Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Impact of Tokyo Olympiad in 1964

Regarding the Summer Olympics, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad had a significant impact in 1964. With simple edits between shots and optional silence that may be broken up at any moment by a scream, loud clank, or character laughter, it essentially simplifies things. The narrator makes the initial suggestion that athletes should never give up on their goals, even in the face of the most difficult obstacles. Gaining proficiency in a range of disciplines, including as shooting, fencing, horseback riding, swimming, and cross-country running, is a prerequisite for the intense competitions, which take place in the middle of October and last for five straight days.

However, the story takes a unique turn. Grim stories of “difficult experiences,” characterized by laborious work and the anguish of failure, have supplanted stories of promise that represent devotion. Since there are no concrete details regarding the subject of the inquiry, it is up to the viewers to do their own research by extrapolating the subject’s past from the film’s oblique allusions. Eventually, the narrator identifies the unidentified young guy, who most likely had to withdraw from the swimming competition in favor of a quicker forward crawl due to an injury to his shoulder sustained in South Korea. He did not decide on breaststroke as swiftly as he had previously. Despite his strong performance in other swimming strokes, he only managed to make it out of thirty places because of these unexpected challenges. The last scene of the film is staged at dusk, which adds to the melancholy of the athlete’s experience.

The central atmosphere around Ichikawa’s contentious Olympic record is best represented by strange anecdotes that mostly focus on extreme physical effort that ultimately leads to failure—albeit in a paradoxical way. It concerns, among other things, how the film shatters tales of anticipated sporting success (including the shattering of numerous world records) by sandwiching images depicting suffering, annoyance, or loneliness between sequences showcasing outstanding efforts and outcomes. The two runners did not qualify for the final marathon, while the cyclist had an accident during and after the race.

If we ask Ichikawa’s narrator, we will learn that the runners’ expressions displayed growing concern before to the race, giving them a depressing appearance. It should come as no surprise that those demanding to see Tokyo Olympiad were met with vehement rejection—always verging on accusations—or that esteemed officials of the Ministry of Education were accused of spreading the film to the rest of Japan.

Later, what became one of the most celebrated films ever made—possibly in the history of all genres, not just sports documentaries—was initially criticized by many in the country for being cynical and lacking in patriotism (not featuring enough Japanese athletes or celebrating post-war Tokyo and the Olympic venue), while left-wing critics mocked it for being overly nationalistic (saturated with images of the Japanese flag and the sun, redolent of the country’s war flag).

Akira Kurosawa, the most famous filmmaker from Japan known for his epic epics, was first selected to spearhead the audacious project of filming the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It fits with his penchant for long tales, which are found in films like Red Beard (and have a duration of more than three hours). But differences in budgets—a disagreement about how much Kurosawa should be paid for his films relative to others—caused the collaboration to break down. Not only that, but Kurosawa had requested far more than he had been given. Furthermore, he desired complete autonomy in choosing the content for the crucial opening part. In fact, the final chapter contains a version that explains how he can increase his flexibility to choose among different objectives. In the end, Kurosawa resigned from the project and gave up on negotiations due to the demands, which the Olympic officials deemed excessive.

Renowned novelist Yukio Mishima commended Ichikawa for his book adaptations to the screen and offered his example of a work based on the well-known author’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is called Conflagration. Ichikawa is a versatile director of films because he can experiment with a range of styles in both humor and seriousness, and he has excellent composing talents. Ichikawa, on the other hand, knew how to make a film appeal to the largest potential audience. The fact that he altered his documentation to capture the essence of the event provided the organizers of the Olympic tournament cause to believe in how versatile his talent was.

Diverse researchers have made significantly differing assertions about what exactly made the Olympics in Tokyo possible. Many studies have been conducted to define the roles and competencies. For instance, when it comes to camera operators, the literature lists 68 of them, with some even mentioning 164 or more. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting that producing a film involves collaborating with hundreds of talented individuals. When we consider that almost 100 cameras were employed for the extensive project, including long-range zoom lenses that were imported from overseas, the figure is not insignificant. The fact that there are 250 lenses in total demonstrates the filmmakers’ commitment to imagery because each lens is expertly fitted on a unique mount.

