Criterion Corner: “Tokyo Olympiad” Blu-Ray Re-release

Tokyo Olympiad Criterion Kon Ishikawa's "Tokyo Olympiad." (Janus Films)

Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.

#155: Tokyo Olympiad (1965), dir. Kon Ichikawa

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Tokyo Olympiad Criterion

There’s something inherently cinematic about the art of sport — the twists and undulations of bodies as they run, jump, wrestle, achieve. The Olympic Games have long been a testament to that sense of physical exceptionalism, and it’s hard to think of a better filmic showcase for that sense of performance than 1965’s Tokyo Olympiad, which just received a pristine Blu-ray re-release from The Criterion Collection (available today).

Director Kon Ichikawa, known for taking over troubled productions, was brought in to replace Akira Kurosawa for this lengthy documentary on the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, one intended to reintroduce a post-WWII Japan to the world stage as an industrious, modern nation. The legendary director demanded twice the money Japanese officials could give him, and even wanted to coordinate the opening and closing ceremonies. But Ichikawa, himself a challenging, innovative director, would also frustrate Japanese officials with what he’d create, warping what was meant to be a chronicle of nationalistic pride into an impressionistic, dreamlike ode to the universal human spirit. Not only that, he’d create one of the most vibrant, indelible sports movies of all time.

Clocking in at a mighty 2 hours 48 minutes, Tokyo Olympiad is nothing if not exhaustive in its depiction of the indefatigable spirit of human achievement. From the rising sun of its opening shot to the nighttime flames of the closing ceremonies, Ichikawa focuses less on sports journalism than he does the mindset and physical poetry of the athletes’ performance. Honing in on two athletes in particular — Ababe Bikila from Ethopia, and Ahamed Isa from the then-newly-formed country of Chad — Ishikawa pays tribute to the people who dedicate their lives and bodies to compete for themselves and their host nations.

Tokyo Olympiad Criterion

If you’ve seen any NFL Films or sports documentaries in the last half-century, you’ll see the visual signposts Ichikawa pioneers here in Tokyo Olympiad. He captures the proceedings in wide, CinemaScope-lensed pans over the track fields and busy Tokyo streets, paired with intense close-ups of every flexed muscle and mask of determination over an athlete’s face. Slow-motion makes runners look like they’re slicing through the air, every movement a symphony of strength and stamina. Elliptical editing effortlessly glides us from one event to the next, with only short bursts of narration to lend context. It’s a curious approach, abstracting the Olympic Games in this way; but in doing so, it becomes less about tracking performance and more about the innate beauty of the Olympics itself. Here, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses: it’s all about digging into the psychology of the people who choose to put their bodies on the line for personal and national pride.

Tokyo Olympiad is one of Criterion’s first-ever official releases, and it’s taken a long time to give this one a high-definition upgrade. But the 4K restoration on display (first created for their gargantuan 100 Years of Olympic Films box set in 2017) is nothing short of beautiful, leaning into the flaws and fuzziness of the frenetic documentary filmmaking on display while emphasizing the moments of still natural beauty that come from gentle waters or rising suns. Colors are rich, movement is fluid, and rich textures can be found in the nooks and crannies of every single frame. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack also captures the organic audio of the Olympic proceedings while mixing in classical music and original score nicely throughout.

The extras are also very welcome; I love Criterions for older films led by film scholars and experts, which helps them lean into the ‘film school in a box’ conceit Criterion typically goes for. This time, Tokyo Olympiad comes with an introduction and commentary track from Olympic Games expert Peter Cowie (the latter a carryover from the original DVD, the former brand spanking new). There are also five additional scenes originally filmed at the games, each with their own introduction by Cowie and which have received their own 4K restoration. They’re short but sweet, and add additional flavor for some of the events most heavily featured (track and field, aquatics, and so on).

There’s also a 31-minute documentary on how Ichikawa worked during the film’s production, complete with interviews from the film’s editor to camera operators to the director’s son. It’s a slight, but illuminating documentary, especially given the curious circumstances of the film’s production. Plus, we get a short BTS video on the 4K restoration of the film, which is always rewarding.

If you have any sort of affinity for sports movies and documentaries, Tokyo Olympiad has to be at the top of your list. And if you haven’t shelled out for that ridiulous Olympics box set, this new Blu is a good way to capture one of the seminal works of sports filmmaking in a more affordable form.

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