Tokyo Olympiad: Film Review

This is a review that is over a year overdue. I had fully intended to watch this movie leading up to the Tokyo Olympics and, I admit, I forgot. However, after over a year of waiting, it’s time to rip the band-aid off, and take a look at the (currently) only Olympic documentary to make it into the Criterion Collection – Tokyo Olympiad.

Tokyo Olympiad is an interesting documentary of sport due to what it focuses on. This is not a documentary that attempts to just tell the story of the Olympic events in question by showing what happens, as much as it tells the story of the Olympic athletes by putting the literal camera focus on them as they carry out their craft. Director Kon Ichikawa cares less about how far the women in the shot put event threw the shot on each heat, as much as it cares about showing the face of the women as they heft the shot, their hands as they roll it over and over as they mentally prepare, and finally that moment where they get ready to throw, brace, and then launch.

Even when they’re putting the focus on, for example, where the hammer throw lands, it’s not about building a narrative of showing athletes advancing through the heats and how far their hammer landed. Instead, it’s this intensely focused shot at where the hammers are landing, showing the ground as the hammer impacts, leaving divots in the ground. Later, as the competition goes on in a torrential downpour, showing the hammer just plows into the mud handle deep, leaving the staff trying to yank the hammer free from the muck as gracefully as possible.

Occasionally, Tokyo Olympiad will put some focus on a particular athletic narrative – for example, the Men’s Pole Vault Final gets some focus placed on it, with the final jump between Fred Morgan Hansen and Wolfgang Reinhardt. In particular, I really liked how the director just planted the camera more or less on the other side of the bloody stadium to show just how high a 5.05 meter pole vault actually is – something that I can say with confidence decades of my watching the Olympics has never really gotten across to the same degree. How is this that Kon Ichikawa, Shigeo Hayashida, and Kazuo Miyagawa figured this crap out in 1964, and then another almost 60 years of US sportscasters just went “Nah!” – definitely none of the Track & Field games I’ve played in the Nintendo Power Retrospectives.

Also, as a slight personal aside that stuck out with me when watching the film is that when I’ve watched Track & Field events in real life, I’ve become so accustomed to seeing the Fosbury Flop used in events, that I was surprised to see absolutely nobody using it here. The maneuver, where you go over the bar on your back instead of sort of rolling your legs over it, wouldn’t be used in the Olympics until the Mexico City games. Also, the floor exercise mat is huge, and because the camera on Olympic TV sports coverage keeps the camera low to the ground, there’s a loss of a sense of scale.

Still of Tokyo Olympiad showing the Pole Vault event
Serious, I’ve been seeing The Flop for so long that I couldn’t imagine anyone doing any other move

In all, Tokyo Olympiad is a film that does a tremendous job of capturing one of the things that keep me going back to watching the Olympics. Generally, that is, with the exception of the past Chinese games, with their sportwashing of the Xi Jinping government’s atrocities. Specifically, what keeps me coming back is the sense that these athletes are truly some of the best in the world at what they do, and that they work incredibly hard to get there. This film really captures puts the focus on the people who are competing, and lets them and what they do take the fore, and not who got a better score and what the various countries’ medal counts are.

I really look forward to seeing the Olympic film of the 2020 Olympic games to see how the skateboarding event is presented, and how that event was filmed. Skateboarding has already developed something of its own visual language from decades of guerrilla skate videos, shot on camcorders with fisheye lenses, and then with cell phones. I’m interested to see if the presentation of the sport leans into paying homage to that history with a sort of cinematic record scratch, if the sport is showcased with this same level of grandeur, if there’s some kind of happy medium, or if the director and cinematographer(s) comes up with some other new visual language for skateboarding that hasn’t been used before.

Tokyo Olympiad is available for streaming on the Criterion Channel and is available on physical media from Amazon. Buying anything through that link helps to support the site.

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