The key to Ichikawa’s success was pre-production planning. It looks at locating cameras during production and organizing year-round marathon activities. One problem was the unexpectedly high noise levels coming from motorbike operating triggered by high-speed cameras. It’s the second place on a motorcycle where a high-speed camera has been mounted; the unforeseen noise proved to be an issue. Nonetheless, Ichikawa demonstrated his excellent situation-management skills by coming up with the brilliant idea to cover the loud noises made by the machines with blankets.

Ichikawa’s Vision

Ichikawa said he want to demonstrate the effort put forth by athletes. He continued by saying that one way he was able to accomplish this was by depicting runners drenched in perspiration as they raced against one another, giving the impression that they were trying to cross the finish line first and sprinting for their lives. He also mentioned how he wished to draw attention to the despair that follows a loss and the heavy heart that results from never coming out on top. Ichikawa emphasizes both the magnificence of people and their capacity for innovation. The film has drawn criticism for being inappropriate for Olympic celebrations because it highlights the shortcomings, restrictions, and aggressive behavior of lone competitors, which runs against to the core Olympic ideals enshrined in the proverb “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”).

Ichikawa calls the film a “flag-waver,” which is unmistakably patriotic, but a closer examination reveals a more nuanced interpretation. The story took a turn when Japan won the gold medal in men’s gymnastics just before the break at the Olympics. The film’s second half uses the narrator’s remarks to further intensify the tension. “He has a great fighting spirit in him!” the narrator writes about Yoshikatsu Yoshida, expressing his passion for his nation. In the same freestyle wrestling match, television pundits praised Yojiro Uetake’s victory with the same zeal, saying, “Of course, this is the true Japanese competitive spirit!”

In a manner, Ichikawa’s nationalism ran counter to the notion of a static triumph narrative. Empathy serves as a counterbalance in the film when the female swimmer loses out on a top three spot because of the powerful current she is competing against. Accepting that there are different colors between the two is linked to success. Following the close victory against the Soviets, the Japanese women’s volleyball team’s coach appeared solitary and absorbed in contemplation, giving us only a fleeting glance. It merely goes to show that, even in cases where we win by a slim margin, emotional issues cannot be avoided. Running, as Kōkichi Tsuburaya’s narrative illustrates, represents the resentment felt following a loss. At first, the narrator lights the patriotic fire by declaring, “Everyone in Japan is observing him! He is carrying an enormous weight!” The consolation that “The Japanese flag has not been in the Olympic stadium for 28 years” sounds very unpersuasive, though, given that Tsuburaya’s disastrous third-place finish indicates a contradictory interpretation of the games being solely a patriotic event. This interpretation is both unreasonable and restrictive.

Tokyo Olympiad engages in a form of historical revisionism. It is seen when the narrator ignores or minimizes Japan’s culpability in World War II, a conflict that directly led to the cancellation of the previous two Olympic Games. However, the film’s depiction of Tokyo reconstructed after the war presents a more different perspective. Rather than offering a celebratory narrative of national resilience, the film’s visual language and thematic choices do not convey a clear sense of victory.

The Olympics serve as an ideological undertaking created for a nation looking to change its reputation internationally. Tokyo Olympiad is anticipated to be a crucial tool in the endeavor. Seeking to give up the image of the belligerent aggressor and adopt a new identity as a pacifist, progressive, and modern nation, postwar Japan sought for international recognition. Tokyo itself has undergone a major rebuilding, demonstrating the country’s transformation. The deliberate rewriting of history was signified by the demolition of the ancient city and the erection of new Olympic structures. Japan was keen to present a totally changed image of itself two decades after the devastation of World War II and over ten years after the end of American rule.

