Of all the filmmakers called on to document the Olympics (including the 1972 Munich team that included Arthur Penn and Milos Forman), Kon Ichikawa was the one with the most imposing résumé. The director of such profound war films as The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, Ichikawa cared little about sports statistics; Tokyo Olympiad is a splendidly self-conscious work of art. And though he had 150 cameras at his disposal, the feeling Ichikawa imparts is one of intimacy: a closeup of a sneaker pressed against a starting block; a women’s race shown with no sound but the falling of a hurdle. Ichikawa’s telephoto focusing on process over results infuriated the Olympic committee, which initially allowed the film to be released stateside in a 93-min. version — barely half its full 3-hr. length and majesty, which was eventually made available on a Criterion DVD.
It happens that the 1964 Games lacked the breakout star athlete that Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia found in Jesse Owens. That suits Ichikawa fine. His one up-close-and-personal subject, Chad’s Ahamed Isa, manages only seventh place in the 800-m semifinals; to the director, Isa’s journey from a nation “younger than he is” is a personal victory revealing the Games’ true value. Often, Ichikawa suggests, the spectators are the stars. A child muffles his ears as ritual gunshots punctuate the opening ceremony; when doves are let loose, women hold purses over their heads for protection. During a race, the camera holds on faces in the stands as runners pass in a blur. Everyone, Ichikawa suggests, was a participant at this world event; we are all Olympians.
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