[In Tokyo Olympiad] Ichikawa has made a document of such yielding warmth and variety, of "play" and candor, of "eye" rather than "I," of the heroic in defeat rather than triumph, and triumph shared, as to provide the documentary a new classic.
Tokyo Olympiad is a "classic" in at least three ways. First … a human document. Ichikawa has shots (and one feels the director behind the photography) of human faces that would satisfy and delight a Cartier-Bresson. The faces touch every continent, every age, and virtually the whole gamut of human emotion….
Secondly, Ichikawa gives the event, the Olympics, more stature than, in fact, it has—by showing what is most human about it, constantly implying man's world. I doubt if anyone would otherwise have realized such meaning in such a spectacle. Where [Leni] Riefenstahl glories to the physical machine of man [in her Olympiad] Ichikawa lets the image tell the sense and senselessness of human effort. As Donald Richie has pointed out already—to his own surprise—the film is unbelievable funny…. Ichikawa sees the humor of the rhythms of the walking-race, the craziness of a cycling race whose crowded racers can see each other only contestantwise and not the magnificent countryside through which they hurry. Or the brilliant shot of the crowd seen through the blue of speeding cyclists. (p. 39)
Ichikawa needs almost no more wordage than an occasional actual interspersion from event—as simple and shocking as, say, the young blonde American girl in the opening parade turning to one of her colleagues behind and yelling "Shut up!" How much presence is charged in passing. Ichikawa's willingness to record human foibles and even uglinesses within champions is not aimed at "criticism," but at seeing honestly what an individual is, beyond the mass of participation. There are crowds, certainly, and one is never unaware of "numbers"—as in the striking cityscapes, but Ichikawa avoids generalization except through individual performance and instance.
And thirdly, Tokyo Olympiad is a classic, for it makes itself felt peculiarly and decisively as a film. For it is precisely as a cutting-room labor, as editing, that the film works. No doubt, Ichikawa-san had a clear broad sense of what he hoped to make of the mass of footage before he began—but in the very nature of the event, the material, he could not be sure of either conditions or the particular images that would occur. Some shots, telephoto, are incredible in their intimacy and frankness, revelation. And he does not fake his colors; darkness is darkness, dimness is dimness. One feels very little of the slick and much more feels care and thought at every point.
Ichikawa doesn't stick to actual chronology either, and he makes no effort at giving equal space to each event. Some events are represented by the quickest image notation, and some are more extended. This was to be expected—but the briefest image is suggestive and lovely and his longer passages justify themselves in terms of the whole. Often he picks up details one would not anticipate: the shoes, the headgear, the key-point of body-tension—whether the shotput pressed under the chin, the bent legs of a swimmer about to plunge, or a weightlifter's feet and torso and cry. He has an uncanny ear for the "right" sound…. He grasps eloquently the grace and proportion of the gymnast and blends the images of one performer and another until we feel there is only one contestant, ourselves. And all this is done so tacitly that one realizes a great deal almost without realizing it.
The marathon is used as the final focal...
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sequence of the entire occasion, and justly so, for Ichikawa has tracked the spirit animating the Games into his vital simple single figure, and the face of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian runner, becomes a torch. But how unobtrusively Ichikawa has guided us to the event (one almost believes hewrote the sequence). For he has not only opened the film with the light being carried on foot, hand to hand, from Greece through Asia (shades of Aeschylus!), but he has focussed individually on one of the losing athletes from unknown Chad and has projected ably and gently the young man's pride, isolation, and aspirations, frustrated utterly despite intense effort. But—when Bikila wins the marathon one feels that the young man from Chad has had, in that event, his triumph—as we have had, too.
Such statements are at the heart of this film, and although Ichikawa has had inklings of such feelings in his work before, never have they been shown on so ample and exacting a scale. To have made this film, and one made so largely in the editing (although the photography is most distinguished), cannot have failed to enlarge the maker's capacity and should require of him new dimension to draw on for future work. And for others, too, I hope. So that what was the very epitome of the competitive becomes rather the epitome of human relation, of fellow-feeling—and not in any callow or shallow way, but in the fulness and take of event. (pp. 39-40)
Cid Corman, "'Tokyo Olympiad'," in Film Comment (copyright © 1965 by Lorien Productions, Inc.; all rights reserved), Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 38-40.