Kon Ichikawa

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John Gillett

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Near the beginning of Kon Ichikawa's film of the Tokyo Olympic Games [Tokyo Olympiad 1965], a great iron builder's weight is seen crashing into a half-demolished building as the Olympic Stadium begins to grow. The tone is set: this is to be a film about violent physical activity; though not quite a hymn to straining muscles and national pride. Sport for me, Ichikawa seems to say, comprises graceful bodies in motion plus a kind of bizarre unnaturalness almost akin to vaudeville and the circus. And it is to Ichikawa's credit that he manages to alternate these concepts without any obvious changing of gears, looking at the events with a hundred camera eyes which seem like one, and always seeking the involving, close-up view.

Such is the sustained beauty of the filming that it is tempting to stop and make a catalogue of exceptional moments, or relish the way Ichikawa has made the torch carrying sequence seem 'directed' as in a story film, culminating in the great shot of planes weaving the Olympic emblem in a sky spattered with pigeons and with the symbolic flame blazing in the foreground. His unit seemed to have everything, notably a marvellous range of telephoto lenses; but all the technical know-how and equipment in the world need a master to control them, and a close look at individual sequences shows that Ichikawa's genius lies in the strict selectivity of the material…. [True] to the great Japanese film tradition, Ichikawa is not afraid to take an event to pieces: thus, the women's hurdles are shown first at ordinary speed, then we flashback to the preparations and see the whole thing again in slow motion, shot from one set-up and silent except for a shattering percussive clap when a hurdle is knocked over.

Until we saw Alone on the Pacific, it was difficult to believe that Ichikawa's early career included satirical comedies and cartoons. Now, in the Olympics film, one somehow remembers Horie pottering about his little boat and coping as best he can. This is the same ironic, slightly lugubrious artist's eye which now watches the Russian weight throwers' rhythmic tics…. Each viewer will find his own favourite bits of humorous observation….

[Leni Riefenstahl's Olympiad] packs a greater voltage of excitement which can still set an audience cheering; Ichikawa's is simply more human without being mawkish, not least in the final parade where the swaying mass of competitors merges imperceptibly into the throng of spectators and one feels there is perhaps one world after all. At [the Cannes Film Festival], Ichikawa ruefully reported the misgivings of the Japanese Olympics Committee, who would obviously have preferred a newsreel to an artist's personal view. "They even asked whether I could re-shoot some of it, but I was able to reply truthfully that circumstances prevented it." And how lucky for the cinema.

John Gillett, "Film Reviews: 'Tokyo Olympiad 1964'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 34, No. 4, Autumn, 1965, p. 199.

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