lyricism and poetry, giving space to the themes that are inherent in the Olympics; unity and peace between different cultures, an exaltation of the human form, and wonder at man’s continual desire to achieve, to be “faster, higher, stronger.”