With some uncertainty, Tokyo Olympiad does, however, contribute to the revisionist narrative. The narrator conveniently draws attention to Japan’s involvement in the conflict that interrupted the Olympics twice in a row. The narrator acknowledges that the nation was left out of the 1948 Olympics, but she purposefully omits to explain why. The selective amnesia stands in stark contrast to the film’s portrayal of Tokyo after reconstruction. The most conspicuous absence from portrayals of city festivities is any genuine sense of the city itself. Tokyo, however, lacks personality even though Ichikawa claims that the city is the film’s primary protagonist. A large portion of it is obviously still under construction, and other sections don’t have a clear visual identity.

In such regard, two contrasting films—a sci-film film Gamera: The Giant Monster and Shōhei Imamura’s poetic documentary Whither Manchuria—offer a much clearer and more nuanced picture of the “new Tokyo” during the 1964 Olympics. Tokyo Olympiad also failed in dealing with the Olympic venue itself. A member of the Japanese Olympic Organizing Committee rightly criticized the film for its “absence of description of Olympic facilities.” Viewers watching the film will not know where important events such as yachting, canoeing and rowing competitions take place.

Visual Language

In CinemaScope and Me, a 1955 essay, Ichikawa describes his reluctant departure from his favorite Academy ratio. A visual language that is comfortable and familiar is provided by the square aspect ratio. But the 1950s film scene was upended when CinemaScope was introduced. Ichikawa first objected to the modification, feeling that the new format was too complex and demanding to use. It was described by him as “widespread ugliness.” But his disapproval quickly gave way to admiration. It was, in his words, “filled with wonder again, like a child.” Ichikawa’s abiding affection for CinemaScope stemmed not just from its visual appeal but also from a profound shift in his understanding of the medium’s possibilities.

Ichikawa documents sporting events as well as other events using a range of graphic approaches. The techniques include freeze frames, abrupt scene changes, still photomontage, and selective element hiding. It also chops and focuses images to create depth, abruptly switches between color and black-and-white film, employs shadows for dramatic effect, employs distracting zooms, slow-motion scenes, and makes associations between seemingly unrelated elements through editing. For instance, the opening scene, which features a burning sun, is visually associated with a wrecking ball. A crucial question is brought up by the deliberate manipulation of visual language: does Tokyo Olympiad have a separate authorial voice, or is it something that comes directly from Ichikawa?

However, Ichikawa’s perspective on time passing is one of Tokyo Olympiad‘s most remarkable features. It’s reminiscent of the previous humorous investigation of elderly fantasies in Odd Obsession. The concept of the documentary is introduced via a montage that is tailored to the older viewership. Amid the youthful excitement of sports rivalry, longitudinal close-ups reveal wrinkles, age spots, and arthritic eyes, provoking reflection on mortality. The concept is highlighted even further by a close-up of a man’s throat and sagging chin.

The richness of the film lies not only in its depiction of athletic prowess. But, it is also a wealth of grotesque or irreverent details. From the elaborate and somewhat humorous pre-throwing rituals of shot put contestants to the oddly bulging cheeks of a marksman aiming a rifle, the details contribute to the film’s unique texture. Scholars attribute the eccentric focus to the influence of Ichikawa’s wife and frequent collaborator, Natto Wada. Wada’s wit may explain the sequence following the sad image of defeated runner Chad eating alone. The camera pans into the athletes’ canteen, fixated on the greasy, unappetizing food being eaten with gusto. With its focus on basic acts of consumption, the scene anticipates the work of British photographer Martin Parr, another artist noted for his wry observations of human behavior and often unflattering culinary choices.

Ichikawa’s Persistence

Meticulously, Tokyo Olympiad presents palpable tension in moments of competition. The focus on “the sound of the wind passing over the flagpole” describes a hearing that becomes a metaphor for the silent anticipation of the stadium’s grip. The sad details seem insignificant in the grand spectacle of the Olympics; it can be interpreted as a subtle act of resistance to Ichikawa’s aesthetics. Almost, we can imagine the confused anger of the authorities and expect a more bombastic picture of the events. However, Ichikawa persisted in his vision like tenacious runner Ranatunge Karunananda.


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