Shots From the Canon #4: ‘Tokyo Olympiad’ (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)


Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

With movies like Leviathan, um, making waves these days, it’s become fashionable to describe a documentary as “immersive.” But almost 50 years ago, Kon Ichikawa released Tokyo Olympiad, a masterful film that pushes past immersive into something close to transcendent. Ichikawa exhaustively catalogues the 1964 Olympic games, from the flame traveling through the world, to the opening ceremony, through the games themselves. Along the way, every cinematic trick is pulled off, every landing stuck. Breathtaking landscapes, emotive close-ups, stunning slow motion, chaos, quiet, the agony and ecstasy of sport: it’s all here and gloriously so. As one of the most truly perfect films ever made, I gleefully nominate Tokyo Olympiad into our canon of cinematic nonfiction.

Rigorously formal, the film foregrounds failure as much as victory, avoiding the Riefenstahlian “glory is man” stuff by undercutting the romanticization of perfect sporting bodies with both lived-in observations of the “ordinary” people watching and a vigorous sense of experimentalism that joyously opens the cinematic playbook, rips every page out and lets them fly into the wind. Make no mistake, this a work of nationalist cinema, but some 20 years after being defeated by the atomic bomb, the sense here is fragile pride, not dangerous self-mythologizing.

This is a film where drama comes from the image. Spectacle becomes personal becomes abstraction. Ceremony is reveled in and simultaneously revealed to be incapable of framing the raging personal ambitions of the (often disappointed) athletes. The nature of sport is explored from every angle: concentration, physical strength, technique, endurance and suffering are all observed and rendered as intensely personal human narratives. Each individual is a tiny, mighty figure on a sweeping canvas. The film is funny, grand, metaphorical, even metaphysical and completely riveting. This is once-a-year must-see cinema.

The out-of-print Criterion DVD is still available from Amazon.