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‘Tokyo Olympiad’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 08, 1988

"Tokyo Olympiad," Kon Ichikawa's 1965 documentary on the 18th Olympic Games, is one of the most compelling records of sport on film, and as an expression of the mind of the athlete, it is unsurpassed. The film's greatness lies in the director's ability to abandon the conventional big-game, crucial-moment approach of most sports movies and concentrate on the stories within the Games.

Watching it, what we identify with most in the athletes isn't their superhumanness but their concentration, their extraordinary effort and their fallibility. It's a film in which the sound track emerges out of obscure, "found" noises, like the sound of flags slapping against their poles, and in which the cheers of the crowd seem distant, as if in the heat of the competitionthe athlete had somehow forgotten that he is not alone with his task.

Ichikawa, like Leni Riefenstahl in her 1938 "Olympia," has a deep appreciation for the abstract beauty of bodies in motion, and he pays close attention to the pole vaulter's graceful arc as he lifts himself over the bar and to the patterns the swimmers make in the water. In this sense, the film's not about sports at all -- it's about why sports interest us in the first place.

Even at 154 minutes, the film doesn't strain to be definitive. It's the fascinating detail, not the gargantuan spectacle of the event, that's grabbed the director's attention -- the dove in the opening ceremony that flies away only after coaxing from a Canadian athlete wearing a ten-gallon hat; the jittery compulsiveness of the Soviet hammer thrower as he fidgets with the corner of the number that's come unstitched from the front of his jersey; the exhilarating trajectory of the javelin; the logistics of retrieving the shot put after the throw.

This is not to say that the film deprives the event of its full dimension. The opening and closing ceremonies, and the epic quality of the finalmarathon race through the Tokyo streets, are given a sweeping grandeur. The picture itself, which is now being released here for the first time in its full uncut form, was an epic undertaking, involving 164 cameramen operating 1,031 cameras, and a staff of more than 500. In all, Ichikawa and his team exposed more than 400,000 feet of film.

But in each event, the director places the emphasis on finding the telling nuance that puts us inside the athlete's mind. Sports coverage is almost always designed to humanize its events by reducing them to the moment of individual triumph or defeat. And though Ichikawa takes this humanizing approach, he refuses to limit the sporting life to a matter of winning or losing. (The awards ceremonies, where the victorious receive their medals, are the only indifferently directed sequences in the film.)

Ichikawa's approach is drier. What interests him about his athletes is their near-obsessive dedication, not their places in the final standings. The Chadian runner, one of two athletes from a country that has just recently come into existence, hardly figures at all in the final statistics. He is not "great" in any sense of the term, but to Ichikawa he is notable for his gentle self-containment.

The film's other main character, the Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila, takes the gold medal in his event (as he had four years earlier), but at the finish he allows himself only the tiniest of smiles, and that more out of relief than exuberance. Near the end of the race, we're given a long, stunning close-up of the athlete as he finishes his run, and if he is aware of anything more of the outside world than the point where his feet strike the pavement, his face doesn't show it.

During this race, we are nearly desperate for some expression of personality, of emotion. But what Ichikawa seems to appreciate in his subjects are control, execution, the attention to technique -- precisely the virtues he displays in his own work. And as he presents it, the similarities between the artist's goals and the athletes' are clearly drawn.

In this sense, the film focuses less on the Games themselves than on the individual stories within the Games. Some competitions -- like the lengthy battle between the West German and the American pole vaulters -- are followed through from beginning to end, but this is the exception. The producers of the film, in fact, were distressed with the final product when they saw it, fearing that audiences would prefer a more traditional approach. But by plunging us into the action, Ichikawa creates a unique intimacy between athlete and audience. Even after countless hours of watching televised sports, the effect is revelatory.

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