Kon Ichikawa’s film, “Tokyo Olympiad“, is considered a classic documentary. Perhaps since Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film on the Berlin Olympics, it has become de rigeur to make a film about the Games so that audiences can re-live the excitement.
Planning for this film began in 1960, when the Japan Olympic Organizing Committee sent famed Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa to scout the Summer Games in Rome, and observe how the film on the Summer Games in Italy were produced. When Kurosawa and his team provided a budget estimate of about $1.5 million dollars, and also informed the committee that the receipts from distributing the Rome Olympic film was only half a million dollars, they realized they had to scale back.
Having said that the committee eventually selected Kon Ichikawa to be the director. And while the film is visually beautiful, Japan film historian, Donald Richie, writes in his book, “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film“, that so much, as they say, was left on the editing floor.
“Aesthetically, the picture is superb – a masterpiece of visual design,” writes Richie about this documentary by the renown Ichikawa. “One remembers the incisive use of slow motion during the track and field events; the beautiful repeated shots in the pole-vaulting competition; the fast zooms in the shot-put event, and the long, brilliant climax of the marathon – the work of the director and a staff of nearly six hundred people, including sixteen cameramen.”
“None of this, however, was what the Olympic Organizing Board wanted,” continues Richie. “Not only had Ichikawa refused to monumentalize the games, he had humanized them. In the uncut version (never publicly screened), the camera turns time and again from the major events to capture details: the spectators; athletes at rest; those who came in, not first, but third – or last. Japanese victories are not favored. At the end, the celebrations over, the stadium is empty. A man with a ladder crosses the field, from far away comes the sound of children at play. The games were, after all, only games. They are over and life goes on. Much of this footage has never been publicly screened, and among examples of film vandalism, the case of Tokyo Olympiad must rank as especially regrettable.”
The film clip below are parts from the opening of Ichikawa’s documentary.