Despite its reputation of being one of the greatest sports documentaries — if not the greatest sports documentary — ever made, until this past week I had never see Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad.
Partly, this was because it was not readily available. Though it was not impossible to find a way to watch the film, the original Criterion Collection DVD went out of print in 2007 before I ever saw a copy. While the film was available on the official Olympic YouTube channel, it was only the two-hour version. When the full three-hour version was restored, upgraded, and re-released by Criterion a couple of years ago it was only available as part of their mammoth box set 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912 – 2020, which I have not purchased. Sure, I could have watched the film on The Criterion Channel over the last year, but I had hopes that Criterion would release it sooner than later, and I thought the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be a prime moment to do us. I was very happy to be right about that! Early this year Criterion announced they’d be reissuing it as a standalone release once again, though of course it is sad that its reissue doesn’t now coincide with the postponed Olympics.
Now that I’ve seen the film, which lived up to my high hopes, part of me wishes I’d been more diligent in seeking it out earlier; the other part of me is thrilled that I saw it for the first time in a wonderful home video release from a 4K restoration — it was worth the wait. Tokyo Olympiad is not just one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time; it is one of the greatest documentaries of all time. It’s one of the great artistic films of all time.
I was struck immediately by the film’s beauty, so essential to invoking the grandeur of the Olympic games. But it’s more than that. Ichikawa’s film is deeply human, and celebrates the beautiful world we live in. The Olympics become a way to see, if only for a short time, the greater world and its people around us.
Look at two examples from the first few minutes of the film, in which we watch the Olympic torch make its way to Tokyo. The scale is great, and there are people traversing it.
More than documenting the results of each match (something that got his financiers — the Japanese government — upset), Ichikawa captures intimate human moments.
There are the moments of anticipation and preparation just before the short event begins, the short event the athletes have been preparing for day in and day out for years.
There are the excruciating but magnificent moments of physical exertion in the event, sometimes shown in mesmerizing slow motion.
And there are the moments when hard work pays off in a magnificent physical feat on the world stage. Even if the athlete doesn’t win.
The scope of this documentary is massive. At just under three hours, the film captures many of the Olympic moments, from the celebrations, to the sporting events themselves, to the closing ceremony. But the film also looks at the two aspects that I found particularly fascinating and unexpected.
There is a bustle around the games as many of the world’s countries come together and journalists report how their athletes are doing. Ichikawa has a great montage of typewriters clicking away, printing a variety of languages and characters on the page.
And an aspect that stands out in relief to the bustle is the quiet moment of, often solitary, reflection. For example, Ichikawa may capture an athlete sitting alone, getting a drink. It deepens the soul of the film.
This new release comes with a lot of extra features, many of them with the always knowledgeable and welcome film historian Peter Cowie. For example, Cowie has created a new 12-minute introduction to the film. His has a 2001 audio commentary that you can listen to as you watch the film. And he has a 10-minute introduction to an extra 85 minutes of additional footage of the Tokyo Olympics. He’s clearly passionate about the film and treats it with the deep respect you’d expect to pay to a great piece of art.
I have to take a breath, because there are several more supplements.
Okay, there are 45 minutes’ worth of archival interviews with Ichikawa himself, a few from the time of production, and one nearly thirty years later looking back. There is a new 30-minute documentary about Ichikawa, which I found fascinating since, other than 1963’s An Actor’s Revenge, I don’t know anything about his work. There’s a short interview with Adrian Wood about the restoration of the film. There’s a trailer. And, finally, there’s an essay by film scholar James Quandt.
I have not made my way through all of the material yet. There’s a lot in addition to the lengthy film. But it is a film that makes me want to spend more time learning about it and celebrating it with others who find it beautiful and inspiring.