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Ichikawa's cameras follow the 1964 Summer Olympics from opening to closing ceremonies. Sometimes he focuses on spectators, as athletes pass in a blur; sometimes he isolates a competitor; other times, it's a closeup of muscles as a hammer is thrown or a barbell lifted; or, we watch a race from start to finish. We see come-from-behind wins in the women's 800 and the men's 10,000 meters. We follow an athlete from Chad from arrival to meals, training, competition, and loss. Throughout, the film celebrates the nobility of athletes pushing themselves to the limit, regardless of victory. Written by
less like Olympia and a little closer, though not totally, to being like the Olympic answer to Woodstock
While I've yet to see all of what many consider to be THE document of 20th century Olympics in Riefensthal's Olympia (it is, of course, a very long movie, and we only saw bits in a class), this document of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by Kon Ichikawa is quite the spectacle on its own. Ichikawa understands something that five years later Michael Wadleigh, director of Woodstock, would understand about filming an event (though Woodstock will always be the better, more incredibly watchable film for me). And it is, simply put, to make it an EVENT- in bold letters- for people who may not even really usually watch the Olympics. The way he uses his many, many, many cameras an exhaustively large crew is staggering, and just in the first half hour or so, when the countries all line up and the audience fills in as the games kick off, it's done in a very dynamic style. He alternates interestingly between big wide shots of the crowds (like Woodstock, seeming larger than it really is with everyone packed in thousands of masses), the stadium itself, and then to close-ups of individuals and bodies moving. It's this side of the film, the technical one, that is most worthwhile to see in the film.
If it's less than perfect, it's because, frankly, it almost does become 'too much' to see so many games that go on in the near three-hour running time. And the narration voice that pops up now and again sounds way too much like a narrator from old newsreels, trying to add emphasis where it's not really needed. It's too immense an event with too many goals vied for victory to add on extra words. But there are highlights though, such as the 100 meter dash, done in a slow-motion that might echo some of Ichikawa's other narrative films. And the Joe Frazier boxing match, while brief, is memorable. Sometimes Tokyo Olympiad comes off almost like an avant-garde film as much as it does just straight-on documentary, and it's here that I got drawn in. Of all major events involving sports and other games and activities and trials and such, the Olympics brings together all cultures for the sake of competing for a country's honor and respect, and Ichikawa has a very good balance between showing that and adding a distinct style to the numerous events. In fact, Ichikawa has what might be the best avant-garde sports documentary ever made, at least in the past forty or so years.
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