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‘Tokyo Olympiad’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 08, 1988

Kon Ichikawa's "Tokyo Olympiad" was commissioned as an official film record of the 1964 Olympics in Japan. But, powered by Ichikawa's artistic vigor, it accelerated past -- and even lapped -- its mandate.

Now re-released in its fullest available version (154 minutes), "Tokyo" persists as an epic study of athletes struggling, against their own bodies and each other, to excel. But it reaches even further, as a stirring portrait of fleeting human hopes -- some exalted, most of them thwarted -- which are preserved and transformed forever by Ichikawa's vision and the work of 164 -- count 'em -- 164 cameramen.

"Tokyo" is also a triumphant relay of visual compositions and pristine images: An eerie aerial shot swoops over a burned-out building in Hiroshima to zero in on a peacetime crowd, now jostling to catch a glimpse of the passing Olympic torch bearer. It's the end of one era; the beginning of another. Another torch bearer hoofs down the long road to Tokyo, dwarfed by an enormous Mt. Fuji, his flame streaking along the bottom of the frame. As sprinters crouch greyhound-like for the 100 meters, a runner's lips quiver with tragicomic nervousness. Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila enters the Tokyo stadium for the final lap, his thin, loping body caught in an exquisite, tracking telephoto shot.

This is not "ABC's Wide World of Sports," though sports fans will certainly enjoy the athleticism of Bob Hayes's triumphant 100-meter dash and final surge in the 400-meter relay; or Billy Mills' spectacular finish in the 10,000. Ichikawa is looking for other things -- the price of exertion, for one. In the 10,000 meters, he shows the last runner making it home, and in "Tokyo's" standout marathon sequence we are shown something quite beside triumph. Gaunt, skinny men, their bony legs pounding the pavement, buckle, gasp for air and force water down their parched throats. They resemble the pathetic souls of concentration camps, or the hunger victims of African droughts, their eyes too weary to have expression, their limbs useless stubs.

Nor is "Tokyo" the stuff of Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 "Olympia," the artistically groundbreaking, Nazi-ordered documentary of the 1936 Berlin games -- with which comparison is inevitable. Where Riefenstahl sought to provide an illusion of Man as God, Ichikawa's cameras and tape recorders sit firmly on human ground, catching the tears of the Japanese women volleyball champions, the bellow of hammer throwers, the pain of the collapsed marathon runner dispatched to hospital, the shock of Japanese officials at over-zealous New Zealander spectators, the crash of knocked-down hurdles, British 800-meter winner Ann Packer's immediate beeline for her fiance' after crossing the winning tape . . . This isn't about glory, it's about the butterflies in your stomach when you hope for glory. And watching Ichikawa's work, you're not watching athletes from a distance, you're running, jumping and throwing with them.

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