Thursday, February 9, 2012

Four Years in the Making

Film: Tokyo Orimpikku (Tokyo Olympiad)
Format: DVD from Arlington Heights Memorial Library through WorldCat on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There was a time in my life when I watched sports. Since I haven’t spent any time watching sports in several years, it’s actually sort of hard for me to remember when I cared about such things. When I was a kid, I was a complete sucker for the Olympics, too. There was magical about the Olympics to me. While there were sports I knew about, of course, there were also strange athletic contests that I saw only once every four years. I never really understood as a kid why someone would train for years for this one shot; I hadn’t figured out that these sports had other competitions throughout the years and that in many ways, the Olympics was just another contest in a string of contests.

Tokyo Orimpikku (Tokyo Olympiad) comes from a time when there was still a level of purity in the Olympic games, a purity that has since been lost and will likely never be regained. In 1964, the Olympics still required amateur status for competitors, meaning that we didn’t send a collection of NBA All-Stars over to another country so we could watch them do Harlem Globetrotter impressions and beat up on teams from Cameroon. There was a sense of competing for the joy and challenge of competing, not as a chance to get another endorsement. I’m not someone who lives in the past or thinks the past was a golden age, but there are some things that have gotten worse with time, and the Olympics is very much one of those things.

So, as it comes from a time of relative purity, at least in terms of professional participation in amateur games, the film tends to focus not on the personalities of the participants, but on the actual competitions themselves, the victories and heartbreaks, minor triumphs and major disappointments. Director Kon Ichikawa is smart enough to let the events essentially speak for themselves. The commentary we get is very much akin to the sort of commentary we would have watching the event on television. Most concerns the sport itself with occasional asides about one or more of the competitors.

Any Olympics takes place over multiple days, of course, and even a film of nearly three hours in length can’t come close to showing everything. Instead, Ichikawa gives us snapshots of the competition. We see some of many of the events, but by no means all of anything. For instance, we spend a little time with the shooting sports, but we see only the 300m rifle, skipping all of the others. We spend some time on the Pentathlon, but see only still photography of the first four days of the event, learn a story of an unnamed competitor, and do not learn the identities of the medal winners.

Ichikawa is remarkably even handed in his treatment of events. We see a montage of gymnastic performances around the middle of the film without learning anything of the medal winners. It’s moments like this that lend a sense of authenticity to the film—Japan is frequently dominant in men’s gymnastics, and was in 1964, and yet we aren’t given an unending string of Japanese athletes or made to revel in their success. We learn some medal winners and others we do not, giving the film even more a sense of attempting to create a feel of the Olympic games rather than a compendium or almanac of these particular games.

In not giving us everything, Ichikawa has picked and chosen for us. He has given us this particular and specific experience with this particular and specific Olympics, allowing us to experience more than we would had we actually attended, but still limiting our experience. In a sense, we are told that we will have only some of the full experience of the Games. We may not even get the most compelling or tragic stories. We will, however, get some stories.

This scattershot approach is one of the film’s great strengths, but also one of its greatest weaknesses. Unable to cover everything, Ichikawa attempts to cover as much as he can, and a number of sports are virtually or totally absent from the film. There is, for instance, no diving and no mention of the decathlon. Water polo, yachting, rowing and several other sports are on screen for a minute or so of screen time; fencing gets two, but even there it’s just the women and just the foil. The decathlon doesn’t appear in the film at all, which seems like a huge oversight. Diving is missing, too. We spend more time with the oddly-gaited racewalkers as we do on those aforementioned sports combined. I mean, I’m not a huge water polo fan, but I’m going to remain that way if I don’t see their technique and understand the skill of the game. Stories like Joe Frazier’s gold medal in the premier weight for boxing are ignored completely. The scattershot approach gives us that taste of many of the games, but loves so much room for more.

The photography is the real triumph here. The sports are shot with love and with an eye for giving the viewer a better chance to understand the sports themselves. We see a great deal of slow motion, for instance, showing the athletes’ in competition, their muscles straining, faces at times contorted in moments of agony or ecstasy. It’s a film that learned much from Riefenstahl’s Olympia, but has managed to present it to us without the hammering and yammering of nationalism, racism, and other “-isms.” Even for a non sports lover, there is much here to see and appreciate.

Tokyo Orimpikku is by no means perfect, but it is also one of the best sports and sporting life documentaries ever made. Criterion needs to bring this back from its out of print status. I went through too many hoops for a film this good.

Why to watch Tokyo Orimpikku: The glory of sport in a time when the glory was all the athletes competed for.
Why not to watch: No decathlon, no diving, and many sports given very short shrift.

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