The story goes that the Olympic Committee for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics originally wanted famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to direct the sports documentary that would accompany the Olympics’ first journey to the Far East, but he also wanted to direct the opening and closing ceremonies, which they apparently thought was too much (humorous for today’s time, given that another famed local director, Danny Boyle, did just that for the London Olympics last year). So, instead, they got Kon Ichikawa, who decided to break down the film into its most basic components in order to showcase what’s most important about the Olympics; the spirit of the sport.
Right from the get-go, you know this is going to be a really special extravaganza. Well, extravaganza might not be the right word, or even spectacle; this aims to put the glory and the honor of the Olympics squarely on the ground rather than lofting it to the heavens, making sure that what comes across is the height of athletic feats of the human race, rather than some dizzying accomplishment of demigods. We start with the contingent of athletes arriving in Japan, followed by the relatively demure opening ceremony (by today’s standards), and then we’re off; event by event, we follow the Olympics as they take place, watching as athletes strain and strive to achieve their very best, oftentimes coming within miniscule measuring distances of each other to take the gold. Runners lap each other and exchange the lead several times before one comes out ahead and breaks the tape. Throwers move their forms to the limit, releasing projectiles that soar through the air. Every aspect of athleticism is on display here, and it is really the only thing on display; Ichikawa skins the film down to its barest ingredients, to portray each sport as what it is: pure will and conscious effort. In doing so, he allows us to fill in the subtext or the deeper level of meanings for ourselves, making the film what we want it to be.
This is as close to a purely historical recording of the events of the XVIII Olympiad as one could probably make. As such, it has no real frills or special effects or anything to fussy up the presentation, aside from the oftentimes obvious foley sound and a sometimes odd musical score, but even that is used rather sparingly. Still, even without the glitz and glamour, this manages to be highly entertaining, even if it is a little long-winded due to its almost three hour running time, but that is merely an attempt to cram in as much of the Games as they could’ve, and boy do they. I don’t know how well I can recommend this to a general audience, mostly because of the length, but those that are open to a film like this will be very well rewarded indeed. I unfortunately can’t compare it to Olympia, since I haven’t seen that one yet, but this was definitely one of the best sports documentaries I’ve seen in a long while, if not ever.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10