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TOKYO OLYMPIAD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Kon Ichikawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  170 Minutes
Release Date:  July 30, 2002

Film ****

Every four years marks the return of the summer Olympic games, and for each one in the modern era, a film has been commissioned of picture makers in the event’s host country to preserve that year’s games for posterity.  Most of these films haven’t amounted to much, but two in particular remain landmarks of cinema history.  One, of course, is the 1936 movie Olympia, made by Leni Riefenstahl as both a documentary of the event and as a world showcase for Adolph Hitler’s Germany.

The second is Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, which captured the spirit, fun, intensity and sportsmanship of the 1964 games.  Japan, who had never hosted an Olympics before (neither had the continent of Asia, for that matter), and had even been denied participation in London’s event years back because of their World War II involvement, really found an opportunity to shine before the eyes of the world in 1964.  Their citizens were wonderful hosts, the city was beautiful and proud, and many of the games over the two-week course would go down as some of history’s most memorable.

This is a film that has sadly always been butchered for U.S. release, with its mighty running time of 170 minutes pretty much halved, leaving Ichikawa’s bold, exciting vision severely truncated.  When I learned Criterion was going to be releasing it on disc, I didn’t even ask about the running time…I didn’t have to.  Criterion has never let down movie buffs before, so I considered it no surprise that Tokyo Olympiad would be back to its original length, and in widescreen to boot…trust me, this is not a film you want to see outside of its intended scope ratio.

Don’t be daunted by said running time…this is a film filled with energy, emotion, and human spirit, and the running time flies by.  For those who have ever watched the Olympics on television for hours at an end, this is a concept you can appreciate.  The movie takes us from the construction of Tokyo’s fabulous stadium to the running of the torch and the athletes’ arrivals, all the way to the quiet aftermath and conclusion.  And of course, in between are the games.

Ichikawa’s brilliant use of scope widescreen photography makes for an exciting way to watch the Olympics.  The camerawork that he and his crew instigated was impeccable…in most cases, you couldn’t have asked for better framing from staged events, let alone live ones.  He gets us close to the action, and keeps us at the same speed as the competitors…chances are, you’ll have never felt so close to being in the games yourself.

There are many high points, starting with the 100 meter dash, in which American Robert Hayes became the first Olympian to run it in ten seconds flat.  Even those these events are a part of history now, I won’t give away other winners and possibly spoil for you the pleasure that was mine in watching these games fresh as if they were new.  But there are many records broken and many standards raised over the course of 1964’s event.  Other high marks include a grueling 9 hour pole vault competition, a seemingly in-the-bag volleyball final that suddenly turns very interesting, and the finale of the 10,000 meter race.  The latter is memorable because of a lone contestant left running the track after the winners were long since in the books.  As he completed his final lap for last place, the crowds cheer for him as though he were taking the gold…a wonderful display of enthusiasm!

Ichikawa knows that the athletes are the stars…he gets us close to them at their most crucial moments.  We see their intensity, their confidence, their worry; we share in their triumphs and heartbreaks.  Best of all, we see the all around sense of sportsmanship and camaraderie between competitors.  It’s nice to believe that for two weeks every four years, countries can put political and ideological differences aside and simply compete side by side with pride, honor and dignity.

I don’t believe there will ever be another real sports movie like Tokyo Olympiad, which captures something much more than just games, results and statistics.  It’s a complete artistic package of athleticism, human emotion, and the pride of a great city coming together to make for one of the Olympics’ finest years ever.

Video ***1/2

Considering the age of the movie and the general lack of film preservation in Asia, Criterion offers an Olympic-sized effort with this glorious transfer.  This is a film filled with color, spectacle, and minute details picked out of a macrocosm of an event, and none of Ichikawa’s original vision is marred here.  Colors are bright, natural and plentiful, images are sharp, clear and well rendered with superb definition, and the print itself is in remarkable shape.  Yes, there are a few instances of noticeable wear here and there, but for a film of this length, they are considerably few and far between, and never a distraction. 

Audio ***

Criterion has a knack for making mono soundtracks seem like so much more than they are.  The audio for this film is clear and dynamic.  The quiet moments as individuals prepare for their events contrast nicely with the lively roar of the crowds at other times.  Ichikawa often uses sound for great effect…during one hurdle race, he kills the audio entirely, except for one competitor accidentally hitting a hurdle, which comes through with a hearty crash.  A bit of license on his part, maybe, but one that enhances the film rather than detracts from it.  High marks.

Features ***

The main features on the disc are a terrific running commentary by Peter Cowie and a 1992 half-hour interview with Kon Ichikawa.  Cowie is no stranger to Criterion buffs, but here, he proves extra-insightful, as he is not only a renowned film historian, but a confessed Olympics buff.  His comments and knowledge provide an excellent alternate track.  The interview with Ichikawa is low-key but interesting as he shares his thoughts on what he hoped to accomplish with this movie and how.

Though I don’t normally consider the booklet part of the features, Criterion has outdone themselves with this rather heavy volume, containing liner notes by famed sports writer George Plimpton, a reprint of the Symposium on Tokyo Olympiad discussing the movie and the sometimes controversial Ichikawa, plus a handy reference guide to all the medal winners of the 1964 Olympics.

Summary: 

Criterion brings home the gold with this disc, offering Americans the chance to finally see Tokyo Olympiad complete and uncut, in original anamorphic widescreen scope ratio, looking and sounding better than ever, and with a terrific commentary track and a solidly produced book of liner notes that could practically be a reference volume on their own.  Heartily recommended for sports fans and cinema fans alike.